Paris - Johan Cruyff, who has died at the age of 68, was a
visionary, one whose influence on football left a legacy that endures. Here is
a look at how Cruyff achieved his huge status within the game.
Cruyff was credited with helping to create "Total
Football," a seamless concept featuring a mesmerizing combination of both
exerting pressure by harrying the opposition and leaving opponents chasing
shadows once in possession. To achieve it, players had to be technically superb,
tactically astute, and quick-thinking enough to swap positions before startled
opponents reacted. These footballing principles would form the core of the
famed Ajax academy. Scores of players coming through the ranks at the
Amsterdam-based club next to where Cruyff grew up — Marco van Basten, Patrick
Kluivert, Dennis Bergkamp included — benefited from the legacy. But his ideas
reached so far that even goalkeepers, such as Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer and
Paris Saint-Germain's Kevin Trapp, are valued for their excellent passing
ability as ball-playing sweepers. You can imagine how Cruyff would relish
telling them to launch attacks from the back.
Johan Cruyff did not invent outrageous skill: Others did mercurial
tricks before him. But one magical moment from the fleet-footed Dutchman at the
1974 World Cup empowered European footballers to believe that signature moves
were not a Brazilian copyright. It was triggered by the "Cruyff Turn"
— a delicious move for wingers to leave fullbacks flapping in the wind, one
just as much about using space as the ball. Cruyff, collecting the ball on the
left touchline with a defender breathing down his neck, flicked it behind his
other leg and span around to collect it in one motion. The beauty lay in its originality
and practicality. When Dennis Bergkamp bamboozled Newcastle's defenders playing
for Arsenal with an inside-out turn and body swerve in 2002, you could picture
Cruyff nodding his approval. Bergkamp also shared another Cruyff trait: an
aggressive streak allied to his breath-taking skills.
Barcelona dominates European football having won four Champions
League titles in 10 years. The Catalan greats, however, can say a huge
"gracias" to Cruyff, who, after blessing Barca with his playing
skills, transformed the club as coach. The football scientist brilliantly
blended local players — such as defensive midfielder Pep Guardiola — with
foreign stars like cunning Danish midfielder Michael Laudrup. The formula still
works to this day. Cruyff's wonderful football brand helped Barca win its first
European Cup in 1992. More than that, however, his influence on Guardiola was
enormous. So much so that, when Guardiola led Barca to its best-ever period of
success with the much-vaunted "tiki-taka" football — a descendant of
Cruyff's "Total Football" — he praised his mentor. "Cruyff built
the cathedral, our job is to maintain and renovate it," said Guardiola,
who never had Cruyff's ability but shared his vision. The day Cruyff plucked
Guardiola straight from the youth team, he hand-picked his own successor.
Cruyff had an unquenchable thirst for reinventing football and an
unstoppable will for it to be played the way he saw it. It was about breaking
down old pre-conceptions. He did not believe in maintaining football tradition,
but shaking its foundations. "The Brazilians loved dribbling, but for
Cruyff it was just one aspect of the game," football author Simon Kuper
told The Associated Press by telephone. "He was always trying to be new
and original. 'Why are you doing it like this? Why are you doing it this way?'
He was an iconoclast." Cruyff was also avant-garde, and even before
becoming a coach he was making managerial decisions. Before the 1974 World Cup
he told midfielder Arie Haan "you're playing as sweeper, that's your
position" explains Kuper, author of "Football Against the Enemy"
and "Ajax, The Dutch, the War," adding that Cruyff "also decided
who would come on at half-time during the final."
Cruyff's legacy has one small question mark, however: penalty
kicks. The Dutch national team is notoriously bad at those, having won only two
of seven penalty shootouts in major tournaments. Some of this spot-kick phobia
can be traced back to Cruyff's lofty indifference to penalty-taking, with one
highly original exception. He took only one penalty in his entire career for
Ajax: exchanging passes from the spot with team-mate Jesper Olsen in a
brilliantly smart move recently recreated by Barcelona stars Lionel Messi and
Luis Suarez in another nod to Cruyff. But usually, penalty taking was not
aesthetic enough for Cruyff the artist. "The idea of standing still and
waiting to kick the ball after the referee's whistle was anathema to him,"
writes author Ben Lyttleton in "Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of
the Perfect Penalty."