Johan Cruyff: The man who enacted football’s greatest moment

Matt Stead

Johan Cruyff was a revolutionary as a player and a manager, the man who delivered the single greatest moment in the history of football.


Who’s this then?
Hendrik Johannes Cruijff was a 5ft 10ins Dutch striker who, it is often argued, was the single greatest and most important influence on post-war football, both in how he played and how he managed.

Uniquely, a brilliantly innovative player and a brilliantly innovative manager, it’s impossible to overstate just what an exciting and inspirational figure he was and still is. When we watch football at the highest levels today it isn’t an exaggeration to say we are still watching the game that Johan Cruyff (and his boss at both Ajax and Barcelona, Rinus Michels) originated, developed and promulgated. As the big football brain that is Gab Marcotti said a few years ago:

‘There may have been better players in the history of the game, though I doubt you can count them on more than one hand. And there may have been better managers, too, if only because his coaching career only lasted 10 and a half years (during which he won 14 trophies, not a bad return). But it’s tough to argue that any man has exerted a greater influence – on the pitch and on the bench – on the game as we know it today.’

There have been many fantastic books written about the man. David Winner’s Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football is perhaps the definitive work.

The basic, bald facts about Cruyff’s career are thus: he grew up just a few streets from Ajax’s stadium in post-war Amsterdam; he joined their youth academy at 10, made his first-team debut in 1964 aged 17 and scored; he would play for them for 10 seasons and score 257 goals in 329 games. In this period he won six Eredivisie titles, five KNVB Cups and, most remarkable of all, won three European Cups consecutively from 1970 to 1973. In 1972 alone Ajax won the Dutch league title, the Dutch cup, the European Cup, the European Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup. They were simply incredible and all things being equal, would beat any club side on earth today. Having seen them in their pomp, of that I am sure.

He was transferred to Barcelona for a world-record fee, and with Michels in harness with him, won La Liga in his first season, the club’s first title since 1960. He played five seasons in Spain and then promptly retired aged just 31. But after losing a lot of money in pig farming – yes, pig farming – he came out of retirement and played for the Los Angeles Aztecs and Washington Diplomats before returning to the Spanish second tier to play for Levante for a season, then returned to Ajax for two campaigns, two league titles and a cup win. There was a major fallout, he felt betrayed and he then joined rivals Feyenoord as an act of revenge for one season, and promptly won the league and cup double with them. This strange, tense, difficult but successful season is well explained here.

At this point, having played 702 games and scoring 402 times, he retired for good.

His international career numbers of 33 goals in 48 games only hinted at the profound effect his Dutch side had on world football, especially in the 1974 World Cup played out in stair rods of rain in West Germany. They remain the greatest side not to win the World Cup. It was at this tournament that we saw the Cruyff turn for the first time, but we all knew of Johan Cruyff and Ajax from TV broadcasts of their European Cup adventures.

But by 1977, he was under threat of kidnap as well as many other pressures which drove his temporary retirement decision. So he didn’t go to Argentina in 1978.

But the JC story was only just starting as he began a legendary if short managerial career, starting with a 30-month stay at Ajax and a 72% win rate. He won two domestic cups and the much missed European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1986/87. In 1988 he took over at Barcelona and in an eight-year career won La Liga for four years on the run from 1990 to 1994, the Copa del Rey in 1990, the Supercopa de España in 1991, 1992 and 1994, the European Cup in 1992, UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1989 and the UEFA Super Cup in 1992.

And that was that. Apart from four games in charge of Catalonia from 2009-2013, that was his managerial career over with. Ill health had begun to dog him, with hereditary heart issues, having had a bypass operation in 1991. A legendary smoker, he quit the ciggies after that op but in 2016 was diagnosed with lung cancer which spread to his brain. He died aged just 68. We lost a giant of the game.


Portrait of an icon: Johan Cruyff


Why the love?
Firstly, and this is important: Johan Cruyff looked really bloody cool, had gorgeously smooth and unusually long muscular thighs and played in two of the greatest shirts ever made (Ajax’s white with red central band and Holland’s Adidas black and orange three stripe) – though he had one taken off due to sponsorship conflicts with Puma.

Obviously, you have to be of a certain (old) age to have lived through the impact he made as a player but even so his legend has surely washed down through the generations. A skinny, lank-haired streak of liquid mercury, he had a very distinctive way of running, legs set wide apart and a little crab-like. He was quick on his feet but even quicker in his brain. He understood and read the game seconds ahead of anyone else. At the peak of his powers, it appeared he was playing the game on 45RPM while the rest of us were on 33 ⅓.

He could shift his weight and change direction like the wind, sending defenders flying as he did so. Any sort of ball control with any part of his body was effortless. He had a real turn of speed with close ball control.

His first minute run from deep in the 1974 World Cup final only to be chopped down for a penalty was entirely typical of the man. Imagine being that bloody good and so confident in your skill that you’ll take on the entire German team in the opening seconds of such a match. Breathtaking.

It’s been said that it is impossible to convey his brilliance in clips montages because his was a deep, rich and widescreen brilliance, not something that can be sold in a series of long-drive strikes, team-beating dribbles or diving headers.

That being said, the Cruyff Turn abso-f**king-loutely blew our minds and I remember seeing it in real time quite vividly. Initially, no-one was quite sure what we’d witnessed. It took many replays in slow-motion to try and work out what he’d actually done. Everyone went out after the game against Austria and tried to repeat what we’d seen. Obviously we couldn’t.

Football has never delivered a better moment, I truly believe that. When you take the context and football’s history to that point in 1974 into account, it was as though an alien had come to earth. It was ballet, mathematics and a slim volume of difficult verse all rolled into a single moment of brilliance. There has been nothing like it since.

And then there’s the ‘impossible goal’ where he leaps, twists and with the outside of his foot, boots the ball into the net with power, while several feet off the ground. Impossible, indeed. And by the way, players emerging from a hole in the ground is so much more exciting, isn’t it? It is as though they are dwellers from an underground world, impossibly exotic and foreign.

I’m not sure I can fully convey the profound effect seeing Johan Cruyff had on the football world in the early ’70s. This isn’t hindsight revisionism; we all know he was different. A revolutionary.

In the UK we were first exposed to him via that magical Ajax side. Their peak coincided with the development of progressive rock: a wholly new musical art form that combined many different musical influences with serious muso chops to make something entirely new. That to me, even at the time, was Ajax, Holland and Cruyff. They were football prog rock doing something no-one had ever done before. Even the short four-letter name was exotic. Was it A-Jacks as in the household cleaning product, or Aye-yax? No-one knew.

The Dutch national team lived like rock stars and most of them looked like rock stars. Lithe long hairs who lounged around the pool with glamorous women, smoking and drinking. They were the perfect expression of the times. The term Total Football is almost a cliche now, but in comparison to British football’s more typically rigid approach at the time, it was the world turned upside down. Some of Ajax’s European games are on YouTube. While the play is more physical than allowed now, they play a game that basically looks like a nuclear Manchester City in 2021, except that they can look after themselves, because if you couldn’t then the cream of Europe’s hard men would mash you.

He carried the Michels doctrine into management where he became an imposing sort of presence. Standing on the touchline, often in a light beige mac, looking like the CEO of BMW or some other upmarket brand, he transformed the Catalans.

People call Pep Guardiola a genius and it’s not hard to see why. But many students of the game would say that he is basically working from the Cruyff textbook, doing incredibly well and with more financial resources than Cruyff himself ever had, but without Cruyff, Guardiola as we know him now would simply not exist. He is very much Oasis to Cruyff’s Beatles.

Whole books have been written about the details both tactically and training-wise about the revolution that the Dutchman instigated, and I have no space to do them justice here, suffice to say this: everything passed off as thoroughly modern can more often than not be traced back to Cruyff, one way or another, player or manager. He’s not just influential, his thinking and example is pretty much the entire basis upon which the game in 2021 is founded, from sweeper keepers to false nines.


Three great moments
THAT Turn. It still thrills. That one turn could see him two metres beyond the defender within seconds still seems otherworldly:


The infamous non-penalty penalty:


Watch all the goals from the 1970/71 European Cup campaign; they look remarkably like a modern side playing a possession, pressing game, breaking at speed and with incision:


What the people say
A huge response this week which, for someone who stopped playing well over 30 years ago, is remarkable and a testament to his legend and importance.

‘Never saw him play but feel like I have through the sheer volume of imitators. That’s some legacy, that.’

‘Caused many a twisted ankle in the playground with that iconic turn. And Jan Olsson should claim royalties for that clip.’

‘My 7 year old has now got the Cruyff turn mastered and is really proud of it. Cruyff’s legacy is in beautifying football.’

‘Smoked like a chimney during his playing career and yet he still made participation in elite sport look completely effortless. Quit smoking following a triple heart bypass operation in 1991 and then delivered Barcelona’s holy grail the following year, their first European Cup.’

‘Most influential man in the history of football. Was Michels on field lieutenant in the brilliant Ajax and Dutch teams. Was his influence as a coach that made Barca and Spain the best at club and international level.’

‘Simply one of the all-time greats of the game. In most people’s GOAT top 10, and then as a coach developing Michels’ total football style which Pep produces today. Beautiful in its simplicity that any player should be comfortable in any position.’

‘What higher praise could there be than being Lovejoy’s favourite?’

‘Arguably one of the most important people in modern football history, revolutionising a stagnant Barcelona as both player and manager. Who can forget that magnificent Dutch team of ’74?’

‘When you play amateur football and the kit bag gets emptied out, there’s always a scramble for particular numbers like 9 and 5. Me, I always went for 14 because of Johan Cruyff. I was 8 when the ’74 World Cup took place, so he was my first football hero.’

‘When you combine his entire career, playing and managing, he’s probably the most important footballer ever.’

‘One of the most influential footballers and coaches. The pivotal figure in a side that changed the way people think about tactics and left a similar legacy as coach. Managed to look cool as he did so.’

‘Had the birth of his son induced so he could fly back from Amsterdam and play in the clásico. Barça won 5-0. On registering Jordi in Spain he was told he couldn’t use a Catalan name. He told them Jordi was born in Holland and he was Johan Cruyff! Beat Madrid and fascism in one week!’

‘How to describe Cruyff’s highbrow genius? Louche, mesmeric, rakish, untroubled. Without doubt the best player of the 1970s.’

‘Inspired a generation of Sunday league footballers, especially in regards to a half time smoke!’

‘Privileged to see him play for Barcelona at Elland Road in the ’75 European Cup semi-final. Loved his Ajax years, their EC Final win v Panathinaikos  at Wembley was fabulous; and of course playing for the great Dutch team in the ’74 WC which they should have won.’

‘Johan Cruyff was a genius but also a patriot and an enigma. Brilliant at the game, but not in love with it.’

‘Bumped into him and another guy at the ArenA a few years back. Broke my own rules to stop him and say hello and what an honour it was to meet such a legend. He was very nice. As he walked away I turned to realise I’d totally blanked Edwin van der Sar, such was Cruyff’s magnetism.

‘The fascinating comparison is with George Best, another sublime talent who played (sort of) in the same position. They were born months apart, in deeply urban, very working class post war Northern European cities. And yet they are never spoken of together.’

‘When he passed away, I genuinely shed a tear, his football style, talent and ideologies made football entertaining to me, he defined total football, Ajax and Barcelona and of course not many players have a skill named after them, “The Cruyff Turn”, a true icon.’

‘As a change-maker, Cruyff’s influence is beyond compare – he created the football we consume now as both player and coach.’

‘Walked past Johan Cruyff in the late 80s in Cala Bona in Spain with my dad down the harbour. He was sat with his family. Gords, my dad was star struck. He looked like a king with his half a lager and cigarette.’

‘A genius and one of the few great players to become a great manager. To have a football trick named after yourself is acknowledgment.’

‘Loved when he told the story (In ABC; Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff) that when his team was three or four goals up, he’d sometimes deliberately hit the underside of the bar or the inside of the post, as he thought it was more exciting.’

‘I recently reread Brilliant Orange. His concept that the pitch was fluid and that play was not hemmed in by the touch lines. Matrix like. In days of muddy pitches, cloggers and the ethic of stamina, he was existing on a higher plane. RIP.’

‘The king of the Adidas two stripe.’

‘Once saw a photo of him – have never been able to find it again online unfortunately – playing poker with a fag in his mouth. He looked cooler than Bowie. Obviously he was a great player and a great thinker, but at least a small part of his myth is he looked utterly sensational.’

‘Never saw him play but I’ll fondly remember a mate calling him “John Cruff” what must have been 25 years ago and it has stuck with me forever.’


What the future holds
As long as there are football historians and as long as there are people who love football, the name of Johan Cruyff will be revered. He is pretty much in a class of his own and his influence continues to wash through the game.

He didn’t get all his brilliance for free. He aged 15 years in five through his Barcelona playing career. The pressure of the national side and the threat of kidnap and worse clearly made his life far more stressful than it should have been.

I’ll leave you with the words of David Winner from his Brilliant Orange book:

‘Johan Cruyff’s miracles in Amsterdam were many. He and his coach Rinus Michels (a sort of John the Baptist figure) raised Ajax from obscurity. More important, they invented a new way of playing. Johan Cruyff became the greatest exponent and teacher of ‘totaalvoetbal’. His vision of perfect movement and harmony on the field was rooted in the same sublime ordering of space that one sees in the pictures of Vermeer or church painter Pieter Jansz Saenredam. It was the music of the spheres on grass.’

Proost Johan, jij stralende sinaasappel.

John Nicholson