A friend’s reaction to the death of Johan Cruyff — What a personality he was on the field! — captured the essence of the Dutch legend’s unique greatness.
A friend’s reaction to the death of Johan Cruyff — What a personality he was on the field! — captured the essence of the Dutch legend’s unique greatness. Cruyff wasn’t merely a supremely gifted football player; he was an ideologue, idealist and innovator. And, he was indeed a personality on and off the field. One of the most cerebral players in the history of the game, Cruyff fused entertainment to efficiency like few could. Purists loved him and the masses adored him. He was the presiding deity when Dutch football reached divine heights in the 70s. Cruyff had the rare combination of physical gifts and mental acuity to let the ball do his bidding. Vincent Kompany, captain of Belgium and Manchester City, has paid a fitting tribute to the Ajax and Barcelona legend. “Johan Cruyff, true football royalty. I don’t think anyone has ever influenced the game as much as he has done,” he said.
Even Pele and Diego Maradona haven’t had as much impact on the game as Cruyff had. Pele was an imperious player but the Brazilian’s views on the game have never been ingenious. Romario famously said “Pele is a poet when he is silent.” Like Pele, Maradona could also not enhance his reputation after retirement. He besmirched his name with a diabolical stint at the helm of Argentina in the 2010 World Cup. It was Maradona, not Messi and Co., who lost the tournament with his clueless coaching. Maradona and Pele were marginally better players than Cruyff but the Dutchman’s legacy at Ajax, Barcelona and the Netherlands would be hard to surpass because he was an original thinker. He redefined the ethos of all the teams he was part of.
By winning three European Cups on the trot with Ajax in the early 70s and reaching the final of the 1974 World Cup with the Netherlands, he forged an identity for Dutch football. His contributions as player and coach were equally seminal for Barcelona. Although Cruyff was the best player never to have won the World Cup, he and his team took the tournament by storm in 1974. More than anything else, arrogance cost the Dutch the final against West Germany. Cruyff, the player of the tournament, had a hand in all the 15 goals his team scored in Germany. Even though the Dutch maestro was at the peak of his powers in the 70s, he was every inch a product of the swinging sixties. Cruyff had the looks, swagger, insouciance and the game to cast a spell even on the uninitiated.
A British journalist called him a “Pythagorus in boots” for his instinctive understanding of the game and a Russian ballet expert couldn’t stop raving about his graceful movements on the pitch. A complete player, the wiry Cruyff had explosive pace that dropped many a defender dead, perfect control that had the ball glued to his feet, enviable balance for his height (1.80m) and an eye for goal that helped him score 392 goals in 520 matches. He could dribble all day and pass the ball through the eye of a needle. Above all, Cruyff had the uncommon vision to see something before everyone else on the pitch and elsewhere. He said: “Speed and insight are often confused. When I start running before everybody else, I appear faster.”
Cruyff was the cornerstone of Rinus Michels’ Total Football at Ajax and Oranje, which opened up new tactical vistas in the game. He was comfortable in every position on the pitch. Had he had a chance, Cruyff might have brought in an artistic touch to the dour routines of a goalkeeper. A pioneering turn at the 1974 World Cup that bamboozled a Swedish defender, a goal he scored against Atletico Madrid in 1974 from an improbable angle with a kick that belonged to a taekwondo bout than to a football match and the way he converted a long pass into a killer final ball with a magical touch in an unidentified match (it’s available on YouTube) would be remembered as long as football is alive.
In Barcelona, Cruyff is an immortal. He won the Catalan club their first La Liga title in 14 years in his first season in 1974 that included a 5-0 thrashing of Real Madrid. After years of oppression under fascist ruler Franco, the Catalan people gained their voice and dignity through Cruyff. That the Dutchman returned to Barcelona a decade later as coach to win four league titles in succession from 1991 to 1994 and the club’s maiden Champions League crown in 1992 cemented his reputation in Catalonia forever. It was Cruyff who had laid the foundations for the bewitching Barcelona we are accustomed to watching every week today.
Cruyff wouldn’t want his legion of fans to rue his departure like other deaths are mourned because the Dutch maestro knew he was different and special. And, his football was all about joy — except for his opponents.