Johan, thank you and goodbye

by Peter Sharples

Dutch football legend, Johan Cruyff, died last month from cancer at the age of 68. The three times World Player of the Year died peacefully at his home in Barcelona after a hard-fought battle with cancer.

His family will grieve a husband a father and a friend, and the football world is mourning the passing of a legend that was as divisive as he was spectacular. Born in Amsterdam and brought up under modest circumstances, he left school at aged 13 and went on to be a footballing superstar, the fi rst Europe had ever seen. In terms of skill, he was deemed a genius. In terms of admiration and respect, the man was adored and revered in equal measure.

A perfect display of that occurred in the recent international friendly between the Netherlands and France on the March 25th. The game took place at the Dutch national football stadium and was paused in the 14th minute to take a moment to applaud the great man in his absence. Fourteen, a number synonymous with Cruyff as it was his shirt number. He was also the first player to wear a number that was not 1 to 11 setting a trend that lives on today. He was the first player to win the World Player of the Year three times (an award now know as the Ballon d’or) He could also lay claim to the slightly more du- bious honor of being the fi rst player to be sent off for the Netherlands.

A true “game changer”

Football is a sport that loves to indulge in cliches, especially, “he was a game changer”. In the case of Cruyff, however, he really was. How Cruyff changed the game can be summed up in two phrases: Total Football and the Cruyff Turn. The turn was born at the 1974 World Cup group stage game. Cruyff left Sweden defender Jan Olsson searching for his opponent when he performed a 180 degree turn and left Olsson facing the wrong direction. Olsson holds Cruyff in high esteem and in particular in that moment. “The proudest moment of my career. 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” Olsson said.

Now, 42 years later, the piece of skill is in the toolkit of every child in every playground, but at the time it made Cruyff a footballing superstar. A piece of skill like that had never been seen. Total Football was the embodiment of the idea that every outfi eld player could play in any outfi eld position with ease. The striker is the fi rst defender and the last defender is the fi rst attacker. You only have to look at the current European champions Barcelona to see if that caught on. Along with his manager at the time Rinus Michels, Cruyff became the main exponent of Total football and became world famous for it after leading Holland to the 1974 World Cup, in which they eventually lost to West Germany 2 – 1. A game in which the Dutch dominated with an air of arrogance that led them to become complacent and lose the game. Cruyff, however, was voted player of the tournament and was regarded by all who took part as deserving of the accolade. From great player to great manager Cruyff is widely acknowledged to have been the man who started Barcelona on their path to Total Football. Playing there with success, but returning as manager to greater success and to build the foundations of the empire that rules European football to this day. As manager of Barcelona, he won 4 league titles in a row and enjoyed success in Europe winning the 1989 Cup winners cup and the European Cup in 1992, both times against Sampdoria.

It was the academy he created that Barcelona will be most grateful to Cruyff for. The academy has produced an array of talent including Lionel Messi, a player to win the World Player of the Year award twice more than Cruyff. People connected to the club maintain that Cruyff is the most important man in the modern history of the game. “Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it” said Pep Guardiola on Cruyff’s Barcelona legacy.
As a manager with Ajax he was also highly successful. Under his leadership, the club won the cup twice and gave a debut to future Holland and Arsenal star Dennis Bergkamp. But it was with Ajax in the early 1970’s when his playing legend became folklore winning three European cups in a row and, to this day, they remain the only team to have ever done so. The effect he had on the world’s favorite sport was huge. Years after he kicked a ball in anger, he was still infl uencing things on and off the pitch. Shortly after his death had been announced, fi nancial traders began buying 14 shares in Ajax as a mark of respect and there is talk around the Dutch F.A. considering renaming the national football stadium in his honor.

Football fans of a certain age will be grieving a loss of their childhood hero, a nation grieves an icon but Johan Cruyff will inspire for generations to come, as to paraphrase the great man: “He’s probably immortal”.