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.
– Johan Cruyff
It’s the 1974 World Cup hosted in West Germany. The reigning champions Brazil, pioneers of free-flowing beautiful football, had swept the world 4 years previously earning a reputation as arguably the greatest international team of all time.
It’s 1974 in Dortmund, the venue is the Westfalenstadion and the whole world has begun to take note of a phenomenon that has ripped European clubs apart for the better part of 4 years. A phenomenon that would be known as “Total Football”.
The Netherlands were led on the touchline by Rinus Michels and on the pitch by reigning Ballon d’Or holder Johan Cruyff, the same combination that ruled European football with Ajax Amsterdam. They would eventually finish runners up in that tournament, but Cruyff in particular shone in West Germany that summer.
It was at this tournament that Cruyff announced to the world what Europe had already known. Despite having to settle for a runners up medal, Cruyff won the individual honour of Golden Ball, which cemented his status as the best in the world.
Johan Cruyff was only ever going to be a footballer. Born in 1947 to a football-obsessed father on a street five minutes away from the De Meer Stadium, Cruyff idolised legendary Dutch forward Faas Wilkes. When he was 10, Cruyff joined the Ajax youth team, opting to focus on Ajax football instead of Ajax baseball.
Knowing what we know now, this decision to choose football over baseball changed the face of European football.
The Netherlands went through something of a revolution in the 1970s, a cultural revolution that completely tore off the shackles of old fashioned socialist values. The Provo movement in Amsterdam was led by Robert Jasper Grootveld and encouraged the youth of Amsterdam to stand up and make themselves a voice to be heard, a voice on subjects from domestic politics to feminism.
Amsterdam was going through a cultural transition, and Johan Cruyff with his long brown hair, philosopher’s mind and feet like a ballerina would lead the cultural revolution of football. Cruyff knew his value, how good he was and how good he could be if he played in a team rather than a collection of individuals. Total Football revolves around the idea that every outfield player can play in any position, every player is aware of their role and their space on the field.
However, there would always be the individualism of Cruyff in the collection of talent. This would lead to bust-ups throughout Cruyff’s playing, managerial and directorial career.
Where the youth of Amsterdam were standing up to the authorities, Cruyff stood up against the KNVB and other footballing authorities on a number of occasions when he deemed it necessary to do so.
The early days of football saw the squad numbers assigned on a strict 1-11 basis, Cruyff of course is recognised for his number 14 jersey. The 14 jersey occurred by a total accident when team-mate Gerrie Muhren could not find his number 7 jersey, Cruyff, who had worn 9 up to that point, offered Muhren his shirt and grabbed a spare.
14 was at the top of the pile and fit perfectly, plus Ajax beat PSV in that match so Cruyff wanted to keep the numbers the same much to the chagrin of the Dutch FA.
Cruyff also led a revolt against the KNVB in the 70s when he learned that the KNVB would insure their officials during travel but not their players. Cruyff understood the value of having a team, you can’t win a football match with 4 officials.
The KNVB would also have to deal with another Cruyff related headache as he famously painted out Adidas logos on both his boots and on his national jersey, whereas the other players had to wear the three Adidas stripes due to their contract commitments. At the time, Cruyff had signed an exclusive deal with Puma.
Number 14 would only wear two stripes instead of the three, and was the only Dutch player to do so. Cruyff knew his value to the national team, and the national team knew it as well.
Cruyff would eventually leave Ajax. Management at the club was unsatisfactory and Cruyff felt that he needed a change in scenery to further his career. At the time, he was the best player in the world, any club in the world would have happily taken him and would probably have offered him the world to play for them.
He opted for a small club in Spain called Barcelona.
When Cruyff joined Barcelona, they were hardly the footballing force that we know them as today. Barcelona hadn’t won a title for many years before Cruyff, so when Cruyff signed on the dotted line for the Catalan club, he was hailed as their saviour.
1973 was the year that Cruyff landed in Catalonia, a mere 2 years before the death of Franco. Cruyff chose Barcelona because he felt that they represented the opposition to the Dictator, a complete contract in values and ethics to the-then Spanish leader.
Cruyff helped to breathe new life into the club, the city, and its long standing rivalry with Real Madrid. Barcelona humiliated Real on their own ground in a 5-0 drubbing on their way to a first La Liga title in 14 years and, of course, Cruyff was at the heart of it.
The values of Real Madrid had always been oriented to the business side of the game. Results and silverware were the top priority as this would help the Madrid brand. Cruyff always believed that the style of football was more important than the result, he believed that clubs had a duty to entertain the fans.
143 appearance and 48 goals later, Cruyff decided to call it a career in Barcelona and retired from the game. Then having lost most of his money, he signed a lucrative deal with the Los Angeles Aztecs and rediscovered his talent.
After spells with the Washington Diplomats and Levante, he returned to Amsterdam to lead Ajax to another couple of league titles and even a double in the 1982-83 season. Cruyff, however, would once again leave Ajax in frustration as they refused to offer him a new contract. In retaliation, Cruyff did what seldom few Ajax players do.
He signed for Feyenoord.
Ajax and Feyenoord hate each other, to put it lightly. Their rivalry is the most intense in the Netherlands and to see a club legend like Cruyff sign for them must have hurt fans of Ajax. To see him bring a league and cup double to Rotterdam would have been unbearable.
Cruyff eventually called a career after a season in Rotterdam, then he moved into management to follow in the footsteps of Rinus Michels. He coached Ajax for 3 successful years, implementing the 3-4-3 diamond formation, the same formation that Ajax would use to win the Champions League in 1995.
But once again, as was the case during his playing days, he would leave Amsterdam for Barcelona.
It was as coach of Barcelona where Cruyff really changed the game forever. He would set up the La Masia academy, putting high emphasis on the production of youth talent and he coached the famous 1992 “Dream Team”, a team that swept through Europe with players like Stoichkov, Guardiola and Koeman. Cruyff would have all levels of Barcelona players playing the same style, as to make the transition from youth to reserves to first team easier.
Barcelona in the late 80s were in a terrible state both on the pitch and financially, but in the space of five years Cruyff had led the club to four European finals. In the 11 years that Cruyff spent in the Barcelona dug-out his instilled a completely different mentality and footballing ethos that you still see today.
The possession-oriented style came from Ajax but was perfected in Barcelona, and any student of the La Masia academy must act and behave with humility, with the logic being that if you are humble then you still have room to learn.
Modern day coaches, most notably Guardiola, have grown up with this philosophy, experience success with it as a player and are now taking it all over Europe. If Cruyff had chosen baseball all those years ago, would the world have been blown away by Spain’s recent dominance or by Lionel Messi shattering record after record?
A man with the stubbornness and perceived hypocritical arrogance of Cruyff certainly rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, both in the Netherlands and in Spain. It appeared to be Cruyff’s way or the highway, and toys would fly out of the pram, but for a man who saw the importance of style rather than result, he could always use his success to prove his point.
From Cruyff Turns to Phantom Goals, from Amsterdam to Barcelona, no player in the history of the game has had the kind of impact that Cruyff (and a huge mention to Rinus Michels) has.
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