Johan Cruyff, the man who breathed life into football and made the game what it is, has, as you probably have heard by now, passed away last Saturday, March 24th. His contribution and effect on the game has generated so many adjectives and adverbs since his departure from the world of us mere mortals that the words themselves have lost their meanings in sufficiently comprehending the man’s greatness.
Therefore, it might well be that we need to take an outsider’s perspective into his life to fully understand the way he changed football forever. Cruyff first began his playing career in the youth development program of Ajax, the club which was basically as close to his home as a sock is to our skin. Ajax soon began to take notice of the new wonder kid, who did things with the ball that nobody ever thought of before, and in a good sense. Not like scooping up the ball with the underneath of your shirt and sticking it against your stomach and running with it. Though that’s totally cool.
To extend our understanding of the sort of connection that Cruyff had with his boyhood club, we must take into account that his father worked there as an employee, and when he died two years after Cruyff joined the youth division at the club at the age of 10, his mother also started working for Ajax. This club was essentially Cruyff’s ‘second home’.
Unlike many of his comrades, Cruyff was not the shy-away kid. He was the vocal leader on and off the pitch from a young age. Many of his fellow teammates down the years have acclaimed his natural ability to lead, and combined with his tactical ingenuity, it was the perfect recipe for destruction comparable to the effect of a nuclear bomb, capable of destroying anyone to smithereens upon correct execution of the process. The way the U.S. is handling its bombs though, makes this analogy a complete joke.
Cruyff made his senior team debut at the age of 17 in 1964. Ajax was a team on the rise to attain European glory then, lead by the revolutionary footballing preacher Rinus Michels’ ideas of “Total Football”. His abilities proved to be a perfect match for Michels’ plan as Cruyff could essentially rotate and switch with others from his nominal position as a centre-forward. His intelligence and speed were the two traits that stood out the most in his game. Thriving wherever he was positioned, he led Ajax to six Eredivisie titles between 1966 and ’74, as well as two European Cups, aka the Champions League.
His meteoric rise saw him named the Ballon d’Or winner and became the first ever Dutch player to embody this honor. In the immediate aftermath, Cruyff was transferred to Barcelona the following season for a record $2 million at the time. He did not take long to impress his new fans.
Most impressive was his performance against archrivals Real Madrid, which Barcelona won by a ridiculous margin of 5 goals to nil. It was the statement game that year, as Barça comfortably won the league title, and Cruyff was named the Ballon d’Or winner once again. And again the following year.
Apart from club football, Cruyff did not play for the Netherlands as often as you would think, for various reasons. His only major appearance for the Netherlands was in the ’74 World Cup, in which they went all the way to the final as favorites to win the entire tournament, but then lost to West German by 2 goals to 1, arguably for being too overconfident about themselves.
Did you know? Leicester was very close to signing Cruyff when he was 33 years of age.
Cruyff’s coaching career was an epitome of his playing career, as despite lacking formal coaching qualifications, he managed Ajax and led them to two Dutch Cups, as well as the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 3 years.
Following in the footsteps of himself as a player, he then moved to Barcelona once more to manage the senior team in 1988. This resulted in arguably the most successful 5 year stretch ever in club football’s history. Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ won 4 La Liga titles, 3 Super Cups, 1 European Cup, and a Copa del Rey.
His managerial era laid the field for how Barcelona played during the next decade and continue to play to this day. How he managed to engineer his ideas and execute them with such precision whether it be as a player or as a manager, we will probably never understand, for if he wanted us to understand it, he would’ve “explained it better”.