Douglas Bastard's Rants of Rage

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This article was written on 24 Mar 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

In memoriam: Johan Cruyff

So Johan Cruyff died. To people used to the admittedly opulent skills of Messi at Barcelona or Ronaldo at Real, he perhaps seems like a name from another age, no more relevant than Pele, who is more famous for advertising Viagra and for reliably saying ‘England can win the World Cup’ to English sports journalists every four years, or even Maradona, another magnificently talented and erratic genius. Why, then, should we care about him?

We should care about him because Cruyff came from a time before people were paid stupid amounts of money for playing football and, as a consequence, were wholly remote from human activity and hidden behind a layer of minders, agents and other, paid flunkeys. More than that, he was magnificently his own man. When Holland signed a deal with Adidas to wear the distinctive three stripes on their kit in 1974, Cruyff resisted because he had a deal with Puma. In response, he wore a kit with only two stripes and Adidas had no choice but to like it.

Can you imagine this happening now? No, me neither. But the list of examples of Cruyff’s irascibility  goes on. When Ajax sold him to Barcelona in 1973, he named his son Jordi, a Catalan name which can’t have endeared him to the Franco regime still reeling from the fact he had told the press corps that he could not join Real because of their close association with the dictator. When Ajax declined to offer Cruyff an extension to his contract after he had rejoined them a few years later, he responded by joining their rivals, Feyenoord, and winning the league and cup double.

When his family were the target of a kidnap attempt in 1977 and with a military regime in power in Argentina where the World Cup was due to be played, Cruyff simply resigned from international football. And, as an additional bonus, he looked like the kind of footballer your parents would take a dim view of, long and lean, with a sombre face and equally long, unkempt hair. In the classic picture of him bursting into the German penalty area in the 1974 World Cup final, the two white-shirted men tackling him look like porn stars, with their solid arms and thick blonde hair. Cruyff, by contrast, looks like the bassist for an indie band.

Irascibility and volatility are motley virtues unless you have the talent to justify them, and Cruyff had it in abundance. He scored on his first team debut in 1964 and the following season he scored 25 goals in 24 games. Ajax, unsurprisingly, won the league and the season after that, they won it again, with Cruyff increasing his tally for the season to 33. He won a total of six league titles in his first spell at Ajax, all the more remarkable since the club had finished in its lowest ever league position the season he started playing first team football, and domestic success provided the springboard to success in Europe.

Cruyff won three European Cups in successive years, from 1970 to 1973, the last two in years that they also won the Dutch league and one, 1971-72, marking a brilliant treble with European and domestic cups and the league title. Lesser success followed at Barcelona, where his overt hostility to the Franco regime made him a cult hero, but when he went into management and returned to the Nou Camp in a Spain finally free of Franco, he enjoyed success all over again, winning La Liga four times, the European Cup again, the Cup Winners’ Cup and a host of others,

But this is not the full story. To appreciate Cruyff the most, you have to see him play. Lean to the point of emaciation, he looks misplaced on a football field until there is an explosive burst of speed, a split second of vision and a moment of skill in either a pass or a shot that defies expectation. The most common posture for defenders that you’ll see is that they back off, back off and back off, then lunge at a shadow that has already accelerated away in a direction that they never expected. When I watch him play, the most natural position for me is open-mouthed amazement at sublime skill that reduces the other players to mute witnesses.

He gave his name to the Cruyff turn, shaping his body for a raking pass and then playing the ball behind his standing leg so that he would have turned 180 degree and accelerated away past the luckless individual who was attempting to mark him. He scored what is known to Barcelona fans as ‘The Phantom Goal,’ back heeling the ball past the Atletico Madrid keeper, despite the fact that the ball was at torso height, travelling at speed and seemed to be sailing far past the post, narrowing the angle so that, when Cruyff contrived to volley it in, the space through which it was slotted was almost no wider than the ball itself.

Cruyff was in the team when Barca beat Real Madrid in the Bernabeu by five goals to nil, and and maybe most memorably of all, in the 1974 World Cup final in which Holland lost agonisingly to West Germany, took the ball from the centre circle, dribbled into the box and then won a penalty for Johan Neesekens to convert without a single German ever touching the ball. This is the kind of skill that has people talking generations after they saw it and watching videos in Kodachrome colours for the rest of time.

His epitaph here might just as well go to Jan Olsson, the Swedish defender who was the victim of the first ever Cruyff turn at the ’74 World Cup. “I played 18 years in top football and seventeen times for Sweden but that moment against Cruyff was the proudest moment of my career,” Olson said later. “I thought I’d win the ball for sure, but he tricked me. I was not humiliated. I had no chance. Cruyff was a genius.”

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