Total footballer: Part virtuoso and part messiah
In the streets of Barcelona, where they had such compelling reasons to worship him, he was christened the Golden Dutchman but when he died yesterday he was mourned nowhere more deeply than in the universal language of football.
Johan Cruyff transcended the tribal rivalries of the world’s most popular game. Both on and off the field, he spoke for its spirit – and capacity to create beauty.
He was surrounded by family and friends and an extraordinary array of honours when he lost his battle against lung cancer at the age of 68, appropriately in his adopted city.
It was where he had been both a founding father and an inspiration for the revolution in world football which eventually saw his former club Barcelona so dominant in the Champions League and influential in Spain’s European Championship triumphs in 2008 and 2012 and the World Cup of 2010.
“I’m proud to be Dutch,” he once said, “but when I look at football I’m not partisan. I want the best for a beautiful game and if I have done anything for that here in Barcelona and Spain I’m very pleased.”
In fact, he had brought the principles embodied in the Total Football created by the visionary Dutch coach Rinus Michels and which swept Ajax and the national team to brilliant prominence in the early Seventies. But Cruyff (below) was more than a key disciple of the hard-driving Michels and his philosophy of possession and rotating positions. He became its most sublime expression.
His Barcelona strong-room of medals and trophies tells much of his remarkable story – but not all of it. There in the trophy room resides the record of three European Cup wins as a player with Ajax in his home town of Amsterdam, a World Cup final appearance with Holland – bizarrely unrewarded against West Germany in Munich in 1974 – and a European Cup title as Barca’s coach in 1992. There are also the three World Player of the Year awards, his election as the European player of the century in 1999 and his second place in the world category behind only the fabled Pele.
Yet even this vast accumulation of prestige pales beside the magical experience of seeing him perform in the flesh.
He was part classic virtuoso, part messiah and this was never more apparent than the time he was sent off, for defying a referee, in a La Liga game against Malaga in 1977.
It was the signal for a riot by his army of supporters. They raced on to the field, led by a large man on crutches who moved at remarkable speed at the head of the pack chasing down the embattled official. When he came alongside the referee the indignant fan threw a punch, lost his balance and slowly toppled to the ground. The vast crowd howled but their greatest cause of angst was that their hero was no longer part of the game.
Later, as burned television vans smouldered, the Golden Dutchman repented and explained, “Sometimes you are so involved in the game, nothing else matters, and I’m afraid I’m guilty of this tonight. But with my next performance I hope to put away this memory.”
He did – and in the most astonishing way. He master-minded, virtually single-handedly, the defeat of England at Wembley. Some who were at the stadium more than two decades earlier said it was a performance to rank with that of the sensational Hungarians led by Ferenc Puskas. Holland merely won 2-0, compared to the 6-3 explosion of Hungary, but the victory could hardly have been more profound.
The relatively obscure Jan Peters scored both goals but it was Cruyff who mesmerised everyone on the field and in the stands. Trevor Brooking, like all of his team-mates, was reduced to the role of a spectator.
He recalled: “The teams Holland produced in 1974 and 1978 showed the quality of that generation and the outstanding talents were Cruyff and Neeskens. We all knew Cruyff’s strength but we couldn’t do anything to stop him. He was the ultimate two-footed player with devastating acceleration and the ability go past anyone.
“They were the equivalent of the modern Spain team and everyone was desperately trying to understand the Dutch way of keeping the ball, moving and switching positions which had carried them so far so quickly. They were so far ahead of their time.
“I remember studying for my coaching badge around that time and we put on a session where we tried to emulate the Total Football of the Dutch. But the session never worked and in the end we just abandoned it. Before that night at Wembley we’d played Holland five times and never lost. But we were never in it.”
Another English victim that night was Kevin Beattie, the strong and impressive defender of Ipswich Town. He played nine times for England but he admitted to never before or after feeling quite so out of his depth. “Cruyff,” he said, “was just unbelievable. We were ripped to pieces. They just passed the ball so quickly, right through the team from back to front – and, yes, Cruyff dominated everything.”
That was confirmed by a stunning statistical report published the following morning. While barely crossing the halfway line Cruyff created both goals and long before the end resembled nothing so much as puppet master of flawless timing. He had 61 touches of the ball and of his 50 completed passes 30 of them were positive forward balls and on numerous occasions he switched the play with 40-yard passes which left both the England players and the great crowd gasping. On the England side, the celebrated Trevor Francis – the first million-pound player – managed a grand total of 21 touches.
But then you could no more measure the genius of Cruyff by numbers than you could chart the wind. He was generous about the competitive spirit of his opponents, saying, “Anyone who plays in English football has to have strength of character and a fighting instinct. This is the great quality of the English game but it isn’t any good if you do not develop your skills. This is what has happened in Dutch football and I’m proud to have played a part in it.”
It was a development which seemed certain to reach a superb climax in Munich’s Olympic Stadium in 1974 when Cruyff’s Holland over-ran Franz Beckenbauer’s Germany in the early stages of the World Cup final.
Cruyff ghosted through the German defence, was fouled in the box and Neeskens crashed home the penalty. The Germans attached themselves to Cruyff like limpets, as well they might have done, and slowly worked themselves back into a game in which the Dutch seemed more intent on humiliating their neighbours than achieving the perfect conclusion to the years of burgeoning brilliance.
When the Germans were crowned world champions Cruyff took a wound that would never quite heal. However, the world of football was much more forgiving – and not least yesterday. Cruyff didn’t win a World Cup but he elected himself to the elite of the game. He not only established himself alongside Pele and Maradona as one of the three greatest players the game had ever known. He also defined it most exquisite potential.
Appropriately, yesterday’s most notable tribute came from the man of today who has so beautifully challenged for a place in the company of Cruyff. Lionel Messi could face no challenge when he declared that the legacy of the Golden Dutchman would indeed live forever.