Johan Cruyff was, perhaps along with Franz Beckenbauer, the first truly great modern footballer. Those who came before him, the likes of Puskas, di Stefano, Pele, Best, they all changed the game with their talent and their insight, but they did so within the framework of a game where individualism was still freely allowed, where tactics, formations, systems were still in their infancy to a degree. But when Cruyff arrived to paint his particular pictures, it was very much to the benefit of the collective.
It’s richly ironic that Cruyff should be the high priest of the collective because you’d be hard pressed to find a man more convinced of his own brilliance, of the fact that he knew what was best, who suffered fools less gladly. But then Cruyff was one of the few who can truly be called a genius, a man who not only had the chops on the pitch – a sinuous, lyrical technique, fluid limbs, effortless control – but had the mentality – the spatial awareness, the instinctive understanding of positioning, of comparative strength and weakness, of when and where the key moments would arise – to fully bring those gifts to bear on a game.
In that, Cruyff was not unique for the whole Dutch team of the total football were a pretty irascible bunch, spiky, fractious. Their willingness to debate and discuss the game in extraordinary length and at great depth made for a volcanic mix that ultimately denied them the greatest prize, the World Cup, but which in other ways has given them a greater legacy than any of their contemporaries, the legacy of total football.
CRUYFF THE TOTAL FOOTBALLER
There never was, perhaps never will be a more total footballer in whatever sense you choose to employ the term, than Johan Cruyff though possibly Lionel Messi is something of a descendant, appropriately so given the little Argentine came through the Barcelona schooling and philosophy that Cruyff did so much to instil in his time at Camp Nou as player and then coach.
But Cruyff was the first and he remains unique, the thinking man’s footballer if you like, the one who saw the game as balletic chess, played at pace, and yet not because he had seen all the moves laid out in advance and so played them as though they were the most natural thing in the world, the inevitable consequence of the application of his thought processes on the game.
In Dutch football, there is a saying that for the great players, a second lasts longer than it does for the mere mortals. It’s another way of saying that life happens in slow motion for them, that their thought processes are simply so extraordinarily swift that they can make more calculations and adjustments than the rest of us within the same time frame, footballing equivalents of Sherlock Holmes if you like. Cruyff could stretch those seconds to breaking point, beyond anything that even Einstein could have envisaged, and he made them count for the better part of a decade.
CRUYFF AT AJAX
Whatever the gifts of Rinus Michels as a coach at Ajax, it was Cruyff that made the men from Amsterdam the greatest in Europe over a three year spell when they controlled the European Cup. Not only did they win it three times in a row, they devastated the rest of the continent, playing football that nobody knew how to counter, simply because nobody knew how to keep tabs on players who could pop up here, there and everywhere.
The right-back might be playing on the left wing, your central midfielder could appear at centre-half. It looked a little like chaos theory in action, but it was well thought out, deeply intelligent. It relied on players sympathetic to one another and to the needs of the team. Above all, it relied on a conductor.
Cruyff was that man, orchestrating the team, focusing it, guiding it, releasing it at times, gathering it back in at others. It all flowed from him, and that was no small achievement in a team of such towering talent and even greater ego. There were rows and ructions, but in the end, the respect that Cruyff could command was complete and the players ultimately default to him. His was the love supreme, improvising like Coltrane, finding shafts of visionary harmony within the dissonance, defying all rational thought to produce moments that changed games, defined seasons, live forever.
CRUYFF AT THE WORLD CUP
It was the same within the Dutch national side, an even greater achievement given the even more impressive and combustible nature of the individuals who made up that team. Though West Germany won the 1974 World Cup, nearly 40 years later it is still the Cruyff turn that we cling to, still the goals that he scored and created, the games that he dictated. That is what echoes down the ages, but when a visionary walks the earth, it is not simply in their own words and actions that they survive.
If you want to know what Cruyff brought to football, you can see it now. Simply watch Barcelona, watch their approach, the way their philosophy plays itself out on the playing fields of the world. Watch their movement, their expression, their thought processes, their technique their attitude. Look at the DNA of that football club. It was stamped upon them by Cruyff and carried through by his protégé Pep Guardiola. Barcelona today play the Cruyff way. Could any man ask for a greater monument to his talent?