Johan Cruyff, who has died aged 68 of cancer, once said his qualities as a footballer were undetectable by a computer.
It was surely true that a computer might have recorded his playing stats – the goals, the assists, the distances covered – but would have been incapable of assessing the wonderment generated by his technique and vision, from the late 1960s to the early 80s, first with Ajax and later with Barcelona and his national team, Holland.
With his anticipation and acceleration, Cruyff seemed to own the entire field of play. Only nominally a centre-forward, he was both orchestrator and predator, at one moment collecting a rolled ball from his keeper to start a move – one arm pointing as he barked orders to his team-mates – and the next materialising at the other end in front of goal for the coup de grace. For opponents it was like trying to pin down air. “Without Cruyff,” said Rinus Michels, his mentor and manager at Ajax, at Barcelona and with the Dutch international side, “I have no team.”
The goals he scored were ones of which no other player was capable – from twisted, one-legged, neck-high karate kicks, and from impossible angles made possible by the way he could shoot with all sides of both feet, the laces, the inside and the outside. No showreel of his talents would be complete, either, without the Cruyff turn, the trademark feint with the dropped shoulder and 180-degree swivel that broke the will of the Sweden defender Jan Olssen in the 1974 World Cup. “He was at the heart of a revolution with his football,” said Eric Cantona. “If he wanted, he could be the best player in any position on the pitch.”
Cruyff’s skills as a player brought him many honours, including nine Dutch championships, three European Cups, a Spanish league title and a World Cup runners-up medal and 48 caps for Holland between 1966 and 1977. As a manager, too, he had a highly rewarding career – winning a European Cup, two European Cup Winners’ Cups and four Spanish league titles. His philosophy and style of play made him one of the most influential figures in the history of the game.
The phrase most associated with him is “total football”, a fluid system in which no player occupies any fixed outfield role. The wider world became aware of it during the 1974 World Cup finals in West Germany. Holland were ultimately beaten in the final by the host nation but, led by Cruyff, they were indisputably the most thrilling national side of the era with, in the words of the journalist Hugh McIlvanney, “an attacking style at once so spirited and so cuttingly precise that the effect is of a cavalry charge of surgeons”. When Cruyff retired from playing and eventually moved to manage Barcelona, he created a revolutionary new style of play that became the envy of the footballing world and has been much copied.
He was born in Amsterdam, where his father, Hermanus, and mother, Nel, ran a greengrocers’ shop. Ajax was his neighbourhood club, and by the age of 10 he was on the books of its youth division, the Ajax Academy. He was 12 when his father died of a heart attack; Nel, unable to cope with running the shop on her own, got a job as a cleaner at the Ajax stadium.
Her son’s maverick intelligence did not sit well with formal learning, and he left school at 13 to become a part-time clerk for the sports clothing store Perry van der Kar, whose connection with the Ajax club allowed Cruyff to train in the mornings before reporting for work after lunch. “Uncle Henk”, the groundsman at Ajax, became his stepfather when Nel remarried. Cruyff would work alongside him in all weathers, painting lines, hoisting nets and operating tractors. Later he always took care to acknowledge a club’s subsidiary staff, the tea ladies, the people who cleaned the boots and swept the dressing rooms, as well as those who were more senior.
As a 15-year-old, Cruyff was selected as a ball boy when Benfica beat Real Madrid in the European Cup final of 1962 in Amsterdam. That day he had an epiphany, witnessing the constant, untracked movement, stamina and vision of the great Argentinian forward Alfredo Di Stéfano. Now he had a template of how the game should be played. Cruyff was given his first team debut at 17 by the then Ajax manager, Vic Buckingham, but when Michels took over he had to prove himself again. Michels, whose training regime included gruelling uphill sprints in the woods, was unimpressed by Cruyff’s chain-smoking.
But Cruyff got his chance when the regular centre-forward was out injured. Once in, he never left, becoming Michels’ trusted lieutenant. When Michels departed to manage Barcelona and the more permissive Stefan Kovács took over, Cruyff began to have an increasing influence on team selection and tactics. Ajax dominated the Eredivisie (the Dutch league) to the extent that Cruyff won six domestic titles between 1965 and 1973. They also became the masters of Europe, bringing home the European Cup for three consecutive years between 1971 and 1973.
By that time Cruyff had become Europe’s first football superstar, indelibly memorable with his personalised Puma boots and No 14 shirt. Managed by his father-in-law, Cor Koster, a diamond and watch merchant whose daughter, Danny, Cruyff had married in 1968, his clout was so great that he was even allowed to sport twin stripes on his Holland shirt rather than the trademark three of Adidas, the Dutch team’s kit sponsor.
In 1973 Cruyff transferred to Barcelona, beginning a long and sometimes stormy relationship with the club. In his first season there, reunited with Michels, he dragged them from the doldrums of La Liga to their first championship for 13 years, via a 27-match unbeaten run that included a 5-0 away win over Real Madrid. Cruyff’s status as “El Salvador” was set in stone when he named his third child Jordi after Catalonia’s patron saint.
Michels’ return to Ajax left Cruyff as the most powerful personality at Barcelona, often bending the will of the club president, José Luis Núñez, to support him rather than the manager, Hennes Weisweiler, even when he was in the wrong. With his legacy established in the form of La Masia, a training academy that was later to nurture Cesc Fàbregas and Lionel Messi, and laid the foundations of Spain’s international dominance between 2008 and 2012, he planned to retire at 31. Instead, fate planted a tripwire when he was conned out of a large part of his fortune by a friend and business associate and was forced to extend his playing career with a peripatetic few years between the US, Spain and the Netherlands. He won two more Eredivisie titles, with Ajax in 1981-82 and 1982-83, and another with Feyenoord, where he spent his final season before retiring in 1984.
Cruyff’s shift into management was inevitable, though in 1985, when Ajax took him on, he had yet to receive his coaching badges and for two years had the job title of technical adviser. Under his leadership Ajax won the Dutch cup twice and beat Lokomotiv Leipzig in the 1987 European Cup Winners’ Cup final. In 1988 he moved to manage Barcelona, establishing a new way of playing that was all about maintaining possession through short passes and movement – the style that came to be known as tiki-taka. He liked to work individually with each player, finding out what made him tick. He converted a young Pep Guardiola from winger to midfield fulcrum, convinced him he could defend as well as spray passes, and fast-tracked him into the first team; Guardiola repaid him by becoming his disciple, following on from him as Barcelona manager.
Not everyone was a convert to tiki-taka, but the team Cruyff constructed, which included Michael Laudrup, Marco van Basten, Hristo Stoichkov and Ronald Koeman, became the best in Spanish football, winning La Liga four times between 1991 and 1994, as well as the 1992 European Cup. In the middle of all this Cruyff underwent heart surgery, the penalty of several decades of smoking. The 11 trophies he won in all made him, at the time, Barcelona’s most successful manager, but in his final two seasons no more came their way, and in 1996 he was sacked by Núñez.
He went on to create the Johan Cruyff Foundation, which has provided more than 200 pitches in 22 countries for children of all backgrounds to play together, and he received the Uefa Grassroots award in 2009, the same year he took on a two-year spell as manager of the Catalonia national team. By that time he had grown increasingly disappointed with the playing style of Holland’s national side, and spoke in typically forthright terms of what he called “the ugly path” they took in the final of the 2010 World Cup, in which they lost to Spain. Many noted that Spain took the main prize with a kind of football that had been inspired by Cruyff at Barcelona many years before.
He is survived by Danny, by his daughters Chantal and Susila, and by Jordi, who played football for Barcelona and Manchester United.
• Johan (Hendrik Johannes) Cruyff, footballer, born 25 April 1947; died 24 March 2016
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