Known as ‘Jopie’ in and around his neighbourhood, Cruyff never lived more than a couple of minutes away from the De Meer Stadion, in Betondorp. The family moved once after his father Manus’ death in 1959, but Johan lived at Weidestraat 37 until 1968, the year he was first named Dutch Footballer of the Year. He had been a star of the Ajax youth team that then dominated the national youth league, but even before that, he’d almost been part of the club’s furniture.
Former Ajax player and family friend Arend van der Wel reminisced in 1997 that wherever Johan went, he was always prepared for an impromptu kickabout on the streets: “It was Johan and the ball, the ball and Johan”. He, along with a friend called Wim van Laar, considered school an intermission between football-playing time.
“You see that the kerb isn’t actually an obstacle, but that you can turn it into a teammate for a one–two”, said Cruyff in his autobiography, about how playing on the streets formed a crucial part of his education. “So thanks to the kerb I was able to work on my technique. When the ball bounces off different surfaces at odd angles, you have to adjust in an instant.”
Gerrie Splinter, Cruyff’s former partner-in-crime up front in the Ajax youth teams, credited his eminence to his unwavering commitment to the game. “Johan was very studious. He used to sit and listen to the coach,” he reminisced. “Whatever he was, he was interwoven with the club. After training, I would go to Leidseplein to have some fun, but he just stayed there.”
If not the concrete streets, Cruyff and his friends would frequent a ‘playground’ in their neighbourhood – a sandy strip of land that Ajax youth coach Jany van der Veen’s house overlooked. Van der Veen once gushed about the skinny little boy he spotted out of his window and decided to offer a place at Ajax without a trial: “He always played football with older boys, and he had bossed them. It seemed like he was fused with the ball.”
When not officially playing at Ajax, he still lingered around the complex, near the dressing room as his mother did her cleaning or behind the goal when players practised shooting, to return the balls to them.
At age 17, Cruyff was training with the first team, but he was neither shy nor anxious around the senior players – he had grown up with and around them, and never had difficulties making himself heard, even as a young novice. As striker Klaas Nunninga noted in 1994, “You could tell that at seventeen he had already thought a great deal about the game. Tactically he was far ahead of his peers. He was smart, opinionated and brutally so. Cruyff was sometimes annoying, but we still considered him as our younger brother.”
He made his debut for Ajax in 1964, and scored on the occasion. Whether it was apparent at the time what the precocious talent would grow into or not, over the next nine years, Cruyff would go on to become undeniably the greatest player in the club’s history.
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As a young player, Cruyff was never sufficiently strong for his age, and lacked power: “..a bag of bones, I looked like a shrimp”, in his own words. However, as he himself poetically declared years later, “every advantage has its disadvantage”. No limitation was truly a limitation; it was simply an opportunity to go about something differently. For example, being well-aware that he would not match up in physical strength to defenders and any contact of their sliding tackles with his spindly legs would result in an injury, Cruyff swerved and skipped and most notably, leapt over them, earning the nickname ‘grasshopper’ at the Ajax training ground. His lack of a sturdy build also meant he never had a thunderous shot on him. To compensate, Ajax coaches devised a special, more solid pair of boots for him — jokingly called clogs by his teammates, of course.
Cruyff believed in numerology, he believed in statistics and analytics complimenting the visual assessment of a game. Numbers could not account for creativity, but Cruyff found ways to use numbers to bring out creativity on the pitch. Mathematics formed the basis of his coaching: there was never to be more than 15 metres between the attacker furthest forward and the defender furthest back, and his team was curated to constantly create triangles. “Football is a game of mistakes. What I loved was the mathematics of the game, the analysis, how to improve”, he would later say. That he was called Pythagoras in Boots was no understatement.
In fight-or-flight situations, Cruyff’s reflex was neither fight nor flight; it was thought.
“I never get tired of seeing it, no way. He could have done it to anyone and I feel lucky it was me that day, lucky that I got to meet and play against the great Johan Cruyff.”
Not words you often hear from someone who had been humiliated in front of millions around the world. And yet, that was how Jan Olsson described the moment he will indelibly be linked to – as not the first - but the most famous victim of the ‘Cruyff turn’. He pulled the trick a number of times in domestic competitions before, but this was the World Cup. Anything you do on that stage gets a new significance, and the assurance of being remembered through the annals of time.
“I still do not understand how he did it”, Jan Olsson continued, “It was a fantastic sequence.”
It is not so much the action itself, but the swiftness with which Cruyff executes it that is truly astonishing. For a moment, Olsson may have thought he has it all sussed, that he is going to force Cruyff to play backwards. If Admiral Ackbar was on hand, he may have let Olsson know - it was a trap. Cruyff had lured him into the self-deception, and when he had significantly flummoxed him – with an exaggerated attempt to almost strike the ball – he merely nudged the ball back with the inside of his foot, turned and was on his way.
The defining image is a stunning study of anatomy and balance. Cruyff, with his hips flexed, and leaning forward to create a sturdy centre of gravity. His left leg, which had been planted in the initial action, snaps into a sprint just as quickly – the shifting of weight barely noticeable, as he has just switched direction in a 180-degree movement. In stark contrast, Olsson’s legs are each straying in either direction, his proprioception nonplussed and he fumbles and almost falls as he tries to keep up with the speed of Cruyff’s legs, and his brain.
Cruyff made football look like dance sometimes, a personification of poise, performing pirouettes in Puma boots.
However, contrary to the odd polarised belief that aesthetic and pragmatism are mutually exclusive, Cruyff often did the unbelievable things he did because he thought they were necessary. For example, a famous goal that he scored against ADO Den Haag for Ajax features him curling the ball into the back of the net from a good distance after picking it up on the left channel and taking it with a heavy touch. It was a moment of genius, but it was his only option according to him. He had been tying his sock up when the ball was played to him, and he was still holding on to it as he received the ball and his sock started dropping. To him, creativity was not a luxury that was a different entity to a pragmatic approach. No, to Cruyff, creativity was pragmatism itself.
Cruyff was Barcelona’s saviour twice over - once in 1973, when he first joined the club and led them to their first La Liga title in 14 years, and then in 1988, when he took over as manager and won four consecutive La Liga titles from 1991 to 1994, in addition to curating the Dream Team which won Barcelona’s first ever European Cup. He was arguably their saviour even a third time, when he guided Joan Laporta in 2003 to appoint Frank Rijkaard, who led Barcelona’s revival before also recommending Pep Guardiola as Rijkaard’s successor over Jose Mourinho. As Pep himself would put it after the 2006 Champions League final, “Cruyff created the Sistine Chapel, Rijkaard restored it.”
A chilly Spanish night in December 1973 witnessed Cruyff scoring one of his most famous goals. Carles Rexach - who was a big factor in Cruyff’s decision to move to Barcelona - had slightly over hit the cross. Cruyff, if he propelled himself fast enough, could have headed it in, but the ball was swerving away from him. Ever the improviser, he pulled another trick out of his bag, and leapt up to prod the ball in with the outside of his right foot. The image is so striking, and indeed so iconic that it has become one of the ways Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona, in collaboration with Spanish magazine Libero try to revive the memory of those affected by Alzheimer’s - by invoking the emotions and passion associated with football. And very few arouse such strong emotions among the Barça faithful as Cruyff does.
A ‘phantom goal’, it was called, because he just was not supposed to score in that situation. He had scored a goal that was never there to be scored, created something out of nothing, changed water to wine. Perhaps he was not called El Salvador in just the literal sense of the word; Cruyff made a spiritual experience out of football.
One of Cruyff’s most famous - or infamous, according to who you ask - traits is his stubbornness. A stubbornness that not seldom gave fruit to rebellion.
For example, in contrast to his little protégé, Rinus Michels was insistent on his players’ fitness being in top condition, and would organise cross-country runs into the forest nearby. Cruyff, who abhorred the idea, would just get as far forward as possible and hide himself amidst the foliage, as his teammates continued forward. When they turned to head back, he would quietly rejoin the group, making it appear as if he had run the whole circuit.
Michels, the staunch disciplinarian, would also drive through the streets of the city at night, to make sure none of his players were out late at night and that their cars were parked by their houses. Cruyff, of course, figured out a way around this and borrowed his stepfather’s car to go visit his then-girlfriend and soon-to-be-wife Danny. Despite it still remaining a bit unusual for players to speak out against their association in men’s football, Cruyff was a very loud critic of the KNVB in the 70’s and advocated for player’s autonomy.
Famously, at the 1974 World Cup, Cruyff - who was sponsored by Puma - wore his shirt with two stripes instead of the adidas three stripes that adorned the rest of the team. When Michels wanted to assign squad numbers in alphabetical order (which would mean Cruyff would get the #1 shirt) he refused to acquiesce, and got his #14, a number that is now synonymous with him. Rinus Michels spearheaded the idea that players should be paid enough to sustain a livelihood, as he wanted players who were fully committed to the game and did not have their minds fixed on their ‘daytime jobs’ as shopkeepers and postmen. Cruyff took it a step further and demanded the KNVB pay players for international appearances. He famously said: “When my career ends, I cannot go to the baker and say, ‘I’m Johan Cruyff, give me some bread.”
Cruyff never wanted to involve himself in politics, but found himself as a sort of untouchable figurehead for Catalunya in its attempt to fight back against the injustice meted out by the Franco regime in Spain. And perhaps a bit inadvertently, Real Madrid became the footballing manifestation of the dictatorship. A week before he humiliated Real Madrid in El Clásico 5-0 in 1974, Cruyff and his wife Danny had their third child in Amsterdam. The child was officially named ‘Johan Jordi Cruyff’ but was to be called ‘Jordi’, which coincided with the name of the patron saint of Catalunya in a time when Catalan names were banned under the regime.
After El Clásico, when Cruyff brought his family back to Barcelona and went to register his son’s birth, he was plainly told that would not be possible and he would instead have to be called ‘Jorge’. “I immediately said that Danny and I would decide for ourselves what the child would be called, and it was no one else’s call to make. We chose the names because we liked them”, said Cruyff. In the end, the official handling this acceded. Partly because Cruyff already had an official document from the registration in the Netherlands which would still be universally valid, and also because the win against Real Madrid had allowed space for Catalan pride to surface against the regime. Without intending to do as much, Cruyff found himself not just a footballing icon in the region, but an adopted son and who had become one of their own.
While still a footballer in the United States, Cruyff was determined to set up a foundation to educate and cultivate a positive culture of football in children. Apparently, Cruyff had a neighbour, a child with Down Syndrome, who did not feel comfortable playing outside with the rest, and the Dutchman took a special interest in this child, teaching him football and forming a close relationship with him.
And so, as he turned 50, Cruyff, who had recently left Barcelona in acrimonious fashion, took it upon himself to start the foundation, which has now grown significantly and received well-deserved accolades. The initiative of Cruyff Courts in particular recognises the multi-faceted influence sport has on the psychosocial and physical development of children and, on a macro-scale, society.
Cruyff came up with 14 Rules that govern every Court and aim to instil values that not only underlie his ethos in football, but are transferable to life too. Values such as inclusivity, and respect, and accountability.
Originality does not exist in isolation; innovations come about by standing on the shoulders of savants that came before, and building on their ideas.
Cruyff’s legacy is not limited to merely Barcelona or Ajax and at both clubs, he had his fair share of controversy and falling-outs. Perhaps his last significant act in football was to set up the Velvet Revolution at Ajax, which initially did restore the club to a certain standard, before infighting took centre stage, and now, most of the core group of ex-players has disintegrated.
Yet, on a bigger level, the whole expansive landscape of modern football was irrevocably changed by his ideas, both directly espousing his gospel or indirectly in trying to find ways to counter or neutralise it. It puts him on a unique pedestal, where his influence is not always directly tangible and yet is perennially present in a way that is almost taken for granted.
Something as commonly found as kids being nurtured in a 4-3-3 or a space-based ideology, and being taught the Cruyff turn as an almost fundamental feint around the world is but a small example of how his legacy permeates through perhaps essentially every iota of football’s superstructure.
This article was first published in Pickles issue 14, 2018. To purchase the new issue or check out the latest Pickles gear, head to our webshop.
Words by Priya Ramesh
Illustration by Joren Joshua