What could be more characteristic?
Dutch soccer legend Johan Cruyff, one of the world’s greatest ever players and tactical innovators, is dead.
He departed the world stage that he had graced like few other sportsmen before him with one last head-spinning turn, an announcement of his death via his own Twitter feed.
The tweet linked to the announcement, in three languages of course, that the former star of Ajax Amsterdam, Barcelona and the now-defunct Los Angeles Aztecs had died peacefully in Barcelona, “surrounded by his family after a hard-fought battle with cancer,” aged 68.
Cruyff’s contribution to modern soccer is hard to overstate. The man embodied “Total Football”, the style that made Ajax European champions three years running and took the Dutch to two successive World Cup finals (even if he was off the team for the second of those).
Before ‘Total Football’, teams would play in relatively rigid formations that limited their tactical options. Cruyff’s teams, by contrast, played with a collective fluidity in which each player was able, at least in theory, to play in any position. It demanded new levels of technical excellence and tactical awareness from individual players. When executed well, it was almost impossible to play against.
It still is. The Barcelona team that dominates world soccer today is essentially Cruyff’s creation. As he transitioned from player to mentor and later coach, it was he who proposed setting up Barca’s now legendary academy to drill the precepts of ‘Total Football’ into young talent such as Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
The original Dutch style may have morphed over time into a more distinctively Spanish one known as ‘tiki-taka’, heavy on short passes and with an emphasis on ball retention, but it is still essentially Cruyff’s doctrine. Pep Guardiola, the architect of Barcelona’s latest spell of dominance and now coach of German champions Bayern Munich, is not so much a Cruyff disciple, as a chain in his apostolic succession. Few would argue with the conclusion of his biographer, Dietrich Schulze-Marmeling that the Dutchman is the single most influential figure in soccer history.
But Cruyff was an individual genius more than just a one-man system, blessed with acceleration, vision and a technique so far ahead of its time that he was often, quite simply, untouchable. The clip below, from the 1974 World Cup finals, is seared into the memory of anyone who saw it at the time.
Even his failures have gone down in popular history as successes. He pointed out with a characteristic lack of modesty that his Dutch team had been the real winners of the 1974 World Cup, even though they lost the final to Franz Beckenbauer’s West Germany 2-1. What people remembered was more important than the score, he said. And what all neutrals remember is how Cruyff’s surging run into the German penalty area won a penalty, and a goal, before a German player had even touched the ball; if they remember Gerd Müller’s winner (itself a masterpiece in the striker’s art of finishing), then only for the sinking feeling that accompanied it.
Genius, innovator, entertainer, influence: it’s easy to see Cruyff as a sporting counterpart to David Bowie, who died earlier this year. Like Bowie, he was one of the first superstars of an era when television was becoming widely available in color, a medium that captured their extravagant gifts all the more vividly. Both stamped their respective arts (for Cruyff made soccer an art) forever, as creators of beauty and sources of delight. And both have left huge legacies, to inspire the generations that will come, and to comfort the ones that were lucky enough to see them.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Cruyff scored the Netherlands’ goal in the 1974 World Cup final.