There is hardly a figure in the entire history of football who has been more influential to the game than the Dutch maestro Johan Cruijff. Whether as a player or a coach, Cruijff’s mentality and approach have intrigued and sparked various ideas and concepts which have continued to define the world of football until this day. Considered to be the embodiment of RinusMichels’ Total Football, a very fluid style of play in which everyone on the pitch is expected to contribute to attacking and defensive responsibilities alike, he has molded the basis of what most teams dream of becoming: a confident, goal-scoring, winning machine.
Johan Cruijff was born on 25 April 1947 in Amsterdam, in a street just five minutes away from the famous AFC Ajax stadium, his first football club ever. As one of his childhood friends put it: “He would have breakfast with a ball between his feet. He would play outside bouncing it off every wall there was. He was dead serious and always bossy, even though we were just playing.”Cruijff signed up for Ajax’s youth team and his immense quality enabled him a breakthrough into the first team at the age of 17.
His mentality remained unchanged, which proved problematic with some of his teammates and the coach – Rinus Michels. Johan made a habit out of telling others how to play off the ball, how to pass, whether to press or fall back. His tactical vision, even as a player, proved to be his signature attribute time and time again. Ajax chairman Uri Colonel once said it was what made him a “God on Earth”, but others weren’t so convinced at the time. When Michels caught Cruijff smoking near the training grounds, he made him show up for training at 6 am the next morning, even though it was snowing. The next day, he cancelled the session and simply exclaimed it was too cold and early, and that he should probably go home – an important lesson in understanding egos and asserting authority for young Johan.
The two did establish a formidable partnership in the following years, as Cruijff developed his talents further and further. He became an unstoppable dribbler, using his acceleration to baffle opposing defenders as he rushed through their lines and his perfectly timed passes to create chances. His primary position was either forward or attacking midfielder, but his teammates claimed he could have played anywhere on the pitch if he had wanted to. Even the way Johan ran was quite different from everyone else – as if he were strutting, he would hold his chin up high and seemingly stop, not knowing where to go with the ball. “This was just a trick, of course”, explained former Swedish international Jan Olsson, the first recorded victim of the famous Cruijff turn. “He would make you think you had a chance and zip right by you. The moves he had were brand new. It was an honor to be outwitted by him”.
Cruijff would go on to win six league titles and three European cups with Ajax (’71,’72,’73) between 1965 and 1973. After that, he was sold to Barcelona for a record 6 million guilders (or 922,000 pounds today) – a fee so unusually high at the time, it caused legal difficulties with the transfer. Barcelona found themselves in a desperate situation, as they had previously been without a title for 14 years – Cruijff was supposed to be their savior. Even though he was a heavy smoker and dubbed “too skinny and soft” by some disgruntled fans, he played a key role in his debut season, as Barça were crowned champions, beating rivals Real Madrid 5-0 at Santiago Bernabeu along the way. The Catalans became so enchanted by the Dutchman, they would chant his name in the streets for days, waiting for the opportunity to greet him in one of his characteristic walks through the city center. He reciprocated these feelings by naming his son after the patron saint of Catalonia – Jordi.
Football in the Netherlands had reached its zenith by the 1974 World Cup, and the national squad made it to the Final, after showcasing an innovative and dazzling style of play. Cruijff helped his team take the lead against hosts West Germany by securing a penalty in the very first minute, without even allowing the opponents to take possession. The Germans eventually managed to turn things around and win the Cup – an event almost considered a national tragedy for the Dutch. The Netherlands 1974 squad have on more than one occasion since been labelled the best team never to win a WC. In ‘78, Cruijff would not take part in the tournament in Argentina, due to a kidnapping attempt on his family – an event which ushered in the era of heightened security, bodyguards and a growing distance between football fans and players.
As a coach, Cruijff integrated his ideas into a diamond formation of his own. His philosophy, primarily based on attacking maneuvers, uses the width of the pitch to wear out even the most determined and aggressive of defenders. He preferred a 4-1-2-3 line-up with two wingers taking over the roles of inside forwards and one central striker or attacking midfielder. He would also employ a backline consisting of three defenders, with a roaming defensive midfielder in near them to prevent opposition counter-attacks in time. The famous Barça tiki-taka was inspired by Cruijff. During his time managing the club, Pep Guardiola was quoted saying: “Johan built the cathedral, all we are doing is keeping it up”. Pep was also a player under Cruijff between 1990 and 1996. Blaugrana legend Xavi, too, acknowledged the Dutchman’s influence: “The rondos and short passing, the triangles between the players, the nummerical advantage we have when going forward and pressing, it was all Cruijff’s idea”.
Although his club coaching career lasted only 11 years (’85-’96), Cruijff won 14 trophies with Ajax and Barcelona, most notably the European Cup in 1991/92 – with the famous Barça “dream team”, featuring players such as Romário, Laudrup, Stoichkov and Ronald Koeman. As 11Freunde journalist David Winner points out, Arrigo Sacchi used Cruijff’s training methods to lead his Milan side to consecutive European Cup victories in ’89 and ’90, with Ajax academy prodigies Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard as key players. Spain’s international success in 2008, 2010 and 2012 is also ascribed to Johan’s understanding of what a successful squad should be able to do, as is Barcelona’s Champions League dominance of 2009 and 2011.
His psychological approach to the game, which nurtures the egos of the most skilled players and occasional individualistic solutions, has caused him to clash with some of his colleagues, though. The most notable example is his relationship with Manchester United manager and fellow countryman Louis van Gaal – the two can’t stand each other, even though Van Gaal implemented many of Cruijff’s ideas in his 1995 Champions League winning Ajax side. Johan Cruijff likes for some of his players to stand out and take the lead – his “adversary” requires equality and discipline among squad members at all times.
Differences in opinion aside, revolutionary ideas about playing and coaching, technique which made unforgettable goals possible and a self-assured attitude – this is what J.C. is known for today. In 1991, he had to quit smoking and undergo heart surgery – probably the only time he didn’t get his way.
He may not be a “God on Earth” in the literal sense of the word, but his legacy dives deep into almost every system applied in football today – in this way, he truly is immortal.