The football world is in mourning following the loss of a true sporting icon who changed the way an entire generation thought about the game
Former Ajax boss Vic Buckingham once described Johan Cruyff as “God’s gift to mankind.” It was inevitable that one day He would want him back.
While shock and sadness are the immediate reactions to Tuesday’s news of the passing of a legend, we should also be grateful that we got to share in his genius for so long.
Cruyff couldn’t just understand the game of football, he could control it. Buckingham knew that from the moment he first saw a teenage Cruyff in action.
“He was the one who immediately struck a chord with me, as if he were my son,” the Englishman explained in Brilliant Orange. “He was on his own and he showed us how to play. He was so mature.
“He was such a skinny little kid but he had such immense stamina. He could run all over the field. And he could do everything: set movements up, fly down the wing, run into the penalty area, head the ball in. Left foot, right foot, anything – and such speed.”
If Cruyff’s feet were fast, his brain was even faster. He read the game like no other. He told team-mates where to position themselves, when to move forward and when to retreat. He was Ajax’s on-field architect, building attacks with his movement and precise instructions.
For the three-time Ballon d’Or winner, timing was everything: “There’s only one moment in which you can arrive in time. If you’re not there, you’re either too early or too late.”
With Cruyff pulling the strings and working in perfect harmony with both his team-mates and coach Rinus Michels, Ajax became the most dominant side in Europe, a band of Dutch revolutionaries who changed the way people thought about the game with their ability to change positions at will and constantly change the focus of attack.
Cruyff was their leader; a rebel with a cause: to change the way an entire generation thought about the game. “Playing football is very simple,” he mused, “but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.”
Ajax’s artists lifted the European Cup for the first time with a Wembley win over Panathinaikos in 1971 but their 2-0 defeat of Inter the following year was far more symbolic. This was ‘Totaalvoetbal‘ versus ‘Catenaccio‘, a clash of contrasting football philosophies. Ajax prevailed. Cruyff was key – he scored twice in arguably his greatest ever performance.
But then there were so many defining moments, perhaps none more famous than the famous ‘Cruyff turn’ at the 1974 World Cup, the tournament which West Germany won but Netherlands left an indelible mark on. Oranje‘s iconic No.14 showed Jan Olsson the ball with his right foot before dragging it back behind his standing leg. Olsson, like the rest of the watching world, was left wondering what had just happened.
It was the perfect representation of Cruyff’s ability to think outside the box – yet he was never one for superfluous shows of skill.
“Someone who has juggled the ball in the air during a game, after which four defenders of the opponent get the time to run back, that’s the player people think is great,” he later mused. “I say he has to go to a circus.”
Everything Cruyff did was for a reason and even Olsson realised he had not been disrespected but educated.
“I played 18 years in top football and 17 times for Sweden but that moment against Cruyff was the proudest moment of my career,” he subsequently revealed. “I thought I’d win the ball for sure, but he tricked me. I was not humiliated. I had no chance. Cruyff was a genius.”
Even if that had not been obvious during his playing days, it became even clearer after he turned his hand to coaching.
It is no coincidence that the two clubs he schooled, Ajax and Barcelona, would become synonymous with the production of supremely gifted youngsters and stylish, possession-based football. He had played in sides that practiced ‘Total Football’; he then created another two: “In my teams, the goalie is the first attacker, and the striker the first defender.”
He did fine work at Ajax, winning three trophies, but it was Barcelona that he produced his masterpiece: ‘The Dream Team’. At Camp Nou, he sculpted a side in his own image: one that was both entertaining and efficient. “Quality without results is pointless,” he explained. “But results without quality is boring.”
His methods were challenging to some; his personality at times even more so. There were arguments and accusations of arrogance. But he always remained true to himself – and his beliefs. “It’s better to go down with your own vision than with someone else’s,” he reasoned.
The message he preached that possession was all important was unsurprisingly picked up by others, most notably Pep Guardiola, the youngster Cruyff had plucked from Barca’s B team and made the pivot of the senior side that would go on to win four successive Liga titles and the club’s first European Cup.
In that sense, his teachings effectively shaped modern football, paving the way for the ‘Tika-taka’ brand with which Guardiola changed the game in the 21st century.
While the man has gone, Cruyff’s legend will live on. His legacy will be everlasting.
“In a way, I’m probably immortal,” he once said. As ever, he wasn’t wrong.