Sunday 18 February 2018

Total footballer Cruyff facing his toughest fight

Johan Cruyff at the World Cup in West Germany, 1974
Johan Cruyff at the World Cup in West Germany, 1974

Paul Hayward

Genius offers no immunity from failures of health. If it did, Johan Cruyff would not be receiving a hospital diagnosis of lung cancer, and the gilded age of which he was an illustrious member would not be slipping further into turmoil.

The news that disease has infiltrated the 68-year-old's lungs produced a rash of comment about his heavy smoking: a habit he kicked in 1991 after undergoing heart surgery.

The prevailing image before the first physical crisis in his life is one of an anxious, fretful figure who used tobacco to calm his nerves - a picture at odds with how he was as a player.

In that first incarnation he embodied grace under pressure. His movements were magisterial.

This coolness was always hard to square with memories of him lighting up at half-time or smoking in the dugout.

Amateur doctors, though, are making assumptions. Unless, or until, physicians confirm a connection between smoking and his illness, Cruyff's news is best treated as a personal tragedy and not a cautionary tale, although he did say after giving up: "Football has given me everything in this life; tobacco almost took it all away."

One safe conclusion is that the first wave of megastars have almost all endured setbacks to do with age, or health, or bad choices. George Best was killed ultimately by alcohol, as was Garrincha, who was admitted to hospital eight times before succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver in Rio de Janeiro in 1983.

There have been some tough goodbyes. In July last year Alfredo Di Stefano was carried away by a heart attack, aged 88. Pele, the greatest of them all, was also assailed, with three hospital stays, for kidney stones, urinary infections, back surgery and a trapped nerve.

To this list, we could add the assorted addictions that might have killed Diego Maradona.

Franz Beckenbauer, who was the German counterpoint to Cruyff's Dutch brilliance, has been caught up in the FIFA corruption scandal.

So, a line in time can be drawn between the generation from Maradona back to the 1950s and the subsequent royalty of Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who are all blessed with youth and health.

Each is a deity and probably feels invincible. And each should enjoy what he has, because talent is evidently not a golden ticket to a serene old age.

The shock of Cruff's news was felt at Ajax, Barcelona and across Holland, where he is regarded not only as an iconic player but a missionary.

Just as Real Madrid lost their elder statesman in Di Stefano, now modern Barcelona's spiritual leader enters his own one-on-one with mortality.

Younger followers of the game will have read about his authorship of Barcelona's playing style but may know less about the distinctive nature of his own gift.


Cruyff added new physical movements, new skills, to a game that tended to look to South America for innovation and trickery.

He is a three-time European Footballer of the Year and was the lodestar of Total Football, as expressed by the Holland teams of the 1970s.

Most 'genius' players leave no great tactical mark subsequently, though Beckenbauer won the World Cup also as a coach. In eight years as Barcelona coach Cruyff won 11 trophies and is still revered as a visionary at the Nou Camp.

This is not an obituary. Only two weeks ago Cruyff was criticising Louis van Gaal for not playing "dominating football" with Manchester United - and Jose Mourinho, of whom he said: "I don't think he is educating children to play football or educating for life."

Never slow to pick a fight, The Total Footballer has found one now, all right. We can only hope for the greatest of all Cruyff turns. (© Daily Telegraph)

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport