Football great Johan Cruijff today died at age 68 after a battle with lung cancer. Cruijff was probably one of the most famous Dutchmen and definitely the most well-known Dutch football player: wherever in the world I have been over the past 30-odd years, the name Cruijff was always a foolproof topic to strike up a conversation.
Cruijff was the first “modern” football player, an athlete who revolutionised the game in more than one way. He was a visionary and master of football tactics. He introduced, together with coach Rinus Michels, the concept of “total football” at Ajax Amsterdam and later as captain of the Dutch national team during the World Cup in Germany in 1974. (The first of three World Cup finals the Netherlands played, and lost, during my lifetime.) He helped Ajax win three European Cups in a row from 1971-1973.
Total football, with players passing the ball frequently to seek advantage, and switch positions seamlessly to adjust to the flow of play, electrified and influenced the game worldwide. This possession-based playing style Cruijff promoted, with an emphasis on relentless attack, has been widely copied since.
After his successes with Ajax he moved to FC Barcelona mid-season in 1973 and led the Catalan team to its first national title in 14 years. Most memorable was the 5-0 win at arch-rival Real Madrid, a team that was heavily supported by Franco’s dictatorship. Some Catalans still refer to Cruijff as “El Salvador,” the saviour.
Johan Cruijff revolutionised and professionalised the game in other ways too. The transfer fee FC Barcelona paid to Ajax (US$14 million in today’s dollars) was unheard of at the time and considered a milestone in the commercialization of sport. He was also one of the first football players to take on corporate sponsorships. For the 1974 World Cup the Dutch football federation had signed a sponsorship with sports brand Adidas whereas Cruijff had his own deal with rival Puma. He refused to wear the team’s official jersey and ended up playing in a custom-made shirt, and shorts, bearing only two stripes on the sleeves instead of Adidas’s famed three.
Cruijff’s virtuosity won him many accolades: he was awarded the European Footballer of the Year trophy in 1971, 1973 and 1974. And was named Europe’s best player of the 20th century in 1999. As coach of Ajax and Barcelona, with whom he won four Spanish titles, he won his fourth European club title.
Unfortunately I was too young to have seen Johan Cruijff play during his glory days at Ajax and Barcelona in the 1970s. My first memory of hearing his name was during the World Cup in Argentina in 1978, an event Cruijff had decided to boycott for reasons that are still not fully known. That there were frictions with other players on the national team was no secret; Cruijff has always been known for being dominant, stubborn, uncompromising and forceful. Another reason given at the time was that he opposed the military dictatorship in Argentina, which, a few years later, made him stand out for me among the mostly apolitical football players.
The first time I saw Cruijff play was on 6 December 1981, when, at age 34, he made his comeback at Ajax after his tenure in Barcelona and an interlude playing for the Los Angeles Aztecs and Washington Diplomats in the United States. He scored an absolutely magical goal, concluding a rush past several defenders with a subtle lob over the goalkeeper from the tip of the penalty box. For several years my generation had the privilege to enjoy Cruijff’s superb game, until his retirement in 1984, which he crowned with both the national cup and championship playing for arch-rival Feyenoord Rotterdam. As a teenager I, and many of my friends, always tried to copy the so-called “Cruijff turn” – a technique he used for passing defenders by faking toward them, then flicking the ball behind his own other leg in the opposite direction and darting after it.
Cruijff was larger than life. He announced last October that he was suffering from lung cancer but continued to write his popular –and very influential in Dutch football– weekly column in De Telegraaf newspaper. Last month Cruijff said he was “2-0 up in the first half” of his battle against cancer. Cruijff was known for his creative use –some would say, abuse– of the Dutch language, commonly referred to as “Cruijffiaans.” “Every disadvantage has its advantage” and “You can’t win without the ball” are oft-quoted classics.
As former Dutch tennis player Raemon Sluiter aptly put it: “‘You have to have lived, otherwise you may not die’ he would probably have said. Rest in peace, Mr. Cruijff.”