Johan Cruyff wasn’t a normal kid. When he started training with the Ajax first team in 1964, he was still playing in all different positions for the U21 squad, including the goalkeeper spot. The Dutchman would go on to become one of the most influential people The Game has ever seen, on and off the pitch. This is how El Flaco changed football and its people forever.
1. Cruyff at Barcelona
You won’t see much talking about Cruyff’s abilities on the pitch in this article. Three Ballon d’Ors, three European Cups, a World Cup final, 435 goals for club and country, jaw-dropping dribbles and his legendary Cruyff turn, that part speaks for itself.
But when moving from Amsterdam to Barcelona, he managed to transcend his role as a player for a first time.
Back in 1973, Spain was terrorised by its dictator, General Francisco Franco. The Catalan Community was especially suppressed by the central government in Madrid. In football and other sports, Franco prohibited clubs from using foreign references, thus changing Futbol Club Barcelona (FCB) to Club Futbol de Barcelona (CFB). Regional references were especially out of the question, so the Catalan flag was removed from the club’s badge.
The people needed a hero to give them strength, to show them the way. That symbol of resistance wasn’t a politician, neither was he even born in Catalonia. Johan Cruyff was born in the liberalist counterculture Amsterdam, and became a cult hero, someone the people could believe in. Cruyff was the star in Barça’s hammering of Real Madrid, Franco’s team, in his first season. The 5-0 at the Bernabeu was a step forward towards the league title, but it was more than that. It became an optimistic narrative of the Rebellion of Barcelona against the Regime of Madrid.
In the final years of his career as a manager, Cruyff managed the Catalan National Team, the unofficial football team of the Catalan Community, which has featured Gerard Piqué, Carles Puyol, Andrès Iniesta and Xavi. Few foreigners ever managed to have the impact on the region and its people as he did.
2. Total Football
Despite being one of the best players to ever grace a football pitch, his real impact came off the pitch. No, Johan Cruyff didn’t invent Total Football. Football had been evolving for years into the utilisation of space and fluidity of positions that would characterise Total Football. Some sources originate it back to legendary Austrian manager Ernst Happel, while Cruyff himself learned most from his coaches at Ajax, Rinus Michels and Stefan Kovacs.
- Big pitch while attacking, small when defending,
- High pressing with the whole team, a high defensive line,
- Position switches between defense and midfield, midfield and attack and even defense and attack.
When Johan Cruyff took over at Ajax after finishing his playing career in 1985, his team’s play was unlike anything ever seen on a football pitch.
Johan Cruyff mastered Total Football in a way many deemed impossible.
3. Tiki Taka and The Barcelona Way
No wonder his old team FC Barcelona rushed to sign their former fan’s favourite when he decided not to extend his contract in Amsterdam. The Catalan club had won only one league title in fourteen years when he arrived and was in clear need of a new identity.
Cruyff didn’t underdeliver to his new superiors. It was kind of the contrary. A European Cup Winner’s Cup, a Copa del Rey, four consecutive La Liga’s, and most of all, Blaugrana’s first-ever European Cup, in 1992, at Wembley. At the time, he became the club’s most successful manager with 11 pieces of silverware.
He didn’t just change the results, he changed the club’s culture, identity, and image around the world. Having the ball, dictating the game through possession, creating loads of chances, winning the game by dominating the ball, that was all Cruyff.
He realised that implementing his style in the first team wasn’t enough. During his years at Catalonia’s capital, he gradually enforced his influence on Barça’s youth academy, La Masia.
Inspired by his time at Ajax, he realised that just winning wasn’t enough. Real winning in football had to be obtained by building a culture, with all heads facing the same direction. Young footballers had to be immersed in the style and philosophy of the club to be better prepared for first-team football. Youngsters being handed their first opportunity in professional football wasn’t a rare feat, and La Masia graduates Pep Guardiola, Guillermo Amor and Sergi Barjuan even became club legends.
Journalist Graham Hunter wrote in his book about FC Barcelona: “If he had not installed a culture, a philosophy at the Nou Camp, then Lionel Messi would have been rejected and sent home as an underdeveloped 13-year-old kid. Andrés Iniesta wouldn’t have been selected.”
4. Good athletes, better people
Cruyff wouldn’t have been Cruyff if he wasn’t looking for a deeper meaning and better values than just winning. A brilliant thinker, Cruyff wanted to improve his players not just as athletes, but as human beings. He focused on teaching his prodigies civility, to become better people, and humility, so they would be more open to learn.
Via football, he taught young people valuable life skills. From Cruyff, they learned not to be afraid of failing, because it is a part of the growth process and the way to continuous improvement. He preached individual thought and expression, on and off the pitch, in football and in life.
After his career, the Johan Cruyff Foundation opened numerous ‘Cruyff Courts’, football pitches all over the world where people gather to celebrate his values. These 14 beliefs of football’s most famous number 14 guide young people all over the world.
In 2010, Spain won its first World Cup with some of the finest tiki-taka, or Total Football, every displayed. Watching the style of Spain’s play, one would think Vicente Del Bosque was Johan Cruyff in disguise.
The most famous devote of Johan Cruyff is probably Pep Guardiola. In the 2008-09 season, as a rookie on the manager scene, Pep won six trophies in his first season in true Cruyffian style. The team’s ridiculous passing game, executed by a group full of academy graduates, made everything perfectly aligned with Cruyff. According to Guardiola, Cruyff has been the most influential person in football in the last 50 years. “No one in football has given the sport that much, both as a player and a manager.”
FC Barcelona wouldn’t have been same without Cruyff. Just like football wouldn’t have been the same without one of its greatest masterminds. Other coaches have won more, but his legacy, his ideas, his playing style, is unrivalled. Guardiola: “Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it.”
Johan Cruyff didn’t just shape his career, or even a particular era in football. He influenced entire generations of football managers, such as Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger and Luis Enrique to name but a few. He influenced people’s lives, far beyond football, in Amsterdam, Catalonia and the rest of the world.
Rest in Peace, ‘Flaco’.