Johan Cruyff was born on this day 70 years ago. He died in 2016 after a long battle with lung cancer. He actually thought that he would have died at the age of 45, as his father did.
“My father died when I was just 12 and he was 45,” Cruyff said. “From that day the feeling crept stronger over me that I would die at the same age and, when I had serious heart problems when I reached 45, I thought: 'This is it.' Only medical science, which was not available to help my father, kept me alive.”
He survived, and would later state that he was, in a way, probably immortal.
Like many of the other Cruijffiaans — his way of speaking, usually one liners that border between profound and obvious — the suggestion that he couldn’t die seemed absurd. He was still a man of bone and flesh. Though he was more exceptional than most others, death has no sympathy for overachievers.
Cruyff was a self-aware and intelligent man, though. He was arrogant, ideological, brutally honest, and petty, but he wasn’t stupid. When he was removed as Barcelona’s honorary president in 2010 by the newly elected president, Sandro Rosell, Cruyff vowed to never step foot in the Camp Nou as long as Rosell led the club. Later, when he reflected on the dishonor, he seemed to have come to peace with the fact that time and life generally tends towards the negative: “I’m ex-player, ex-technical director, ex-coach, ex-manager, ex-honorary president. A nice list that once again shows that everything comes to an end.”
Cruyff’s physical life might be gone but as Mitch Albom writes, death ends a life, not a relationship. Cruyff was always much more than a man and he knew that there are many ways to live beyond the body. He is football’s greatest myth. Its greatest romance. Because he had the radical idea that the sport should be beautiful, that just as quality without results was pointless, results without quality was boring, he has become the soul of the game.
There are players who myths because of their quality on the field. Paolo Maldini, Pele, Rivaldo, Ronaldo (both of them), Lionel Messi, Zico, Ronaldinho, Eusebio, Gerd Muller, Xavi, Marco van Basten, Gianluigi Buffon, Franz Beckenbauer, Alfredo di Stefano, and so on. The list is endless. There are others whose personalities are as great as their skills and who take on a larger life away from the game. Eric Cantona, Socrates, Diego Maradona, George Best. There are others, like Pep Guardiola, whose time as a manager overshadows his playing career. Then there are managers, like Arrigo Sacchi, who were never players, or good ones anyway, who become romantic because of what they did from the touchline. Managers who changed the game.
Cruyff managed to be great in every category. As a player, he was the best. He invented moves, he was the first player to win the Ballon d'Or three times, he turned the meek Netherlands into a footballing powerhouse — they never lost a game he scored in, and he scored often. He won the league six times with Ajax, left for Barcelona and won there, took a detour in the United States and then Spain, came back to win again with Ajax before leaving them for Feyenoord to win the league when Ajax assumed that he was done at the top level. He was flair, grace, technique, speed, efficiency, creativity, and leadership, all embodied in a skinny frame. In 1999, he was voted the European player of the century.
As a manager, he was just as impressive. He won the European Cup and KNVB Cup (2 times) with Ajax before going to Barcelona to win four league titles in a row among a multitude of other awards. He brought in the 3-4-3 formation, taking the notion of total football of his former manager Rinus Michels, and making it his own: “I was criticized for playing three at the back, but that’s the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard. What we needed was to fill the middle of the pitch with players where we needed it most. I much prefer to win 5-4 than 1-0.”
As a romantic figure beyond the field, he saved Barcelona from crisis, he gave them a permanent identity. Just as he did with the Netherlands. He became an idol for players and a guiding light for managers like Guardiola. He didn’t just reuse old systems, but thought that the game should be seen as a science and experimented with. He was the justified idealist, the troublesome genius.
It would take forever to list all of his accomplishments and at the end of it, the list still wouldn’t capture the greatness of Cruyff. At some point, he became more than all of the categories that could be used to judge him, more than his goals, trophies, and little quips.
Cruyff is immortal, because he now exists in the game itself. His influence is everywhere. It’s in the philosophies of Guardiola, Txiki Begiristain, Arsene Wenger, Ronald Koeman, Michael Laudrup, Luis Enrique, and is enriched by all of their achievements. He is alive in Ajax, and in every team that mimics Barcelona. He’s in the rapid, interchangeable movement of players, in one and two-touch football, in the resulting spectacular goals. Cruyff exists in every player, manager or team that sees football not only as a problem to be solved, but as an art, as entertainment. He is what best represents the beautiful game.
There will be generations that will grow up never seeing the man as a player, manager, director, or honorary president. There will be those who don’t know him as a physical being. They will still know him as something else, even if they are unaware of it. As long as beautiful attacking football still exists, Cruyff will be alive. As long as those who he has influenced do the same with others, passing down the lessons that was his life’s work, thinking of the sport as a creative and not a mechanical job, then he will always be alive.
Cruyff’s nice list that shows that everything comes to an end, also shows that new lives begin right after. And just as he was practically a manager while a player, and a technical director while a manager, he had been football’s greatest mythical figure the entire time. In the end he was right, as long as the sport exists, Cruyff can never really die.