“In a way, I’m probably immortal.”
In the 14th minute of the Netherlands-France friendly on Friday, the world stopped to pay tribute to a maverick. Johan Cruyff was perhaps the most famous player to have ever donned the No. 14 shirt, at a time when most players in the first team wore the standard 1 through 11.
His best trick move came in the 1974 World Cup where, seemingly marked by Sweden’s Jan Olsson, Cruyff found a way to execute a sudden 180-degree turn completely out of the blue to find space. It was a move worthy of the man himself — athleticism, instinct and, most of all, pure genius. His other well-known move was relived recently in that penalty that Messi and Suarez executed successfully. Only Cruyff’s was way better, leaving the goalkeeper hapless.
But Cruyff’s genius was more than just the tricks. We see that more clearly in the two best teams in the world today — Barcelona and Bayern Munich — and through his protégé Pep Guardiola.
Cruyff’s style of Total Football meant that “the goalie is the first attacker, and the striker the first defender.” The team moves as a unit that has players of the highest technical ability and intelligence, to have attackers cover defensively and defenders play out from the back, evidenced in the 3-4-3 Cruyff pioneered successfully at Barcelona. Every member of the team could play anywhere when required; Guardiola was converted from a winger to a defensive midfielder to spread the ball from deep.
Barcelona’s success today was built on the back of Cruyff’s philosophy. His academy, La Masia, moved away from fitness and strength training but got trainees to understand ball movement and utilization of space. Modern day tiki-taka, switching the ball across the field and the high-press all stem from Cruyff’s own football philosophy. The genius of Iniesta and Xavi came from their ability to “make the field as big as possible” when they had the ball. Barcelona and Bayern Munich, who press high up the field when they do not have the ball, “make the space as small as possible” for the opposition to work with.
There are few great players who turn out to be great managers. Then there are few great managers who were actually good players. Johan Cruyff was one of the rare few that understood the game on and off the field. His name will live on not only through the to-be-renamed Amsterdam Arena but through his footballing philosophy that makes this a beautiful game. Without Cruyff, the genius of Guardiola and the beauty of the passing game would not be what it is today.
For the record, Cruyff was always better van Gaal. While van Gaal builds teams around a system for the team to flourish, Cruyff built a system that allowed genius and, hence the team, to flourish. Cruyff was a winner — a winner who knew how to entertain. Because to him, “quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.” And in his Ajax and Barcelona teams, and in Guardiola’s Barcelona and Bayern, they had both.