Hendrik Johannes ‘Johan’ Cruijff died of lung cancer on the 24th March aged 68. To football fans in his home nation of the Netherlands, Cruyff (anglicised spelling of Cruijff) was the greatest footballer ever and many non-Dutch fans would agree. He was one of the most gifted players to ever play football and through his years in management and his personal philosophies, Cruyff is almost solely responsible for how football is now played.
While most students at the University of Exeter are too young to have seen Cruyff play, those who had the chance to witness him describe a player who was both a technician and a tactician; a man who played with both relentless energy and effortless grace; a footballing genius. Cruyff was the kind of player who only steps on to a football pitch once in a generation. He won three Ballon d’Ors – in 1971, 1973 and 1974 – demonstrating his individual brilliance.
a player who was both a technician and a tactician; a man who played with both relentless energy and effortless grace; a footballing genius.
With Ajax, he won five league titles and dominated Europe from 1971 to 1973. This success was built on the innovative new playing style implemented by Rinus Michels and Cruyff; totaalvoetbal (Total Football) and it was the rise of Total Football that led to both Ajax and the Netherlands becoming a leading force in world football. Cruyff’s success continued following his move to Barcelona in 1973. In his first year there, the Catalonians won their first domestic title in fourteen years, as well as defeating arch-rivals Real Madrid 5-0. The one mark against Cruyff’s playing career is the failure of his Dutch national team to win the World Cup despite the dominance of Total Football, with their most notable loss coming against West Germany in the 1974 final.
However, if Cruyff was simply a great player then it would be impossible to distinguish him from other greats such as Pele and Maradona. What truly set him and his legacy apart amongst the pantheon of footballing gods was his managerial and philosophical mind. Cruyff began his managerial career at Ajax in 1985, winning the Dutch Cup in both 1986 and 1987 as well as the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1987. This was followed by greater managerial success at Barcelona as he built the Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ of the ’90s, winning the 1990 Copa del Rey, the 1992 European Cup and four straight Spanish league titles from 1991 to 1994. The level of success enjoyed by Cruyff’s Barcelona caused the rest of the Spanish football to sit up and take note. La Liga’s movement to Total Football is the moment that Cruyff’s footballing legacy truly begins.
What truly set Cruyff and his legacy apart amongst the pantheon of footballing gods was his managerial and philosophical mind.
A dramatic shift in the footballing culture and style occurred throughout Spain as teams attempted to replicate Barcelona’s Total Football in both their first teams and their youth academies. This attitude towards developing youth to play Cruyff’s vision of football has been epitomised by no team more than the Barcelona of 2008. Managed by Guardiola, who himself is a devout disciple of Cruyff (‘Cruyff built the cathedral; our job is to maintain it.’), the Barcelona team was built with players from Barcelona’s own academy, La Maisa, throughout: Puyol, Pique, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Xavi and Messi. There can be no doubting both the
quality of this Barcelona team nor the influence of Cruyff upon it. One simply needs to look upon their trademark tiki-taka style of play, one of suffocating possession, to see the fingerprints of Cruyff, the man who stated that ‘There is only one ball, so you need to have it.’
This Barcelona team formed the spine of the Spanish national team that won the 2008 and the 2012 European Championship as well as the 2010 World Cup. This success is undeniably down to the work of Cruyff twenty years earlier. However, his influence is not limited to Spain as, following their disappointing performances at the 2000 and the 2004 European Championships, the German national team adopted the principles of Cruyff. They are now the World Champions. Premier League teams are also beginning to adopt his stylings, as evidenced by the skill set of young players emerging from the English youth systems such as Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley and John Stones. Cruyff’s influence on the modern game of football is so strong that every elite level manager, with the exception of José Mourinho, has based their footballing philosophies on those of Cruyff and Total Football.
The legend of Johan Cruyff extends far beyond his status as one of the greatest players of all time as it is his influence as both player and footballing philosopher that will leave the largest legacy. But what should be taken most from Johan Cruyff’s life and teachings is that football is best when it is ‘the beautiful game’.
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