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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Johan Cruyff: The man who transformed football

First as a player and then as a coach, Johan Cruyff refashioned our understanding of space on a football pitch

By the time I came to football in the mid-1990s, having been quickly ensnared by the sport’s captivating geometry, the life’s work of Johan Cruyff, who died on Thursday of cancer, aged 68, was already complete. Cruyff’s career glittered with success. But his real legacy transcends the banal, mathematical calculations of wins and losses.

Over a span of 30 years, first as a player and later as a coach and manager, Cruyff transformed football, refashioning our understanding of space on a football pitch. He presented the sport to us in its finest, most romantic dimension, infusing into it a profound sense that was really akin to a moral conscience—a spectacle of football that was as thrilling as it was productive.

The imprints of Cruyff’s legacy are so deep that well into this century, almost every memorable performance appears to have his vision at its fount. Spain’s majestic World Cup victory in South Africa (2010), Germany’s success in Brazil (2014) and—most significantly—Barcelona’s domineering spate of triumphs over the past decade have each been built on the bedrock of Cruyffian philosophy.

Their methods have, in different proportions, demanded a mastery of space, requiring the team to work hard at squeezing the size of a football pitch when the ball is in the opponent’s possession, and at working towards a rapid expansion of attacking possibilities every time the ball is won back.

To play this way, no doubt, requires tremendous technical skill, mental aptitude and stamina, but that the theoretical underpinnings of the method appear commonplace today owes much to Cruyff’s genius.

Between 1964 and 1973, at Ajax Amsterdam, Cruyff established himself as Europe’s supreme player, in the process shaping a virtual renaissance of the sport. When he burst onto the scene, the Netherlands was seething with energy. It was a time when the Dutch were yearning for change, in politics, in the arts, and indeed in football too. As David Winner observed in his terrific book, Brilliant Orange, “A cultural revolution was coming to the boil" in the Netherlands.

In a sense, Cruyff was a product of these times. His unique, near-peerless ability would have likely made him a great footballer in any event. But bathed with a spirit of iconoclasm that had captured his country’s imagination, Cruyff was able to mould a footballing revolution out of his outstanding natural talent.

At Ajax, Cruyff was given his debut by English coach Vic Buckingham. Cruyff’s abilities were immediately apparent. In just his second match for the club, as a raw, nimble and gangly 17-year-old, he scored in a 5-0 hammering of arch-rival PSV Eindhoven.

But Buckingham was outdated in his thinking as a manager; he was committed to the rigid, archaic W-M formation which saw football as a sport played in straight lines, with different banks of players placed in parallel stripes in front of each other.

It’s likely that Cruyff would have succeeded under any coach. Such was his innate ability. But when Buckingham was axed and replaced by Rinus Michels, Cruyff had found the perfect partner.

Cruyff was ostensibly a centre forward. But he had a tendency to often drift wide, and deep, in search of not only the ball, but also space. Almost intrinsically, Cruyff appeared to have an ability to inflate a team’s possibilities when in possession of the ball.

He was blessed with lighting speed, and an unparalleled turn of pace, but was equally capable of beating defenders with a simple trick, a drop of the shoulder, a swerve here and a swerve there.

Equally, Cruyff could find a teammate with all manners of passes, long and short, with the inside and the outside of either foot, often using the latter to curve the ball around the opposition’s straight backline. He could also score from different positions. He could poach inside the six-yard box, or he could strike with pace and precision off either foot.

If you watched videos of Cruyff play today, what is striking is the different positions that he often took on a football pitch. He could just as easily be at right back one moment, while, in the next, darting into the box to finish off a pattern of play.

In the madness of this apparent fluidity, though, there was a certain, fixed method. And, in this process, Michels played a critical role. He saw Cruyff as not only a player gifted with astonishing ability and flair, but also as a communicator on the pitch, as an instrumentalist of a high form of footballing art.

Together, Michels and Cruyff created Totaalvoetbal, or “Total Football", a style designed to exploit Cruyff’s abilities to its fullest potential. The team’s formation was often fixed—it involved the goalkeeper, three defenders, four midfielders and three forwards. But what were malleable was the players who occupied these positions.

Michels’s system involved a rapid switching of positions between players. When Cruyff, the supposed centre forward, drifted to the right, the player from the left wing would have moved centrally, and the ostensible left back would have charged forward to open up the team’s possibilities.

As a result, the team functioned like clockwork. In conducting this movement, Cruyff was often the orchestrator. He could frequently be seen, even with the ball glued to his feet, pointing to his teammates, directing them to move to designed areas.

Between 1971 and 1973, Ajax won three successive European Cups, often leaving its opposition beguiled by its players’ movements. In 1974, the Dutch national team, influenced by a slew of Ajax stars, took Total Football to the World Cup.

Coached by Michels and led on the pitch by Cruyff, the Dutch trail blazed their way through the early rounds. But in the final, they were undone by Germany, losing 1-2, having taken the lead. It was a victory for pragmatism, but as Cruyff would often point out, it was the Dutch who captured the world’s imagination.

As it happened, the iconic clip from the tournament involves Cruyff, fleet-footed as ever, turning Swedish defender Jan Olsson with an entrancing yet simple trick, executed with peerless grace and elegance—a move that is today called “The Cruyff Turn".

“My teammates after the game, we looked at each other, they started to laugh and I do the same," Olsson said, about being left stranded by Cruyff. “I laughed then and I laugh now. It was very funny. He was a world-class player. I do my best, but I was not a world-class player. The players in my team, they all laugh because they know me—we laughed together in the changing room because everyone saw what a player he was. What more could we do?"

A year earlier, Cruyff had moved from Ajax to Barcelona for what was at the time a world-record fee. In his first season at the club, Cruyff led the Catalans to a league title, their first since 1960. He would never win the European Cup at Barcelona as a player, but his biggest impact in Spain was still to come.

After hanging up his boots, Cruyff made the natural transition. He moved from on-pitch conductor to off-pitch instrumentalist. As a coach, Cruyff managed two remarkable football teams, the first at Ajax, where he paved the way for a group of stunningly talented footballers, and later at Barcelona, where he carved a “Dream Team" that played football of a kind that the world had hitherto never seen.

“Johan Cruyff built the cathedral," Pep Guardiola said on taking over as Barcelona’s coach in 2008, “and our job is to maintain it and renovate it."

Indeed, as it happened, Guardiola the player was at the heart of Cruyff’s revolution. When Cruyff assumed charge as manager in 1988, Barcelona was a club in shambles. When he left the team eight years later, its famous slogan “més que un club"—more than a club—assumed a staggering sense of an axiom.

Cruyff assembled players from all parts of Europe and South America while maintaining a strong Catalan base led by Guardiola to steer the club to four consecutive Spanish league titles between 1990-91 and 1993-94, capped, as it were, by its first European Cup triumph at Wembley in 1992.

With Guardiola as his midfield lynchpin, and blessed with players such as the solid Ronald Koeman, the dazzling Michael Laudrup, the mercurial Hristo Stoichkov and the great Romario, Cruyff, inspired by Michels’s vision, moulded Total Football into something even more quixotic, where the ideal was in retaining possession of the ball.

This attitude would serve as the building blocks for Barcelona’s heady, recent successes. But even more critically, Cruyff was instrumental in helping establish La Masia, Barcelona’s famed centre of football excellence.

It was Cruyff who, as a player, had proposed to the club’s president Josep Núñez the idea of establishing such an institution. When he took over as manager, Cruyff helped establish the philosophy of La Masia—where young trainees were inculcated in the Barcelona way of playing, with the focus not on physical size, but on basic skills and technique, and, most importantly, on ball retention. They were taught to think in terms of space. It is an ideological tenet that has served Barcelona to date.

Two of its foremost and earliest graduates, Guardiola and Guillermo Amor, played fundamental roles in the Dream Team’s achievements. And it is through this academy that Barcelona has secured the core of its more recently successful teams. Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets are all graduates of La Masia.

When we see today’s Barcelona enthralling us with their mesmeric patterns of play, pressing their opponents into submission through a mastery of space, it is really an execution of Cruyff’s philosophy.

Equally, when we see other teams around the world seeking to compress space when without the ball and expand the dimensions of the pitch when with the ball, it is, once again, Cruyff’s inspiration on display.

It’s inarguable that no other figure has exerted an influence as everlasting on football as Cruyff has. As a player, Cruyff was like a “Pythagoras in boots", as David Miller of The Times, London, once wrote.

As a coach, he was even more instrumental. “In a way, I’m probably immortal," Cruyff had once proclaimed, with typical pomposity. But today, the statement has a ringing sense of the verity to it. Cruyff was not only a genius, and a path-breaker, but also a luminary of football, as we know it now.

Cruyff’s best moments

7 December 1966: Inspired by a 19-year-old Cruyff, Ajax defeated Liverpool, managed then by the legendary Bill Shankly, 5-1 at Amsterdam. Cruyff scored the second goal of the match. He also scored the opener in the return leg. The tie announced his arrival on the European scene.

31 May 1972: Ajax defeated FC Internazionale 2-0 in the final of the European Cup, their second in three consecutive triumphs. Cruyff scored both goals, the second a peach of a header.

22 December 1973: Cruyff scored one of the finest goals of his career, against Atletico Madrid, in a 2-1 win in La Liga. Cruyff charged forward to meet a ball played in from the left with what can only be described as a Karate Kick. The goal would later be described as a “Phantom strike".

17 February 1974: Cruyff, now at Barcelona, led his team to a 5-0 routing of arch rivals Real Madrid. Cruyff scored the second goal of the match. “With Cruyff," wrote the football historian Jimmy Burns, Barcelona “felt they couldn’t lose".

19 June 1974: Holland vs Sweden at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund at the World Cup. The match ended goalless, but in the 23rd minute, Cruyff provided, arguably, the defining moment of the World Cup. A turn so elegant and exquisite that it left the Swedish right back Jan Olsson floundering with twisted blood.

5 December 1982: Ajax vs Helmond Sport. Cruyff scored a memorable penalty, most recently replicated, albeit not perfectly, by Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez for Barcelona. Cruyff, the penalty taker, opted to pass the ball to an on-rushing teammate, only for the ball to be redirected onto his path, allowing him to tap into an empty net.

Suhrith Parthasarathy is a lawyer and writer based in Chennai. His writings are collated at suhrith.net.

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