The death of the great Netherlands footballer Johan Cruyff leaves a huge hole in the world of football. But his legacy will long live on. Three-times winner of the Ballon d'Or, the sport’s top individual prize, he set the field alight with his skill and was the pioneer of the world famous style of play, “total football”.
For me, growing up in football-crazy Liverpool in the late-1960s and early-1970s, there were a host of half-decent role models to choose from – from both the red and the blue sides of the city. For once, both of the big Merseyside clubs together had some success, sharing FA Cup and League trophies. But even at this brief moment of domestic football dominance, we already knew that the real football maestro, the one who demanded ultimate respect and dutiful name-checking, did not ply his trade on Merseyside – or anywhere else in the UK.
The great football hero of the day was a technicolor swaggering, slender genius from abroad. He was a chain-smoking, snake-hipped, sharp-tongued Dutchman who we dreamed might one day come to Anfield. Or even, God forbid, that darkest place on the other side of town that played host to Everton. It was, of course, Johan Cruyff.
The idea of hippie Holland producing the world’s best football club – Cruyff’s Ajax of Amsterdam in the early 1970s – was exotic enough to Liverpool fans. But this floppy haired genius and those orange national shirts they made him wear were truly outrageous. But with such flare on the pitch, appearances hardly mattered.
After Real Madrid’s poetry of the 1950s, the European game in the 1960s had been dominated by Italian system of “catenaccio” – bolted, cynical defence. So, when Rinus Michels coached Ajax to the first of three European Cup wins in 1971 and then piloted the Netherlands to the World Cup final in 1974 – playing to the very different, total football tune – we longed for Cruyff and his men to overturn the Germans. But a strategy which supposedly meant that every footballer in the team could play at every position did little to impress the clinical hosts and the Netherlands were left runners-up. In any case, only one man truly fitted this ridiculous total football billing: Cruyff himself.
By the mid-1970s the Brazilian national team, traditionally a safe haven for the sport’s romantics, had suddenly become perfunctory. Cruyff, raising gloriously the flag of Europe, had almost destroyed the South Americans single handedly in their 1974 World Cup match.
More than this, during a match again Sweden, he performed, live on global television, a new move so counter-intuitive, so daftly sublime, that it bamboozled the defenders and the studio commentators alike. It took many slow-motion replays to reveal exactly how, facing one way, Cruyff had managed to flick the ball behind and beyond, while calmly turning and drifting past his marking defender. Had he somehow accessed the Fourth Dimension?
Few moves in any modern sport are actually named after their inventors. Sure, the Fosbury flop revolutionised high jumping in 1965, but this was football, the world’s game. Kids today still learn the Cruyff turn, now wearing the branded clothing or football boots named after today’s superstars. But Cruyff did all of this as well.
The Dutchman left for Barcelona to follow his mentor Michels in 1973 and pretty much defined what would later become that great club’s philosophy for playing the game. Barca’s tiki-taka developed first under Cruyff as Barca manager, and later under Pep Guardiola from 2008. It was a total football upgrade some 40 years on – and was performed under the great Dutchman’s ever watchful eye. This is why, of course, Johan Cruyff remains the contrary, imported patron saint of Catalonia football. He will, needless to say, be deeply missed.