By John Mahnen
Hendrik Johannes “Johan” Cruyff passed away on 24 March. The Netherlands mourns the loss of its greatest sports star who was universally known and admired. Nearly everyone has a Johan Cruyff story and Holland Times sports editor John Mahnen is no exception.
No other sports story was larger than death of Johan Cruyff. It seemed as suddenly as we had come to terms with the fact that cigarettes would cost him far too many of his golden years, he slipped away from us altogether. He left us all with so many memories that few could hold him to account for not saying goodbye.
Like any other expat in the Netherlands, I learned the ABC’s of Dutch culture. I don’t actually remember what A stood for, but B was for Beatrix and C was for Cruyff. I also learned those last two did not necessarily follow in alphabetical order. Johan Cruyff was bigger than football and that was already very big.
With the death of Johan Cruyff, came the re-airing of so many of his highlights: countless slaloms, assists and goals from the hallowed pitches of the world. The documentaries “En Un Momento Dado” and “Nummer 14” found their way back to the television and I suspect that a few tears were shed. Many years ago, I watched in wonder as a young woman weep as she stood at the foot of Michelangelo’s David for the first time. When I watch Cruyff carving his way through opposition defenders set to period music, I am quite certain I know exactly what she was feeling.
Everyone has now had their say about the legendary footballer. Every teammate and opponent from near and far has payed homage to number fourteen. The legendary German central defender known as Der Kaiser, Franz Beckenbauer, conceded that while often mentioned in the same breath with Cruyff, he was not his equal. The man who was called El Salvador for bringing Barcelona back from the dead did not live to see our most recent Easter Sunday but that did not stop journalist Henk Spaan from losing control of his senses, presumably from grief and suggesting God might be dead but surely Johan Cruyff was immortal.
It’s hard to debate that at least through our memories, Cruyff is immortal. In the most desolate backstreets of any Chinese city, there is a cab driver who will not understand a word you are saying but if he understands you live in Holland, he will do his best to say the name of best footballer the lowlands have ever known. Everyone in this in the country has a Cruyff moment or memory whether a favorite saying, match or even a personal encounter. Several years ago, the Amsterdam Museum featured in exhibit entitled, “Johan en Ik” with personal accounts of moments with Cruyff from all kinds of people. The Amsterdam newspaper Parool featured countless stories of reader’s meetings with the legendary figure – accounts of asking Cruyff for a photo in the days before the selfie are retold as epiphanies. The common line is that more often not, Cruyff would not only be more than happy to stand in wait for a smile and a flash but engage his fellow subjects in a bit of small talk. I also had my photo with Cruyff moment. Mine came coincidentally enough on a birthday spent in Curacao. I had not been as nervous since I walked to the restaurant table of Cincinnati Red’s catcher Johnny Bench as a ten-year-old and asked for his autograph. That quickly past in the warmth of a handshake and I found myself laughing at the way he mimicked me when I answered his question and told him I was born in Ohio. With an O on his lips, the shutter clicked and my photo moment was complete.
Johan Cruyff was certainly a talker and had an opinion on just about anything. Whether or not the opinion was asked for is altogether a different question. I once had the absolute pleasure of witnessing this phenomenon first hand. While waiting for the car wash at the service station outside Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium, Johan Cruyff pulled in and needed to swap tires having been driving on a spare. The station manager, likely the owner, naturally obliged. These days, the owner of a petrol station probably knows more about servicing the espresso machine than the finer points of automobile repair but I’d be willing to give the man the benefit of the doubt when it came to turning lug nuts. Johan, on the other hand was not quite as willing and proceeded to provide a full set of instructions as to jacking up the Audi, working the tire iron and even closing the trunk. My day had been thoroughly made.
In that same Olympic Stadium the spirit of what Johan was really all about still burns as bright as the Olympic flame. Within the same venue where Cruyff steered a ball through countless defenders and into the back of the opposition netting, his Johan Cruyff Foundation continues to provide opportunities for those whose bodies or neighborhoods do not hold God-given potential that he was so thankful for. He was also thankful for all those who had helped him along the way. In an interview given to the BBC, Cruyff said, “I will never forget, the people who helped me. Maybe a small thing, maybe a big thing – doesn’t matter. They helped me to get there. I always admired these people who do these sort of things.”
Cruyff also had a passion for education. Never having the opportunity to complete any formal education, he was instrumental in creating a network of educational opportunities for athletes. One part of the now expansive network of Cruyff academics is adjacent to the Olympic Stadium which begs that question of which sports temple should really be named for Johan Cruyff: the stadium in which he actually played or the modern temple which now houses Ajax? One thing that is not subject to debate is the legacy he leaves behind. Friend and foe alike, Johan Cruyff earned the respect of all who knew him. We may never know any single athlete in this country with the same lasting imprint upon so many. Few would debate that he was the best that ever was. We can take solace in the fact that if Johan Cruyff was the best that ever will be, we can consider ourselves to have been very fortunate.