For crafting the game of football into its most entertaining form, the late Johan Cruyff is a FIVE icon…
As a guiding visionary who seduced a sport to its creative peak, Johan Cruyff’s mark on football may never have occurred had it not been for one unlikely source.
While Alfredo di Stefano provided Cruyff’s first experience of on-field genius, beguiled by the movement and energy of the Real Madrid great while a 15-year-old ball boy at the European Cup final, the very reason this wiry lad from Amsterdam got his break in the game can be traced back to someone a lot closer to home. His mother.
Nel Cruyff worked as a cleaner at Ajax when she persuaded the club’s youth side to offer a trial to her 12-year-old son. It proved to be football’s most fortunate case of nepotism. Cruyff would not only go on to be an Ajax and Barcelona legend, but his unshakeable beliefs about how football ought to be played would shape the modern game into the free-flowing spectacle now globally revered by millions.
“Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it”
– Pep Guardiola
As a player, Cruyff pulled in the crowds wherever he was on show, as the dashing, jinking, breezing embodiment of Dutch manager Rinus Michels’ Total Football philosophy. Michels’ idea, that no player should be restricted to conventional formations, was a direct rebuttal to the increasingly rigid systems being favoured in Europe at the time.
It meant that, en route to the 1974 World Cup final, Dutch fans were just as likely to see Cruyff pick the ball up in defence as witness him galloping past full backs with an energy belying his 20-a-day smoking habit.
For Total Football to work, it required a team of technically superb players comfortable in any area of the pitch. Cruyff was the obvious flag-bearer, so flawless with a ball at his feet that Marco van Basten claimed it was the reason he would become so tactically astute; because he’d mastered the technical side.
After all, this was the wizard who invented his own piece of skill. Its first unveiling, at the same World Cup in Germany, was described as the “proudest moment of my career”. Not by Cruyff, but by the bamboozled Swede he unleashed it on, Jan Olsson.
After teaching the Argentinians and Brazilians a footballing lesson, only complacency led them to failure against West Germany in the final. But Cruyff had made his mark on the pitch, and he’d go on to leave a legacy off it, proving that world class players could become world class managers.
As boss of Ajax and then Barcelona, he found little trouble adding to his collection of league, cup and European titles won at the same clubs as a player. The three-time Ballon d’Or winner added the coaching equivalent in two successive seasons in the early 90s, as his Barcelona side blazed past anyone Europe could throw at them.
They did so, of course, playing the most attractive football on the continent. That they continue to do so today is down largely to him. He handed a debut to a young Pep Guardiola, converted him from a winger to play the central pivot in his all-conquering Barca side, then watched on as Guardiola did the same with Xavi a generation later.
As the former Barcelona president Joan Laporta said, “the modern-day Barca started with him, he is the expression of our identity, he brought us a style of football we love.”
Following Spain’s 1-0 victory over Holland at the 2010 World Cup, Johan Cruyff lambasted the Dutch for “renouncing their style” and following an “ugly path” to victory.
Instead it was the Spanish who reigned over his country playing the brand of football he had pioneered. A purist until the end, this adopted Catalan may not himself have won the World Cup, but when Andres Iniesta laid the final piece of Spain’s tiki-taka tapestry, he’ll have taken plenty satisfaction knowing that there was yet more proof that it could be done, his way.