Pele and Maradona are universally recognised as the two greatest players to have played the beautiful game. A third, sandwiched between the eras of these two, did not need those sort of subjective labels bestowed upon him. Johan Cruyff, thanks to the way he played and wanted the game to be played, existed on another, possibly higher, plane.
Gary Linekar’s tribute on Twitter following his death in 2016 is the most accurate description of the Dutchman’s contribution to the sport. “Football has lost a man who did more to make the beautiful game beautiful than anyone in history.” Someone who believed in the ideals of the left (he famously said he couldn’t play for Real Madrid because they were the club of General Franco), Cruyff, in the company of Rinus Michels, Johan Neeskens and Velibor Vasovic, brought about one of the game’s first modern transformations. ‘Totaalvoetbal’.
Total Football. Far worthier keyboards have captured its essence and the best explanation is the one put forth by David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football. “Michels (coach), provided the drive, professionalism and organisational nous. The veteran Yugoslav defender Vasovic taught the callow Dutch kids how to fight and win. The doctrine of high pressing derived from Neeskens’ habit of chasing opponents deep into their own half. (...). Cruyff was the essential genius behind the operation.”
Using these principles, Ajax won three straight European titles from 1971 to 1973. That team, with Cruyff as orchestrator, had not only changed the goalposts, they were also playing a different game compared to the rest of the world. Correlation does not imply causation but in this case it very much did, as the Oranje, a middling team who had only played two of the first nine World Cups, reached the 1974 edition as favourites.
Their qualification record read: P: 6, W: 4, D: 2, GF: 24, GA: 2. If that was dominant, their 2-0 win over Brazil in the second stage in West Germany took the breath away. Neeskens and Cruyff, who both scored in that match, condemned the Selecao to their first World Cup defeat in eight years. In the final, Neeskens scored within two minutes but the hosts battled back to snatch the crown. The Dutch, sans Cruyff, who did not travel to Argentina in 1978 following his family being the subject of an attempted kidnapping, again lost in the final but without the artistic brilliance that was on display in Germany. However, Cruyff, who even has a move named after him after introducing it to the world at the 1974 World Cup, shouldn’t be judged because of a lack of medals for Netherlands.
Medals corrode. Cruyff ’s principles will stand the test of time. He took it to Barcelona and made them into a world superpower. As a consequence, the Spanish football team went on to become world beaters in the 21st century. He was also faithful to what he believed in till the end. After watching Netherlands lose 0-1 to Spain in the 2010 final, he attacked the motherland like only he could. “Anti-football,” he called them.