22 men running around on a rectangular pitch, trying to slot an air-filled sphere inside a structure of three metal sticks — football, the game we all love and admire, was meant to be a simple sport.
Yet, it took many visionaries, countless remodels, and years and years of perseverance to make the sport “simple.”
Throughout history, many exceptional characters — coaches and players — have pitched in to make the sport what it is today.
They faced criticism and judgement for veering off course. Still, they prevailed, gifting their doubters with new beliefs and systems. It took time for the world to acknowledge their greatness, but the moment they did, there was no turning back.
Johan Cruyff — the legend in focus, today — is one such outcast. He, too, faced an abundance of challenges during his playing and managerial days.
However, that didn’t stop him from reaching his apex, bringing the best out of his players and team-mates.
Johan Cruyff — The Player
Physically, Johan Cruyff, the footballer, was hardly the most intimidating on the pitch. He looked like a lanky Dutchman, always a rough challenge away from biting the dust.
In reality, he was one of the toughest players to touch, to bring down. His footballing intelligence, aided by Ajax coach Rinus Michels’ ‘Total Football’ philosophy, revolutionised European football during the 1960s and 70s.
He wasn’t a player you could push around. He was a figure to admire, a player who demanded respect even from his fiercest rivals.
Born two years after the conclusion of World War II, Johan Cruyff was very well accustomed to the ways of the world — nothing could be taken for granted, nothing was free.
His razor-sharp mind used to comprehend intricate concepts faster than anyone else, but that didn’t necessarily make him a role model. He was tardy, he cared little about rules, and he wasn’t too eager to inspire the up and comers.
It took Rinus Michels’ invaluable guidance to bring the best out of Cruyff. After taking charge in 1965, Michels implemented a system called ‘Total Football.’ This model demanded every player to play in any position at any time.
Johan Cruyff, who was intrigued by the prospect of playing a revamped brand of football, was quickly given the responsibility of spearheading the team.
His pace, acceleration, game-reading, and distribution made him an ideal candidate for the role. Michels put all his faith in the young Dutchman, and Cruyff was never meant to disappoint.
In the next five seasons, Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels helped Ajax to four league titles and a European Cup in 1970-71. Michels left in the second half of the 1971 campaign for Barcelona, but Cruyff extended his legacy in Amsterdam.
Following the European Cup win in 1970-71, Johan Cruyff led Ajax to two more European Cups in the next two years — a feat which was last achieved by the great Real Madrid side of the 1950s.
In mid-1973, Johan Cruyff joined his former coach Rinus Michels at Barcelona — a club he closely associated with. The Blaugrana hadn’t won a league title in 14 years and needed their recording signing to do what he did best — inspire.
In his first season in Catalonia, Cruyff led Barcelona to their first league title, beating fiercest rivals Real Madrid to the punch. The highest point of the season came when Barcelona ran circles around the defending champions at the Santiago Bernabeu, clinching a famous 5-0 win.
The people of Catalonia sprang out of their homes celebrating, chanting Barcelona’s famous anthem and Johan Cruyff’s heroics.
The summer of 1974 was arguably the most bittersweet period of Cruyff’s professional career. The pairing of Michels and Cruyff was paying dividends on the international level, inching the Netherlands closer and closer to the World Cup title.
After bagging five wins and a draw in six matches — scoring 14 goals and conceding a single goal — Johan Cruyff’s Netherlands met West Germany in the final of the World Cup.
Holland even managed to score the opening goal but the hosts came from a goal down to record a 2-1 win. Cruyff and Netherland played incredible football on but still couldn’t find it in themselves to mark the occasion with a well-deserved win.
Johan Cruyff the manager
Johan Cruyff kicked off his managerial spell at Ajax, of course, but it’s his heroics at Barcelona that made him a legend — an icon for all managers in the world.
Following the infamous “Hesperia Mutiny,” Barcelona president, Josep Lluis Nunez, appointed former player and budding manager Johan Cruyff as the new manager of the club for the 1988-89 campaign.
The manager, who had the opportunity to remodel Barcelona from the ground up, brought in a plethora of young, talented footballers — Pep Guardiola, Michael Laudrup, Romario, Gheorghe Hagi Hristo Stoichkov, Jose Mari Bakero, Txiki Begiristain, Andoni Goikoetxea, and Ronald Koeman — to take Spain by storm.
His favourite formation, 3-4-3 was implemented to perfection, and the risk, as many had dubbed it, brought instantaneous rewards.
He kicked off his Barcelona stint with the 1988-89 European Cup Winners’ Cup. Then bagged Copa del Rey in 1989-90. Followed it up with four La Liga titles in the next four years, three Spanish Super Cups, and one European Cup in 1991/92.
He also was the mastermind behind the most decorated youth academy on the planet — La Masia — which, to date, continues to create potential world-beaters.
To Ajax, Barcelona, and football lovers, Johan Cruyff is, was, and will always be a beaming testament of hope and rebellion. From the day he was born to the day he died, he continued to inspire, continued to make people think.
To him, football was a simple sport — a game where the team with the most possession comes out on top. He urged his teams and team-mates to be entertaining, urged them to set the bar for others to match.
He preferred nail-biting 5-4 wins over tactical 1-0 wins. He preferred to lead by example, instead of waiting for a moment of madness to set the tie.
Johan Cruyff sadly passed away in 2016, aged 68, but his legacy will remain forever.
The Ballon d’Or, FIFA Golden Ball, and Dutch Footballer of the year was the epitome of excellence, both as player and manager. Yet, his football never seemed too complex for the common mind, always remained within reach.
Underneath the glorious exterior, Johan Cruyff — the legend — was only a regular football fan. A common devotee, who wanted football to serve its one true purpose: bring joy to millions, friends and foes, alike.