A tribute to Johan Cruyff
We all know that there’s little point comparing the footballers of today with the players of the past. The game is completely different now, both in terms of how it’s played and what’s expected of players. Could Pelé and Maradona cut it in an era when pure talent alone isn’t enough – when players have to be puritanical athletes at the peak of their physical ability? There’s little doubt that the bow-legged Garrincha and playboys like George Best would fail any medicals at the top clubs of 2016.
However, football fans of my generation can’t help but look back on the great teams of the past with something akin to longing. The game as it was played in the ‘70s and ‘80s seemed less sanitised somehow, and the players themselves possessed of greater character and personality. Certainly it was a far cry from the stage managed post-match interviews of today: “at the end of the day the lads are just happy to go home with the three points”...
The iconic players of yesteryear have a faintly mythical quality when contrasted with the anodyne athletes of the 21st century. There was Best, with his leading man looks, insouciant attitude and hedonistic lifestyle. There was Sócrates: the politically astute trequartista with a doctorate in medicine. And then there was Johan Cruyff.
Johan Cruyff died today, losing his battle with cancer at the age of 68. Fans of my generation – too young to have enjoyed Cruyff the player in his pomp – are nonetheless well aware of his football legacy. He leaves a lasting impression on the sport, having influenced some of the finest teams of the 20th century as both a player and a manager, and bequeaths a remarkable YouTube highlights reel to the next generation of supporters.
Cruyff – perhaps more so than any other single player – represents the golden era of Dutch football. He was the living embodiment of Total Football, taking the philosophy honed at Ajax and perfected in the Dutch national team that finished 2nd in the 1974 World Cup to Barcelona and beyond. This influence remains today, in perhaps the finest forward line ever assembled. Messi, Suarez and Neymar interchange and switch positions in a way that owes much to Cruyff and his Oranje colleagues.
Few players can claim ownership of a philosophy as Cruyff arguably could, but he was about more than just a style of play. He was a scorer of great goals: intricate passing moves; mazy dribbles; shots curled into the top corner from distance and despatched athletically on the volley. And of course he was a bag of tricks. How many players can claim to have won the Ballon d’Or three times and have had a bewildering piece of footwork named after them to boot? Only one.
The Cruyff turn is one of those immortal football moments, etched on the consciousness of legions of fans. Cruyff’s mugging of a Swedish defender at the 1974 World Cup stands out as a defining image of our sport. If we had to wordlessly communicate the joy of football to an alien race, that clip would undoubtedly be granted a ride out with Chris Kamara and Gary Lineker in the welcome committee's shuttle.
It’s always tempting to bow to nostalgia and look back on the days of football past with rose-tinted spectacles – glossing over decades of rioting, corruption and terrace bigotry in order to eulogise a less glossy, less commercially consumable game. Johan Cruyff, however, emerges from that context as a genuinely heroic figure. He’s the embodiment of all we love about football: attacking flair, improvisational skill, tactical innovation and the ecstasy and agony of a World Cup triumph narrowly denied. Remember him this way.