Home / News / Business Of Life /  Johan Cruyff’s gift to football


In 1966, after a particularly devastating European Cup performance in Lisbon, Irish footballer George Best was overnight christened El Beatle, mainly for his obvious box-office appeal. Looking at the band’s larger significance, though, that nickname, in a football context, rightfully belongs to the Dutch player Johan Cruyff. Just as the Fab Four pushed new boundaries in almost every aspect of popular music, so too did Cruyff—who died last month—in reinventing the way football was played; just as The Beatles influenced, in music and in attitude, the generations that followed them, Cruyff’s imprint can be seen in today’s leading football teams, such as Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Spain and Germany.

Pele remains the greatest footballer ever; Lionel Messi probably the most successful in terms of trophies won (but no World Cup!) and Diego Maradona the most charismatic, inspiring hero worship and hatred in almost equal measure. But Cruyff—intelligent, thoughtful, provocative, arrogant, enigmatic, exasperating—is the most influential.

He and the football he created are also the best examples of how sport and athletes can be shaped directly by the culture and environment they are located in. Brazilian football, all heart and soul, draws much from the lives of its people. Futsal, the indoor game featuring smaller teams in a smaller playing area, has helped footballers develop speed and ball control; footvolly, born in response to curbs on beach football, is responsible for some of the more acrobatic or spectacular techniques. In Feet Of The Chameleon, Ian Hawkey reveals how urban walls and playing fields explain Ghana’s assembly line of central midfielders and Ivory Coast’s strength in strikers. In Ghana, the children play on narrow strips with narrow goals; it breeds players who are skilled at play in tight areas and in driving through the middle. In Ivory Coast, the goalposts are painted on the walls, offering bigger targets and making scoring the priority.

Few influences, however, have been as cerebral, or been interpreted in such an intellectual manner, as Dutch life and style on its country’s football. My first exposure to Dutch art and culture—long before reading Brilliant Orange, David Winner’s left-field history of Dutch football—was via a TV documentary, It Was 20 Years Ago Today, a celebration of The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which went far beyond the music to look at all the social influences on it. And, as the documentary showed, much of the creative rebellious spirit of the time originated in Holland, which was undergoing a renaissance of sorts after the horrors of World War II. Years before San Francisco or Swinging London captured the zeitgeist and made the alternative the mainstream, Amsterdam was avant- garde in the truest sense of the term.

Much of the ferment was in design, and the central idea was the use of space. This obsession with space was largely because of the peculiar Dutch landscape; with half the country under sea level, and the land facing huge pressure of population, space is at a premium. How have the Dutch created space? The most obvious ways have been by reclaiming land and by building vertically. But also in an intellectual manner—by creating social and political spaces, by creating openness of the mind, in relationships. And so the Dutch led the way in their tolerance of gay culture, of recreational drugs, of all forms of alternative lifestyles.

In the mid-1960s, Dutch football coaches began to ponder on the possibilities of controlling and manipulating space on the football field—a finite entity. What they came up with eventually became the core of Dutch football philosophy and of the schools that followed, and was called Total Football. The name itself was a hat tip to elements of broader Dutch society; there were already “Total" movements in urban planning, including the “Total Design" architecture studio, which featured the interdependence of individual elements and their ability to switch roles seamlessly.

Simply put, it’s like this: Until the 1960s, football was played in straight lines and fixed positions; a defender defended, a forward’s job was to stay up front and score, and a midfielder got the ball from one to the other. The Dutch brought in controlled chaos: Everyone could, in theory and usually in practice, play everywhere—and when they did, they created space and opportunity. Imagine, for instance, a left-back suddenly popping up on the right wing or in the opponents’ penalty area; he’s not supposed to be there and so he is unmarked, left free. And he’s not a mug; give him the ball and he can be dangerous with it.

By constantly changing shape, the team could also make the pitch larger, when attacking, and smaller, when defending. By maintaining a high defensive line, for example, they could restrict their opponents into a narrow band; when they had the ball and wanted to attack, the defenders would fall back and increase the size of the pitch. A smaller pitch, the Dutch felt, could help them against the more talented South American teams. What this system needed was discipline, intelligence and supreme physical fitness—and a level of interdependence that Jonathan Wilson suggests in Inverting The Pyramid comes from deep-rooted Dutch secularism. It allowed players to derive their essential meaning from each other rather than any higher divinity. Because when that left-back turned up out of position, a teammate had to intuitively take his place and be prepared to do his job. Brilliant Orange describes how the 1960s’ generation of Dutch players discussed the concept endlessly, buying into the plan even if they did not fully understand its provenance.

Above all, it required the intellect of Cruyff—“You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you," he once said—to turn theory into practice. Cruyff was more than the leader on the pitch; he was blessed with a spatial vision that allowed him to see the game in totality, rather than from his limited physical perspective. Winner called him “Pythagoras in boots". He would constantly direct his teammates, moving them around the pitch into spaces they couldn’t see, even as he himself effected yet another game-changing dip of the shoulder or a dazzling burst of speed.

Cruyff and his Ajax and Holland coach Rinus Michels then took the idea to Barcelona in the early 1970s. Generations later, and after a succession of Dutch players and coaches there, including Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard, their ideas found their fullest bloom in Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering team, one of the greatest club sides ever. “Cruyff painted the chapel," Guardiola once said. “Barcelona’s coaches since then merely restore or improve it." The fulcrum of Guardiola’s team and of the similarly successful Spanish national side, the man who kept the tiki-taka ticking, was the midfielder Xavi. A few years ago, in an interview to The Guardian, he was asked how his team responded to their opponents’ frequently ultra-defensive ploys. “Think quickly, look for spaces. That’s what I do: look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking. All day, all day."

It sounds so familiar, so very Dutch, but of course it merely shows how well those lessons were internalized. Cruyff pulled off many great passes in his career; passing on the nous to dismantle space, the final frontier, was probably the greatest.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Espncricinfo.

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