Johan Cruyff, who has died at the age of 68, was one of football’s greatest and most significant figures. The proof lies in two phrases with which he will always be synonymous.
One is “Total Football” – the style epitomised by the Netherlands team, with Cruyff as the centrepiece, who reached the 1974 World Cup final under Rinus Michels before losing to West Germany.
It was a philosophy based on the theory that any outfield player could play in any other position on the pitch with comfort. Under his mentor Michels, Cruyff was the embodiment of the supremely skilled, multi-purpose footballer.
At that same World Cup, he invented a piece of skill that will be his calling card forever.
“The Cruyff turn”, when he bamboozled Sweden defender Jan Olsson with a touch of football ballet, allowed him to drag the ball behind his standing leg with the inside of his foot. It combined instinct, quick thinking, athleticism and natural ability. In other words, it was Johan Cruyff.
Cruyff was not simply the talisman for that Dutch team, he was the idol of Amsterdam as the inspiration behind three successive European Cup wins in 1971, 1972 and 1973 – before putting his playing brilliance into practice as a coach to lead Barcelona to their first European Cup in 1992 after winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1989.
The adage that great players do not necessarily make great coaches did not apply to Cruyff.
He has left an indelible mark on the game that will live on in the stylistic approach he brought to Barcelona and is maintained to this day. It will come to the Premier League next season when his protege Pep Guardiola takes over at Manchester City.
Cruyff’s mother was a cleaner at Ajax and persuaded the club to take her 12-year-old son into their youth system. It was a day that altered the history of a great club.
In two spells at Ajax, he won the Eredivisie eight times, but it was on the European stage that he was able to establish his name in a global context.
With elegance, grace, skill and a force of personality that made him a player as well as an outspoken, divisive character, he took Ajax to the pinnacle of the European game.
Tributes to a football great
David Beckham on Instagram: My thoughts and love are with the friends and family of not just one of the best footballers in the history of the game but also one of the greatest men and nicest person you could meet … The game lost a true hero today. Rest In Peace.
Luis Figo on Twitter: My first coach overseas, one of the best I ever had. A very important man in my career. We had a great loss.
Former World Cup-winning Germany captain Lothar Matthaus: Such sad news about Johan Cruyff. A great man, who transformed football. Condolences to his family and friends.
Cruyff, under the tutelage of Michels, helped Ajax thrash Bill Shankly’s great Liverpool side 5-1 in a European Cup tie in December 1966, also scoring twice in the 2-2 draw at Anfield in the second leg.
It was those halcyon early ’70s days, however, that the man called “Pythagoras in boots” by the British sportswriter David Miller established a reputation that will live on wherever football is played.
Ajax ruled Europe, beating Panathinaikos 2-0 at Wembley in 1971, repeating the feat via two Cruyff goals against Inter Milan in Amsterdam a year later then completing a European Cup treble with 1-0 win over Juventus in Belgrade in 1973.
At the heart of this thing of football beauty was Cruyff, the master of time and space and creator supreme.
He was the greatest among a collection of great players but a man apart on and off the pitch, his famous choice of the number 14 shirt a public symbol of his determination to be different.
After spells in the United States with Los Angeles Aztecs and Levante in Spain, he returned to Ajax and showed the old magic in two more title wins.
Contrary, complex, controversial and self-confident as ever, he reacted to Ajax’s failure to offer him a contract by moving to arch-rivals Feyenoord – then winning their first Eredivisie in a decade in 1983-84 as part of a league and cup double.
The love affair with Ajax was rekindled when he took over as coach. His innovative thinking and his ability to connect his ideas to young players came to fruition in the 1987 European Cup Winners’ Cup final with a 1-0 victory over Lokomotiv Leipzig in Athens.
Cruyff’s side that night had the skills of the young Aron Winter and Dennis Bergkamp alongside the brilliance of Marco van Basten and experience of Arnold Muhren.