There will always be the debate – Stanley Matthews or George Best? Pele or Maradona? For me, the man who played the beautiful game with greater artistry than anyone ever to slip into a pair of studded boots was Johan Cruyff, whose death from lung cancer at the age of 68 has been announced. The outspoken and opinionated Dutchman displayed an undoubted arrogance and absence of modesty both on and off the pitch because he knew he was the best; and he was. Although he made his professional debut as a 17-year-old in 1964, domestic football in Holland had only recently emerged from its amateur age and the Netherlands had never made any notable impact at either club or international level. Cruyff’s club, whose books he had been on from the age of ten, was Ajax of Amsterdam. When former Ajax player Rinus Michels returned to the club as coach, he saw in Cruyff a player around whom he could build a team playing a style of football that would eventually turn Ajax into the world’s greatest club side.
Ajax first became a name to reckon with when reaching the 1969 European Cup Final; though they lost to AC Milan, there were clear signs that a little tinkering here and there could take the team onto the next level. Bringing a crop of remarkably talented youngsters such as Johan Neeskens, Johnny Rep, Barrie Hulshoff, Ruud Krol, Gerrie Muhren and Arie Haan into the side, Michels, with Cruyff as his eyes and ears on the pitch, developed what was christened ‘Total Football’; this system required all outfield players to be equally adept up front and in defence, a fluid, rotating form of play that was expertly orchestrated by Cruyff, who acted as a veritable puppet-master, pulling the strings of the team and directing events as a virtual footballing auteur. Due to an act of serendipitous superstition, Cruyff wore No.14 on his shirt at both club and international level (at a time when teams were exclusively numbered 1-11), as though his unique talents couldn’t be contained within the numerical strictures of the game. The style of football was special; the team were special; and he was special.
The Total Football system swept all competition aside in the early 1970s. Ajax won three consecutive European Cups in 1971, ’72 and ’73 – a feat that had only previously been achieved by the great Real Madrid side of the late 50s. On the domestic front, Ajax were almost unbeatable. In the 1971-72 season, they won the domestic treble as well as their second European Cup and the Intercontinental Cup, a contest between the top teams in Europe and South America in which the brutal approach to the game typified by the latter couldn’t contrast greater with that of the Dutch. Come the 1974 World Cup in West Germany, the time had arrived to showcase Total Football on the international stage.
Although Rinus Michels had by this time relocated to Barcelona (with Cruyff joining him there after Ajax’s third consecutive European Cup win), he took control of the Dutch national side for the 1974 World Cup tournament and filled the team with players he’d brought to fruition at Ajax. Holland illuminated that summer; World Cups traditionally draw in viewers who don’t follow domestic soccer but become bedazzled by the event, and watching Cruyff in full flow at the peak of his powers transformed him and Total Football into a global phenomena. That Dutch team resembled rock stars and remain the coolest-looking group of players the World Cup has ever seen. Watching Cruyff was like watching Nureyev; he had the same God-given grace in his feet and it seemed only right that he should lift the new FIFA World Cup trophy in the Final. Unfortunately, the all-conquering Dutchmen came up against the host nation.
The significance of Holland taking on West Germany in Munich just thirty years after the Netherlands had been subjugated by the German jackboot cannot be underestimated. Many members of that Dutch side had lost family members under the Nazi regime and it would be hard to deny the arrogance that often comes with greatness was evident for more than mere football reasons in the Final. Cruyff showed he meant business straight from the kick-off, cutting a swathe through the West German defence and being brought down in the penalty area. With barely a minute gone, Holland were awarded a penalty which Neeskens scored; they were 1-0 up with West Germany yet to touch the ball. Rather than building on that early lead, the Dutch chose to humiliate the Germans on their own soil, using their breathtaking talent to toy with and taunt what was undoubtedly a great German side, one containing the likes of Beckenbauer, Muller, and Breitner. This time, however, Dutch arrogance backfired and sabotaged what should have been the nation’s crowning glory as the Germans clawed their way back into the game, taking a 2-1 lead at half-time that remained the score when the ref blew the whistle after 90 minutes. Holland’s greatest team had failed at the final hurdle. It was the swansong for Total Football.
Cruyff chose not to participate in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, perhaps stung by the memory of Independiente, the Argentine team that had kicked Ajax off the pitch in the 1972 Intercontinental Cup. He cited disapproval of the military junta then running Argentina as his main reason for pulling out, which seems a remarkable stance to take from today’s money-grabbing football perspective. How many international soccer superstars will decline to go to Russia for the 2018 World Cup on political grounds, I wonder?
Despite his voluntary retirement from the national side in 1977, Cruyff’s domestic career continued until 1984, when he ironically ended his twenty-year journey at Ajax’s bitter rivals Feyenoord. As soon as he hung-up his boots, he entered management and proved to be as successful on the touchline as he had been on the pitch, coaching Ajax, Barcelona and the Catalonian national side, despite the latter remaining unrecognised by FIFA. For most watchers of the game, however, it was his role conducting the footballing orchestra of both Ajax and the Dutch national team in the early 70s that left us with the quintessential memories of Johan Cruyff, gone at just 68, but never to be forgotten.
© The Editor