Johan Cruyff was an artist who used the football pitch as his canvas. It was an honour to witness such beauty being displayed and he was undeniably one of the most gifted players, managers and characters in the history of football.
Cruyff became the first ever player to win three FIFA Ballon D’Or awards in 1974. The Dutchman was the greatest player of his generation, along with Franz Beckenbauer, and won a grand total of twenty-one major honours during his playing career.
He was the perfect advocate for ‘Total Football’, which ruled the 1970s with the success of Ajax and the Dutch National Team. Cruyff was firmly at the heart of both success stories, and played a leading role as captain in Ajax’s three consecutive European Cup triumphs and the 1974 FIFA World Cup for Holland.
The Dutchman orchestrated some of the most beautiful football ever witnessed with his ability to combine with teammates, freely dribble beyond his opponents and instinctively react in specific scenarios to guarantee the best possible outcome.
He also had a sense of authority wherever we ventured in the world, as he demonstrated in his spell at FC Barcelona. Cruyff was never an individual to continue a project that lacked vision and he opted for a move away from his beloved Ajax after winning his third European Cup in 1973.
His transfer to Catalonia made him the world’s most expensive player, but such pressure failed to trouble Cruyff. He established himself immediately and enjoyed various famous moments in his new home at the Camp Nou. Wherever Cruyff went, success was usually set to follow and he concluded his career with 368 goals in 661 appearances in all competitions.
Cruyff was unable to disconnect himself from football and utilized his tactical nous and leading qualities in the new world of management. His early career in management reunited him with his hometown club Ajax, and it was initially a success story until issues behind the scenes created a rift between Cruyff and the club.
Johan Cruyff applied a revolutionary brand of football in his next managerial spell in Spain at FC Barcelona. He transformed the future of the club with his passing system and enjoyed the most successful period of his managerial career. He marked his name in FC Barcelona folklore by becoming their first manager to win the European Cup in 1992 and win four consecutive Spanish La Liga titles.
Again, his spell ended sourly, but he’s also been credited for helping shape the next successful chapter at the Camp Nou during the 2000s. The ‘tiki-taka’ brand of football played under Rijkaard and Guardiola was inspired by Cruyff’s vision and he worked closely with club president Joan Laporta to ensure that future plans were executed to perfection.
It’s approaching two years since the tragic death of the famous Johan Cruyff, but the Dutchman’s legacy in football will never cease and his brand of football remains ever present at a variety of well-established clubs in Europe.
Johan Cruyff was born into a working class environment in Amsterdam, based just minutes away from Ajax’s stadium the De Meer Stadion. He was introduced by his footballing-enthused father, who was an avid supporter of local club AFC Ajax.
He was influenced by two footballers during his childhood in the shape of Dutch winger Faas Wilkes, who was renowned for his dribbling qualities, and Real Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stefano, who had a great understanding of utilizing space on the pitch.
Cruyff suffered a majorly traumatic experience during his childhood when his father tragically died of a heart attack when he was aged just 12. He’d regularly visit his father’s burial site, especially to ask for advice on key decisions during his teenage years, and instilled a strong-willed attitude within himself to inspire him to pursue a footballing career.
His mother opted not to resume her grocery store without her husband, and instead became a cleaner at the De Meer Stadion, which furthered Johan’s connection with the club. Later, she also married a close family friend, who also worked as a groundsman at Ajax, by the name of Henk Angel.
I’m not a person with college degrees. Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned through experience. After I lost my father at the age of twelve, my life was defined by Ajax. First by my second father, who was the club’s groundsman, and later by my trainers Jany van der Veen and Rinus Michels. Thanks to Ajax, I didn’t just learn to be a better footballer, I learned how to behave. Johan Cruyff (My Turn)
Johan described “Uncle Henk” as a second father and had known him from the age of five. Henk had a huge influence on him, and increased his passion for Ajax. Cruyff joined Ajax’s academy system at 10-years-old, but was already familiar to his surroundings due to his strong connections with the club.
Ajax had played a major role in his upbringing but success was far from guaranteed for the talented boy from Amsterdam. In his first season, Ajax recorded their lowest ever finish in the Dutch Eredivisie with an underwhelming ranking of 13th place.
He described the transition from youth level to senior level as natural due to his familiarity with the players in the first team. This accelerated his development but he was always determined to become better and better, which is exactly the philosophy which contributed to his high level of success with Ajax, FC Barcelona and Holland.
Cruyff enjoyed a glistening career, which spanned over twenty years, and took him from Holland to Spain and also the United States. He gained different experiences which would help him in his future role as manager of Ajax and FC Barcelona, but he still remained faithful to his true beliefs of never dwelling on the past unless it was to learn from past mistakes. By not dwelling on his past achievements, this enabled him to have fixed concentration on his future goals, and continue with his philosophy of always aiming to improve.
When thinking of verbs to describe Johan Cruyff, the words innovative, instinctive and unorthodox immediately spring to mind. His ability to surprise his opponents with an unthinkable movement or action was consistently witnessed by his adoring supporters, which made him such a unique and iconic talent.
Cruyff credits the “streets” for his instinctive nature, as he grew up playing on a concrete surface in the streets of Amsterdam. There was where he practiced his trade as a child, using kerbs to improve his ball control, the bobbly surface to perfect his technical ability and developed his philosophy of turning a “disadvantage into an advantage.”
For example, the “phantom goal” against Atletico Madrid, was purely an instinctive action which required his brain to coordinate perfectly with his body. His heading ability was far less superior than his ability with his feet, which is why he opted to flick the ball beyond the goalkeeper with an iconic hovering volley at the back post.
The Dutchman also revived his playing career after briefly retiring at the age of 31-years-old in the United States, whereas other players at the time opted for a move to a less high-profile club in Europe. He gained valuable experience in America, including the difference in the structure behind the scenes at a sports club and a contrasting culture. It proved to be a new lease of life, after he nearly left himself bankrupt with an outrageous business investment on a pig’s farm. This is evidence that his unorthodox style wasn’t always a blessing, although it had a positive impact overall during his playing and managerial career.
Cruyff continued to think ahead of his time, when others initially perceived his ideas as near insanity. At Ajax, he employed the first goalkeeping coach in Holland, who was responsible for developing and nurturing all the goalkeepers at the club from youth level to senior level. This is a common role at any professional football club in modern football, but it was extremely uncommon when Cruyff implemented it in the 1980s.
He also suggested using Len del Ferro, an opera singer who specialised in breathing techniques, to help the players get the maximum return on every inhalation and exhalation. Cruyff also brought in a reflexologist to introduce something new at FC Barcelona. He obsessed over improving the finer details, the extra 1 or 2% that required improvement. His wacky and initially insane ideas have now inspired numerous managers to employ all types of tactics to gain an extra advantage over the opponent.
Despite being an outfield player for his entire professional career, he also transformed the role of a goalkeeper. Stanley Menzo became one of the first goalkeepers in Holland to known as a ‘sweeper keeper’. He was equally as impressed with his feet as he was with his hands and this befitted the vision of Cruyff, who believed the goalkeeper should be the first line of attack.
Johan Cruyff was the instigator of change and he utilized his leadership skills perfectly on and off the field to revolutionise the game of football. Geniuses tend to be complex characters and Cruyff was one of the most unique, commanding and unorthodox characters in the history of the game.
He was a born leader. He understood the value of responsibility due to his upbringing in a working class environment, the early death of his father and his experiences during his childhood at Ajax. The iconic Dutchman was still even washing his own football kit and boots during the early years of his Ajax career, but he felt it was important to accept responsibility for your own belongings.
Cruyff was willing to learn from a very young age and subconsciously absorbed the information and advice he’d received from his mentors Jany Van Der Veen and later Rinus Michels. By the age of 20-years-old, Cruyff understood the philosophy, tactics and system being played by the club, which made him the perfect candidate to become the captain of Ajax.
The Dutchman flourished in his leading role, and was capable of organizing and instructing his fellow teammates on the pitch. He replicated these characteristics when he captained the Dutch National Team in the 1974 World Cup, and despite failing to win the competition, Holland were remembered fondly for their ground-breaking ‘Total Football’.
Unfortunately his first spell at Ajax ended sourly when his authority and importance was undermined following the club’s decision to strip him of his captaincy. It proved the final straw, but his then world record move to FC Barcelona, allowed him to become the most important figure at a club once again.
Cruyff would also have the same impact off-the-field as a coach than he had on-the-field as a player. He appointed specialists in specific areas to improve the finer details, implemented an effective brand of football and effectively rebranded the style of football being played in Spain.
He acted as a pioneer for many players who would follow with the likes of Lionel Messi, Mohamed Salah and Ryan Giggs baring many similarities to the legendary Dutchman. His contributions to the game has had a longstanding impact on modern football, and he’ll always be remembered fondly as one of the most revolutionary characters ever to be involved in football.
Very few who enjoy success during their playing career, ever replicate a similar level of success at managerial level, but Johan Cruyff is an extraordinary exception. His ability to lead and break boundaries meant management would be the next logical step in his career.
The legacy and the mark he’s left on football is permanent, and is also a testament to a man who spent the majority of his life encaptivated and besotted by football. His footballing mind was unlike any other, and he’s rightfully ranked as one of the best players in history. Many rarely remember the runners-up in a FIFA World Cup Final, but everyone remembers the unique style of ‘Total Football’ played by the Netherlands in 1974, and Cruyff was the catalyst.
He’s created the Cruyff Foundation, revolutionised the brand of football not just at FC Barcelona but the Spanish National Team and also had the Amsterdam Arena named after him as the ‘Johan Cruyff Arena’ in October 2017. Spectators were left awestruck by his adventurous solo runs, emphasis on teamwork, ability to innovate by utilizing his unorthodox footballing brain and his desire to win. He will forever remain a national treasure, and his legacy in football will also never dissolve.