If Rinus Michels and his men instigated the rise of ‘Total Football’, then surely Johan Cruijff was the total footballer. As complete a player as you will ever lay eyes on, Cruijff was a creature of sublime footballing beauty, ability and creativity, ghosting around the pitch when without the ball and floating past opposition defenders with a consummate ease and a panache that only he has ever mastered when with it. A footballer with an unprecedented and since unrivalled blend of passing ability and range, positional awareness, finishing ability and breath-taking close control and technique, he became the living embodiment of a footballing philosophy that would come to define a nation and an era.
On the 15th November 1964, a handful of dedicated AFC Ajax Amsterdam supporters would make the trek back from Groningen with a glimmer of hope in their hearts. They had witnessed the first moments of the fledgling career of the maverick that was and is the great Hendrik Johannes Cruijff. A 17 year old prodigy on the cusp of greatness would cross the white line for the first time that day as a boy and hear the final whistle as a man. He netted what proved to be a mere consolation in a 3-1 defeat to their northern opposition but it was plain for all to see Ajax were going places if they could harness his ability. They soon would.
Ajax would finish that campaign at their lowest ebb for a generation but a year on, under the new stewardship of visionary head coach Rinus Michels and with an invigorating brand of almost telepathic football being forged at De Meer, the Amsterdam side would be well on the way to their eleventh Eredivisie title. Michels’ masterstroke was to reintroduce and evolve a tactical system previously known as ‘Organised Disorder’ that was first utilised by the great Boris Arkadiev and his team three decades before.
The idea was that each player was technically and tactically able and aware enough to occupy any position on the pitch. Players would constantly rotate, making them virtually impossible to mark. Whereas Arkadiev perfected an early version of the back four during his time at the helm of Dinamo Moscow, Michels chose to set up his side in a fluid 3-4-3 formation not too dissimilar in initial shape to that which Wigan manager Roberto Martinez has used to great effect in cementing Wigan’s top-flight status in the last year or so on British shores. I should be careful, however, not to compare that great Ajax side too heavily to today’s pride of Lancashire – Michels’ creation was a system relying far more heavily on individual flair and footballing awareness.
For the tactic to truly work, quality personnel was essential in all areas of the pitch and Ajax finally starting to reap the rewards of their youth setup, of which Cruijff was the cream of the crop, coupled with some shrewd acquisitions, allowed Michels’ new-look Ajax to hit the ground running.
Cruijff was at the centre of it all. He was the pivot, the crux, the man who pulled all the strings. He could operate as anything or anyone from a false 9 to a metronomic presence in front of the defence if ever required to. He could use his stinging pace out wide and was as natural a finisher as the best centre-forwards of the day.
He truly epitomised the side that came to rely so heavily on him and it came to pass that six Eredivisies, four Dutch Cups and three consecutive European Cups after Cruijff’s debut, Ajax’s transformation was complete with Cruijff running the show throughout. He and Ajax were forever immortalised, even before the total footballer’s eventual move to Catalonia was ever even mooted.
Cruijff was more than just a footballer, though. He was a character – there was and has never been another Johan Cruijff in that or any respect. That’s probably for the best. A man with an opinion on anything and everything, Cruijff seemed to have an allure, a gravitas that transcended football. He had an irresistible knack of coming out with hilarious quotes and nuggets for journalists and fans alike to chew over. He could enchant thousands of people not only with his feet, but also with the conveyer belt of sound bites that was his mouth. Despite this, Cruijff never seemed to revel in the limelight. He was not a man of great education and his grasp on his mother tongue, although quirky, left much to be desired. He was not cut out for the media attention he garnered and he soon started to grate with football supporters in the Netherlands.
Often derided from the terraces as greedy during his time at Ajax and even overthrown as club captain by his own teammates there, the illusion of him as the perfect man faded as his football became more and more cultured. That is not to say that he was a wholly unpopular character, quite the opposite. He still had that unexplainable pull amongst his core supporters worldwide.
His international stock grew along with his brand and every time the world caught a glimpse of his talents on the international stage, the mystery and intrigue grew in every country. Cruijff grew to become a cult figure, his famous turn – amongst other things moves of his – now has its place in football folklore, and although memories of Cruijff the player slowly fade, the memories of Cruijff the man will never be forgotten.
Although it was Ajax that gave Cruijff his break, it was at Barcelona where he started to lay the foundations for his footballing legacy. Although he was unable to match his freakish Eredivisie goal scoring record in the famous colours of the Catalan giants, he grew to become a true legend of the game during his time there. A first and only La Liga players’ medal and a third Ballon d’Or in his first season immediately helped endear him to the Blaugranes faithful.
Reunited with Rinus Michels in 1976, Cruijff continued his excellent form. The two developed an almost symbiotic relationship over the course of many years. Cruijff was convinced Michels was the main contributor to his footballing education and development, “I always greatly admired his leadership. Both as a player and as a coach there is nobody who taught me as much as him. He was a sportsman who put the Netherlands on the map in such a way that almost everybody still benefits from it. There is no one I learnt more from than Rinus Michels. I often tried to imitate him, and that’s the greatest compliment one could give,” he once said of the great teacher.
Michels was unable to bring home any titles during his second stint at the helm of Barcelona but his influence was indisputable. Total football was to blossom in Spain for the first time and when Cruijff and Michels departed in 1978, with the goodbye gift of a Copa del Rey, the wheels had already been set in motion for the unprecedented success Barca would experience in years to come. Johan Cruijff would himself return to the Camp Nou in a managerial guise a decade later.
He would use the in-vogue 4-3-3 formation as the catalyst to develop his ‘tiki-taka’ vision – a high intensity, possession based system which Barcelona still faithfully use to this day. Providing the basis on which Barca’s great teams of the twenty-first century now under Tito Vilanova and in recent years Pep Guardiola and Frank Rijkaard have flourished is just another feather in Cruijff’s cap and one for which he is not given enough credit. The jury is out on whether his legacy is his greatest achievement but what is certain is that the footballing landscape today would be unrecognisable were it not for him and his brilliant footballing vision and ingenuity.
After two uninspiring years chasing the dream in the land of the free, Cruijff’s career seemed to be petering out. As the North American Soccer League began to crumble around him, you could have been forgiven for believing the sun was setting on his playing days. After negotiations with Leicester City collapsed at an advanced stage, Cruijff eventually made his return to Europe with Spanish second tier outfit Levante.
However after an injury plagued spell with the side, he was given the chance to make an emotional return to his boyhood club Ajax and begin a renaissance of his career. Two more Eredivisie titles followed, with the undoubted enduring image of his second stretch in Amsterdam his outlandish penalty routine with teammate Jesper Olsen in 1982.
After being unable to keep the dream going due to a contractual wrangling in 1983, Cruijff took a gamble and signed with Ajax’s arch-rivals Feyenoord, sparking anger and dismay amongst the Amsterdam side’s supporters and officials. The gamble paid dividends as he enjoyed a dream final season, helping Feyenoord to their first title in a decade and a Dutch Cup to boot. Johan Cruijff only ever played 48 games in brilliant orange but he bowed out of the glare of the professional game as a thirty-seven year old and as one of the few great men to grace the hearts and minds of every one of the crazy gang that is the footballing fraternity.
After the glory and the fun and the games of Johan Cruijff’s playing and managerial years, the man himself has somewhat slipped into the shadows. His public contributions to the beautiful game are growing few and far between and unlike many of his contemporaries, such as the exquisite libero of the 1970s Franz Beckenbauer, he has not continued to remain at the forefront of people’s minds – notwithstanding his role on Ajax’s supervisory board.
However, perhaps, this is understandable. Cruijff is not a man who feels the buzz of fame. He does not feed off the lifeblood of cut and thrust football in the same way he used to. To this end, he took up the leisurely managerial post of the Catalonia side in 2009 – a commitment that means one match a year to oversee and a peculiar undertaking in so much as he has some of the most gifted and well-known players of our time – Iniesta, Xavi, Puyol, Valdes and Bojan to name but a few – at his disposal, yet he cannot even begin to trouble public consciousness with them.
Maybe this is the perfect job for him – lurking outside the bubble of fame. However, even mystery surrounds him in Catalonia with sporadic reports of his resignation appearing a few weeks ago. Despite hopes that he will return for one last hurrah, it appears, “The tooth of time has done its work,” as he himself put it.
He is no longer the man he once was. The world has probably seen the last of Johan Cruijff and how gut-wrenching that is. It would have relished the chance to have seen an awful lot more.
By Jack Chatterton