Remembering the Icon That Was Johan Cruyff on What Would Have Been His 70th Birthday

Jamie Spencer
90Min

​ The world lost a football icon on 24th March 2016. After a battle with cancer, Dutch master Johan Cruyff passed away in his adopted home city of Barcelona. As the football community mourned the death of a true legend of the sport, Cruyff was cremated that same day at a private ceremony attended only his immediate family.


Today, 25th April 2017, would have been Cruyff's 70th birthday.

Like so few others in the history of our sport - Pele, Diego Maradona, maybe Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the future - Cruyff's iconic status spans multiple generations. A pioneer.

As a player, he put Ajax on the European map in a country where football had only been professional for 10 years by the time he made his senior debut in 1964. Together with legendary head coach Rinus Michels he was at the centre of the Total Football revolution, a system that would bring three consecutive European Cups to Amsterdam in the early 1970s and later charm the global stage as the Netherlands became arguably the greatest team never to win the World Cup in 1974.

It was a fluid and artistic way of playing football that broke from the previous dominance of defensive strategy like Italian Catenaccio. It drew influence from the Magical Magyar generation of Ferenc Puskas in Hungary in the 1950s, but the Dutch took it to a new level.

Dutch midfielder Johann Cruyff dribbles past Argen

Total Football is the principle by which any outfield player can take on the role of any other in the team at any given moment, such was the technical skill and ability that coursed through the Ajax and Dutch squads at that time. It was never more clear than when Cruyff received the ball in the centre-half position early in the 1974 World Cup final against West Germany before embarking on a driving run forward that resulted in a penalty before the Germans had even touched the ball.

Johan Neeskens converted the subsequent spot kick, but Germany eventually prevailed 2-1.

Earlier in that tournament Cruyff had stunned the world when he subjected Swedish defender Jan Olsson to the embarrassment of the 'Cruyff Turn', a trick so simple it is now the bread and butter of young boys and girls the world over, but had hardly ever been seen back then.


Cruyff

A year prior to that World Cup, Cruyff had made the club football switch from his native Netherlands to Spain with mentor Michels when Barcelona made him the most expensive player in history - a fee the equivalent of around $2m.

In his very first season as an adopted Catalan, Cruyff helped Barça to a first La Liga title since 1960 and was part of a team that destroyed Real Madrid 5-0 in the Bernabeu. Spain was still under the control of the infamously anti-Catalan dictator General Franco at the time and it was the ultimate show of defiance, especially as Cruyff was believed to have snubbed Real to move to Camp Nou, citing problems of playing for a club so closely linked to the fascist regime.

His son Jordi, who would later play for the club himself, was born during that first Barcelona season. Cruyff chose a typically Catalan name after San Jordi - known as Saint George to those in England - with the red cross on a white background a prominent symbol in Catalan and Barcelona history.


Cruyff Ballon d'or

Cruyff was presented with his third Ballon d'Or in 1974, a record at the time. Only a further Copa del Rey trophy followed in terms of silverware before he departed for the United States and the booming North American Soccer League (NASL), but his Barça legacy would be cemented upon his return to the club as head coach in 1988.


In the intervening years, Cruyff had almost signed with Leicester City in England, returned to play with Ajax and then joined hated rivals Feyenoord to spite his boyhood club after they declined to keep him on for another season. Cruyff was 36 years of age at the time but still led Feyenoord to the Eredivisie title in his only campaign.

Such a move was typical of a stubborn Cruyff who was always his own person. He famously only wore two stripes on his sleeves at the 1974 World Cup because he refused to endorse kit supplier Adidas over his own personal sponsorship with rival Puma. Meanwhile, the story of his iconic number 14 shirt at a time when players wore 1-11 came about when he gave his usual number nine to an Ajax team-mate who couldn't find his own shirt and took an extra one out of a nearby bag. He continued to wear it in later games because authorities told him he couldn't.

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Cruyff had already started a management career at Ajax in 1985, but his greatest coaching achievements came when he returned to Spain. It was his 'Dream Team' that gave Barcelona their long overdue maiden European Cup triumph in 1992, while at home the club was crowned La Liga champions four seasons in a row in the early 1990s.

The 'Dream Team' was filled with graduates from Barça's La Masia academy, players schooled not only in superb technique, but tactics and an understanding of how to play that was recreated at every single age group. The tiki-taka that Barcelona have spread throughout the world over the last decade is an evolvement of Total Football that Cruyff pioneered and owes itself to La Masia.

And as the visionary he was, Cruyff was responsible after first proposing the idea of such an in-house academy to club president Josep Núñez in 1979, a copy of the successful Ajax system he knew so well. By 1992 it was coming to fruition when players like Pep Guardiola were emerging.

Josep Guardiola

So when Barcelona won the Champions League in 2011, humbling Manchester United at Wembley, the starting XI featured as many as seven La Masia schooled players and a further three on the bench. In Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, that number included some of the greatest of all time, with many of others like Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets considered to be among the very best of their generation.

As a player, a coach, and a personality, Johan Cruyff was a pioneer and a visionary. He was a man who has had more impact on modern football than any other and is a true legend that may now be gone but will never ever be forgotten.

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