Sunday 27 March 2016

Johan Cruyff 1947 - 2016

Football lost one of its all time greats this week with the death of Johan Cruyff.

I knew he was battling against cancer but following his announcement earlier this year that he was '2-0 up' against cancer I assumed he was on the road to recovery.

All the major footballing nations of Europe and South America have their own footballing culture and identity. I would describe Cruyff as being the godfather of Dutch football.

What makes Cruyff an all time great of football is not only how he played the game and what he achieved on the pitch. It's also his legacy off the pitch in terms of his coaching, club management and how he viewed and spoke about the game.

All football fans who know their history know about the great Ajax and Dutch national teams of the late 60s and early 70s. They introduced the world to 'Total football' A style where players where equally comfortable understanding and playing in different parts of the pitch. Cruyff was the leader of that Ajax and Dutch team and in 1974 he lead them to the World Cup final against West Germany.

I wasn't around for the 1974 World Cup but Holland were the team of the tournament and Cruyff the star player but sport doesn't always follow the romantic script and Holland lost in the final to West Germany when everyone expected and hoped they'd win.

Having watched documentaries on the 74 World Cup and read the book Brilliant Orange Perhaps it was a mixture of Dutch arrogance and overconfidence that they thought they would naturally beat a very good West Germany team.

In club football, Cruyff left Ajax after winning 3 European Cups in a row (1971-73) to join Spanish giants Barcelona. It's hard to believe now but when Cruyff joined Barcelona they hadn't won the league since 1960. By the end of his first season in Barcelona they had won the league. When he left Barcelona to go and play in America he was a hero in Catalonia.

By the time I started watching football in the mid 80s Cruyff had recently retired and had become manager of Ajax. My earliest memories of Cruyff was as manager where he was in charge of Barcelona and where he led them to an unprecedented 4 consecutive league titles from 1991 - 1994 and the club's first European Cup in 1992.

When I look back it's his time at Barcelona that you begin to see the legacy of Cruyff. When he returned to the club Barcelona had only won one league title since Cruyff left. That was in 1985 under Terry Venables.

Since the early 90s Barcelona have arguably been the most successful football club in the world in terms of winning trophies, developing youth players and playing a game that is loved by football fans across the world. Johan Cruyff started all of this and his influence can be seen today with the way Barcelona play the game now and you can see the roots and origins of their football if you go all the way back to the glory days of Dutch football at the start of the 1970s. That's what you call a legacy.

One of the great things I've discovered as a football fan in recent years is Youtube. You can now watch old clips of games and players who you may previously have only seen a few familiar clips.

In the past I've watched highlights of Cruyff particularly towards the end of his career in the early 80s when he returned to Ajax and more controversially to Ajax's biggest rivals Feyenoord of Rotterdam. What stands out is how stylish and elegant he was as a player even in his mid 30s. Some of his goals are just beautiful to watch.

Players like Johan Cruyff don't come around very often but when they do they remind you why you love the game of football so much.

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