Tuesday 20 February 2018

Obituary: Titles, tantrums and supreme talent in a life less ordinary

Johan Cruyff at the World Cup in West Germany, 1974 (Getty)
Johan Cruyff at the World Cup in West Germany, 1974 (Getty)

Johan Cruyff, who has died of cancer aged 68, was the most complete footballer of his generation and one of the few great players to be equally successful as a manager.

Cruyff dominated football during the 1970s, becoming the first player to win the title of European Footballer of the Year three times and inspiring the Dutch team - of which he was captain - to the heights of "Total Football".

The side's finest moment came against Germany in the World Cup final of1974. From the kick-off, the Dutch strung together 16 passes before finding the deep-lying Cruyff. He set off on a swerving run gathering pace until Berti Vogts, the German defender, brought Cruyff to the ground. Johan Neeskens scored, and the hosts were a goal down without having touched the ball.

It was the most sensational start to a World Cup final, and soon exposed the flaw in the temperament of both Cruyff and his side - arrogance. It rarely counted against him in the rest of his career, but on this occasion it was fatal; his team thought the game would be easy, so letting the less skilful but energetic Germans score twice and win the match.

Cruyff, as happened when things went against him, became argumentative and was booked in the tunnel at half-time. His complex personality and penchant for footballing politics denied him the chance to grace another World Cup.

Hendrik Johannes Cruyff was born in Amsterdam on April 25, 1947. His father was a grocer, and the family lived across the street from Ajax's stadium. His mother worked as a cleaner at the club's offices, and it was she who persuaded the staff to sign her 12-year-old son to the youth team.

Cruyff made senior debut at 17 and scored in his first match before becoming the totem in the 'Total Football' template of Rinus Michels.

Between 1964 and 1973, Cruyff played 215 league games for Ajax and won six league championships and four domestic cups. Ajax also won three consecutive European Cups.

Cruyff's knew his value too, and his aloof manner made him unpopular in dressing-rooms, as well as with his sponsors. Contracted to wear one brand of boots, he renounced them, incurring stiff financial penalties for each time he played without them; undeterred, he did so 98 times.

In 1973, Cruyff moved to Barcelona for £922,000, a sum that doubled the previous world record for a player; money was always important to Cruyff, and he collected £400,000 himself for the deal. Cruyff had threatened to retire unless Ajax sold him, and the transfer was completed after the deadline; as ever, the rules were bent to accommodate him.

His fee was quickly justified when he helped Barcelona from the relegation zone to the title including a 5-0 away win against Real. His status as his era's greatest player was sealed by his third award in four years as 1974 European Footballer of the Year.

Yet Cruyff won only one more trophy with Barcelona, a domestic cup, and when he left in 1978, having retired the previous year from the Dutch team after a spat with the manager and after making only 48 appearances, his career seemed destined for an embarrassing end.

He refused to play in the 1978 World Cup and, having been fleeced of much of his savings by business partners, began to drift around the infant American League, playing for the Washington Diplomats. He then tried to hire himself as a footballing mercenary to clubs on a weekly basis for half the gate receipts.

He was rescued by Ajax in 1982 and repaid them by winning two league titles before, in typical fashion, deciding that the club could not afford him and joining their arch-rivals Feyenoord. There he took a young side, including Ruud Gullit, to the Dutch title and was paid a pound for each fan above the average gate who was drawn to the ground; at the age of 37, Cruyff played some of the most sublime football of his career.

In 1986, Cruyff returned to Ajax as manager, bringing through the talents of Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Dennis Bergkamp and winning the European Cup Winners' Cup. But his demands once more proved too much for the club, and after a quarrel with the directors, he left for Barcelona in 1988.

Cruyff took the club to four successive Spanish titles, the European Cup Winners' Cup and, in 1992, their first European Cup, beating Sampdoria at Wembley.

Cruyff's managerial career was not without incident. He refused to sit for his coaching exams in Holland and at Barcelona disciplined players who did not conform to his instructions.

Cruyff's determination was never better evidenced than when he returned to watch his team play a tense European semi-final only a month after having had heart bypass surgery in 1991. Having lost the opportunity to coach the Dutch side after a squabble, he left Barcelona in 1996, after his side had lost the European Cup final 4-0 to Milan.

Cruyff was unusual in his ability both to play international football and smoke upwards of 40 cigarettes a day. He gave up after his heart surgery, and agreed to take part in an anti-smoking television commercial.

As the director was explaining that trick photography would be used to make it seem as if Cruyff was juggling a cigarette packet, the finest player of his era began nonchalantly to flick a packet around with his feet, thighs and shoulders, before volleying it into a bin. (© Daily Telegraph, London)


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