There are great footballers whose greatness is expressed in moments. In passes and goals, in dropped shoulders and twisted blood, in defenders embarrassed or attackers frustrated. Their greatness is measured in ooohs and aaahs and applause and screams.
There are those who are great in their achievements. In what they won and who they won it with. Their greatness is borne out in the rolls of honour, witnessed by piles of medals and baubles.
Then there are those who are great in their impact on the broader sweep of the game. Whose way of playing football — and thinking about football, and forcing others to think about football — wasn't of its time but ahead of its time, and would shape the times to come. Who stood at a fork in the road and insisted that this way, their way, was the correct way to go. And were proved right.
Finally, and most nebulously, there are those that achieve greatness through their personality. In how they moved, and in how they moved people. Whether they swaggered above the ordinary or laboured beyond the call, they understood, in some ineffable but immediately self-evident way, how and what and who a footballer, in all his or her peculiar status and power and majesty, should be.
Johan Cruyff, who died Thursday at the age of 68 after a battle with cancer, was all of those four kinds of great, and probably any others you can think of as well. He was all four to their fullest extent, too. There has never been anybody even vaguely interested in football that hasn't put their protesting limbs through the stresses of a Cruyff turn at some point, and beyond that iconic moment there are countless others. Doubtless you have your favourite. Here's one of ours. This first touch.
The medals speak for themselves, which is what medals are for. As a player he won 10 league titles over three clubs; a fistful of cups; and, most notably, that run of three consecutive European Cups in 1971, '72 and '73. Then, from the touchline, a Cup Winners' Cup with Ajax, then four consecutive titles and a European Cup with Barcelona. There's also every individual accolade going, and a few that don't even really exist, such as the rather dubious honour of having been the heart of arguably the best team not to win the World Cup.
Still, while he may not have lifted that particular trophy, the style of football he helped create and the models he developed, both as player and manager, have gone on to do his work for him. Six of the Spanish side that won the 2010 World Cup came through Barcelona's academy, inculcated in the Cruyff model of football. Passing, possession and pressing; control the ball when you have it, and destroy the space when you don't. Almost all top-level football in the last 10 or 15 years has had this notion at its core in one way or another; where teams haven't been trying to emulate it, at least to a certain extent, then they've been trying to find ways to beat it.
Right, that's all the facts out of the way. Let's talk about the messy stuff. Let's talk about feelings. For those who weren't around to see him and so have only the accounts of others, what comes across most about Cruyff isn't just that he was exceptionally good at football. It's that he was exceptionally good at football in a way that everybody seemed to find impossibly alluring. People talk about Maradona being great. They talk about Pelé being great. But they talk about Cruyff being different. Being cool. Being sexy, in some strange, alien, Man Who Fell To Earth way.
Then you look at the videos and it's all there, screaming out at you. Skinny frame and lank hair rendered sensual through motion, through poise, through attitude. And through an understanding of football — the intensely complicated business of manipulating an object through space, using parts of the body that are quite badly designed for the task, while several people are trying to stop you — that has rarely been equaled, and certainly never bettered. Look at that clip above again. Look at the precision of the touch. The way the ball curls back to meet him at the edge of the box, eager to be kicked again.
Some footballers are diminished by their off-field personas, while others never attain anything approaching a personality at all. But Cruyff's intensity, his drive, his occasionally prickly but always righteous character completed him. There's quote after quote, of course, and there's argument after argument; again, you'll have your favourite. For our money, nothing he did was ever quite so eloquent, arrogant, petulant, ornery and marvelous as his decision to decamp from Ajax to Feyenoord for a season when his first club — his club, in so many ways — decided not to extend his contract. Any other player, that act of betrayal would have been enough. Cruyff's Feyenoord won a double, and he picked up his fifth Dutch Footballer of the Year award.
In the final balance, Cruyff leaves us having achieved nearly everything a footballer and football manager — on their own terms — could hope to achieve, and even his failures come with an aura of wonder. Beyond that, he changed the way people played the game, and he changed the way people felt about the game, and he made people smile and laugh and shake their heads in wonder and frustration. Football is what it is because he was who he was. There aren't many who can boast that.