In order to be remembered forever, being very good doesn’t quite cut it. There is an unofficial Hall of Fame that stands inside the brains of all of us football freaks, and in order to get there, it takes something special. Something like dragging a whole nation from average position to world dominance. Today, we remember Johann Cruyff, the ultimate Dutch footballer, one of the best that ever stepped foot on a grass patch.
Born in April 1947 in Amsterdam, little Johan joined local club Ajax at the age of 10. He lost his father at the age of 12 and saw in football the opportunity to pay a long lasting tribute. He debuted for the main squad when he was only 17, and the way he positioned himself and faced the game was a very good sign early on. Ajax grew, new football theories arose, and Cruyff was a perfect fit in that system. Racking up tremendous performances on a weekly basis, he would be the main man when the Dutch team won the double (both League and Cup titles) in 1967. Cruyff was…20 years old.
Both Ajax and the Netherlands revolved around him. Total Football, the new football model developed by Rinus Michels in the early 70’s, revolved around him. At his prime, there was no one – absolutely no one who stood at 1.80 m (5’11” ft.) and could dribble the ball forward like he did, carrying his whole team with him. His teammates just had to adjust their positions and the play would have the best possible sequence.
Decisive in both national and international competitions (e.g. a memorable display of Total Football in the European Cup final in 1972, against Inter Milan), the whole world knew Cruyff by the time Barcelona announced his acquisition in 1973 for a record-breaking 6 Million guilders (approximately 2 Million US dollars ($), a monstrous amount at the time). In Spain, he started playing more of a Maestro-like role – he still carried lots of individual runs towards the goal but he served colleagues more often, crossing from both sides or launching killer passes down the middle. Barcelona were able to end their La Liga drought, with Cruyff leading the way and showing his true class, skills that went beyond what was visible. He just had that indescribable flair.
And here lies the argument whether that flair can be acquired through training or is naturally embodied in those special players. If you watch tapes from those good old times, you can see Cruyff going past his markers, lifting his head up high and scanning the entire field, opening up teammates with clever balls, his actions, all the options that he took, almost always the right ones…it just doesn’t seem like it can be taught.
In the latter stages of his career, Cruyff spent a couple of seasons across the Atlantic Ocean (Los Angeles Wizards and Washington Diplomats), then back to Spain for a short stay with Levante. Afterwards, a successful return home gave Ajax two more Dutch League titles – the prodigy was back. His definite retirement as a player, however, would come in rivals Feyenoord, in 1984.
Cruyff’s legendary tale doesn’t end with his on-the-pitch brilliance: as a manager, he brought all those concepts and tactical prowess that he developed as a player, reinforcing his godlike status in both Ajax and Barcelona (4 straight La Liga Titles and Champions League title along the way). In Catalonia, he laid the foundation for a strong structure that was based on ball possession, hard pressure off the ball and an intimate chemistry of play between all players, among other aspects. Since then, colossal teams have been trying to dominate that model, because they know that if they do, success is within reach. The two dynasties that he commanded are visible in his honours list:
Ajax (youth squad excluded)
- 367 matches, 268 goals
- 8 Dutch Leagues (Eredivisie)
- 5 Dutch Cups (KNVB Cup)
- 3 European Cups
- 2 Ballons d’Or
- 2 European Player of the Season awards
- 184 matches, 61 goals
- 1 Spanish League (La Liga)
- 1 Spanish Cup (Copa del Rey)
- 1 Ballon d’Or
- 48 matches, 33 goals (the Netherlands never lost when Cruyff scored)
- Named Best Player of the FIFA World Cup in 1974 (the Netherlands lost to West Germany in the final)
- Picked for the 1974 FIFA World Cup Dream Team
Cruyff ended up being much more than just a footballer – he was someone who analyzed the sport with a post-modern vision and shaped many of the practices that, nowadays, are seen in training grounds and youth academies across the world. Regardless of his conflictive temper and sometimes controversial statements, his death March of 2016 has to be seen as a dreadful loss. He was able to show the world the true beauty that inherent to the game, and football will hardly forget that. I know I won’t.