Never perhaps in the history of sport was so much owed by so many to one man. Johan Cruyff, the “Flying Dutchman” who died in Barcelona on Thursday at 68, changed football in more ways than imaginable for an individual. He did so as both player and coach, a feat proven near-impossible for everybody else.
By the time the Netherlands, “the best team never to have won the World Cup”, lost the legendary 1974 final to West Germany, Cruyff was already playing for Barcelona, to the loss of Ajax who wouldn’t win the European Cup for another 22 years, and to Camp Nou’s gain, as he won Barcelona their first Liga title in 14 years, ending the undisputed reign of regime-favoured Real Madrid. FC Barcelona, the powerhouse as we know it today, was built by Cruyff as coach in the 1990s.
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The Dutchman’s main legacy remains Total Football — the footballing philosophy that held any outfield player was just as good in any position. Under Cruyff and coach Rinus Michels, Oranje entertained their way to the 1974 final, where Johan Neesken’s penalty gave them an early lead and the Dutch thought, like Ferenc Puskás’ Hungary in 1954, that they were home and dry — a costly error that couldn’t be committed against the Germans. Franz Beckenbauer and Sepp Maier punished the spectacular Dutch, proving that discipline and application mattered as much as skill and entertainment. Cruyff never played a World Cup again, but by then his balletic “Cruyff Turn” had been copied across continents.
Cruyff was the epitome of individualism and originality that re-imagined the way football was played, but without breaking the collective system called the team. Always outspoken, he quipped once that his decision to join Barcelona in 1973 and not Real Madrid was because of his aversion to the Franco regime. Always controversial in public, the man Rudolph Nureyev said should have been a dancer, was a pillar of stability for his family. Johan, after all, always saw the ball.