Cruyff's gifts to the game will keep on giving
Published 25/03/2016 | 02:30
This Cruyff turn was the diabolical opposite of the ones he performed in games. On February 13 - only 40 days ago - Johan Cruyff said the results of his cancer treatment had been "very positive" and told the world: "Right now, I have the feeling that I am 2-0 up in the first half of a match that has not finished yet. But I am sure that I will end up winning."
If that bulletin brought hope to those who revered the Dutch "master of the ball", the news of his death at 68 from lung cancer arrives like whiplash. The short gap between that 2-0 half-time score and the terrible reverse of the full-time defeat sharpens the dislocation.
All the best elements of football as self-expression, as instinct allied to art, were concentrated into the awkward genius who came to the world's attention in Ajax's iconic jam sandwich shirt.
Comparing all other footballers to his father, Jordi Cruyff, the master's son, once said: "The rest of us are just mortals. We come and go."
In the physical realm there was a more implacable force that carried the father away. But in the symphonic football he played for Ajax, the Netherlands and Barcelona, where he was the inspiration for what we see today, there really is a kind of immortality.
So if Cruyff was unable to swerve round a fatal disease, there is a sense when revisiting his career that he left eternal marks on the game, which is not something you could say of all those on football's Mount Rushmore.
Most simply flared across the stage and then faded into the darkness of retirement. Alfredo Di Stefano, Pele, Diego Maradona, George Best and the other maestros of the Twentieth Century are remembered for their stunning talent but not for any subsequent contribution to the intellectual wealth of the game.
Cruyff, on the other hand, left behind an idea, a set of sacred principles about what football is actually for. And one good way of assessing whether people really love the game is to gauge their response to Cruyff's belief in the primacy of entertainment. If they laugh, they probably regard football as a business, an exercise in power. If they nod, they share Cruyff's conviction that football could send people home happy from seeing the unexpected.
As a player, Cruyff surprised his opponents. This is probably the defining quality. He would twist a defender into a human spiral, or take off through a crowd of bodies; he would chip a goalkeeper from 30 yards or cut inside to curl a shot that would find its target with a kind of magical inevitability. The heavily arched-back of the 'keeper as he jumped and then fell towards his net was the clue to the accuracy of Cruyff's ball-striking.
"My control was very quick," he said years later. The recordings bear this out. He was able to convert thought into action at a speed way beyond the computing powers of those employed to stop him.
This is where the thrill resides in watching him again now, at the hour of his passing. And the comfort comes from knowing that the greatest footballers will always possess this weapon: that of unstoppability.
The lineage in a Barcelona shirt from Cruyff to Lionel Messi is therefore unmistakable and golden. Messi is quicker across the ground than Cruyff and has been less distracted by issues of personality and politics. In all Barcelona's work, though, you can see the groundwork laid by Cruyff when he applied broadly Dutch ideals to a more spontaneous Catalan culture.
Often when people lapse into quasi-religious declarations about this or that founding father you look for the flaws in the argument.
Total Football, of which Cruyff was the superstar exponent, is said by many Holland players of that time to be a label dreamt up by the media to describe something that was beautifully simply and instinctive. Equally, the 'Barcelona way' has evolved significantly from Cruyff's Dream Team through tiki-taka to the devil's trident of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez.
Yet nobody seriously questions Cruyff's success in persuading Barcelona that entertainment could be a foundation for winning (and not just a way of defying the imperialists of Real Madrid). Cruyff's sometimes spiky and eccentric nature found its natural home at a club who were searching for a leader to validate and shape their deepest urges.
In his book 'Brilliant Orange - The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football', David Winner recalls Cruyff saying: "I don't go through life cursing the fact that I didn't win a World Cup. I played in a fantastic team that gave millions of people watching a great time. That's what football is all about.
"The Dutch team of the 1970s was fantastic to watch. People say that to me every day here in France (where he happened to be). That is the biggest reward I can have as an ex-player: I played my football in a thrilling team." Winner also quotes a Dutch dancer, Rudi van Dantzig, a close friend of Rudolph Nureyev.
"Rudolph said Cruyff should have been a dancer," Van Dantzig said. "He was intrigued by his movements, his virtuosity, the way he could switch direction and leave everyone behind, and do it all with perfect control and balance and grace. He was amazed that Cruyff's mind was so swift."
These days this kind of talk is discouraged. Theorists and dreamers are herded into the "football hipster" pen and pelted with fruit.
But there is nothing spurious about framing Cruyff in an age before the mass commodification of football (though he was highly acquisitive in his own life).
Nowadays, the genius of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo is instantly memorialised in Xbox games and adverts. When Cruyff was king, there was a greater acceptance of skill as performance - a pleasure in itself.
"I never did tricks in training. It just came out," he said of the famous turn. "Treat the ball well, let it be your friend," he also said. One of the delights of his work is that he managed to be the high priest of possession football without over-theorising it.
The complexity of brilliant football was to be found in the simplicity of the urge to perform it. "When they saw us playing, everyone was happy," he said of the 1970s Netherlands side. "They just went home laughing."
Inside the often egocentric, loner-genius character of Johan Cruyff was this urge to share, to see reflected in the faces of the audience his own pleasure at being able to play so beautifully. That gift will keep on giving.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)