RIP Johan Cruyff

This one hurts. Cruyff was the reason I fell in love with soccer as a kid. He just made it look so cool, so effortless, so…awesome.

One of the greatest players in the history of the game. Dead at 68 of cancer.

Yups, this really bites. I had hoped he’d be able to beat the cancer, at least temporarily, after the news broke last year… alas he didn’t. R.I.P. A true soccer giant gone.

The Cruyff Turn. Hard to imagine modern footie without it.

It’s a shame that he and those great Dutch teams didn’t win a World Cup.

Love this documentary on Cruyff. The attitude of that '74 World Cup team that lost to West Germany in the final is hilarious and kind of awesome: a shrug and a knowing smile and “We probably had to much fun.”

This piece on SBNation also nails the mystique perfectly. Cruyff was David Bowie out on that field. Brilliant, skilled, beautiful, sexy.

Holland of course are in mourning, but proud of their native son it seems.

But Barca? Holy shit. Just looking at twitter and around the internet, Barcelona fans, especially those who remember the team before Cruyff are absolutely inconsolable. Like, they want him beatified. Now.

He has left an incredible legacy behind. His idea for an youth academy at Barca modelled on the Dutch model has been hugely important for the team. His style of play is still being used by the team today and his reason for not wanting to play for Real is awesome.

triggercut, I Love your tweet about Pele, Cruyff and Beckenbauer.

Don’t know how it was in Canada, but when I was a kid growing up here in the states, here’s how I could watch soccer:

  1. We could go to Francis Field on the Washington University campus in St. Louis and watch the St. Louis Stars of the NASL play. Saw them play the New York Cosmos. Never got to see them play a Cruyff-led team.

  2. We could catch the occasional NASL game on Wide World Of Sports, especially when Pele came over.

  3. The really only convenient way was to watch this show on PBS called “Soccer Made In Germany”. They’d show edited clips of games from the Bundesliga, with Englishman Toby Charles providing the commentary. Anyway, my brother decided I should be into soccer since I was a kid and it was the 1970s. And I remember for like two months, they showed highlights of the 1974 World Cup (in 1977 no less) and the European Cup, and Johan Cruyff was all over those highlights. And all I could think was that Cruyff looked like a rock star. He didn’t look like an athlete. He just looked impossibly cool. He made soccer look impossibly cool. And that’s how I got hooked.

Cruyff’s story with Barcelona is too amazing. But it really starts with the weird saga Di Stefano. He transferred - possibly illegally - from Plate to Millionares in Columbia. And Plate apparently still had some rights on him. When Millionares were playing exhibitions in Spain, both Real and Barcelona were taken aback by Di Stefano’s play. So both clubs opened negotiations. Barcelona was negotiating with both River and Millionares. But one of the people Barcelona brought to the table, while a Catalan, was a board member at a rival club of Millionares. Barcelona had been on the verge of the signing but then the negotiations broke down. So they said “well, your transfer was illegal anyways so we’ll just do it with River” (who were still pretty ticked about the transfer 3 years prior). So Barcelona secure the rights, FIFA approves, and Di Stefano shows up and plays in an exhibition match with FC Barcelona.

Real, lead by then president Bernabeu, kept pursuing negotiations with Millionares. Real were Franco’s team, and then the RFEF (the Spanish federation) ruled the transfer illegal. Di Stefano went over to Real and the rest is history: 5 straight Euro titles and a bevy of trophies. Barcelona had some very good teams in this time (lead by Laszlo Kubala), but they were overshadowed by a team that was the darling of the government that was brutally repressing the local ethnicity. Still, they’re the ones that ended Real’s 5 straight Euro titles. But all they managed to do in that time was win a couple of league titles (Real only did the double 3 of those 5 Euro titles. Fun fact: Real has not, since the modern era of the European competition began, won a double ever). That last league title was 59-60, which then kicked off a 14 period where Barcelona would win the domestic cup 3 times (Copa Del Rey), some other random cup nobody remembers (The Intercontinental Cup? Or Tri cities? Or something, too lazy to look it up). 14 years with no Europe (something the club had never done anyway) and no league titles.

In 1973 they sign Johan Cruyff a few games into the season. Everybody wanted him. Everybody. Because he absolutely was more than soccer star, he was impossibly cool and larger than life. He chooses Barcelona over Real Madrid, telling the European press “I could never play for a club associated with Francisco Franco”. The locals were already going to welcome him with open arms (the team had already had plenty of foreign stars in its time, Kubala probably being the most famous). So there’s a fever pitch to the proceedings. The Catalans are not allowed to speak their language, use Catalanian names for kids, or do any sort of overt cultural displays. Cruyff is having a son. He names him “Jordi”, a very popular Catalan name. The Spanish goverment says “you can’t do that”. He says “fuck off” (one assumes). He gives Barcelona it’s first league title in 14 years. It’s the only major hardware Barcelona (I believe they won a super cup as well in his time, the lesser of the local cup competitions). Doesn’t matter, Cruyff is one of the five coolest people of all time (and climbing) and he’s basically a folk hero in Barcelona. There’s a shadow across the region and he walked in and dispelled it, like Gandalf.

On the way out, he tells the president “you really need to invest in a youth program the way Ajax does”. One assumes that there is a peel of thunder and a flash of lighting in the back ground when he says this.

Cruyff ends his playing days and transitions to managing, where he has a lot of success back at Ajax (two league titles). He grew up as a fan of English style soccer, but has since evolved his thinking as an extension of what they did at Ajax (and then Barca), as well as how the Clockwork Orange performed. Strategic off the ball movement. 11 players who are essentially part of the attack in some way. Pressuring the defense once the ball is turned over. Lots of crisp short passes to make the defense work, with all the passing and movement designed to create space where the defense doesn’t expect it. And then Barcelona needs a manager and they look to him, and he comes home.

Barcelona had not, in any time during it’s history, enjoyed the success they would under Cruyff. They reap their finest generation of La Masia graduates to date to pair with key international signings like Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov, Romario (all of whom some of us will remember starring in the 1994 World Cup right here in the USA). Barcelona wins 4 straight league titles, a series of Supercopas, and their first ever European Glory (doing the double in 91-92. Whereas Real Madrid is just kicking off their epic “doubless” streak). 11 trophies in total. He’s sacked in 1995, but at this point he’s probably something like a local saint. Unbeknownst to everyone, the best is yet to come.

One of the key players on that Barcelona was the defensive midfielder, pivote in the local parlance, Pep Guardiaola. He’s the engine that makes it all run, dropping deep to help the defense and starting attacks with crisp passing and superior vision. Pep is something of a protege; it’s not a position Cruyff played but it’s one he’s in the process of redefining. Pep plays until 2000 (With Barca having more league glory at the end of the 90s) and is quickly put to work on the coaching side. At the same time, Joan Laporta takes over as president in 2000. LaPorta is a Cruyff guy through and through. So Cruyff returns as an executive of some sort, essentially as an adviser. Something like a mix of Walsingham and Gandalf (the White this time). And the further evolution of everything that is Barcelona (“more than a club” to triangles to La Masia)is set in motion. It culminates in the middle of the decade under Frank Rijkaard (a Dutch midfielder who knew a thing or two about passing and movement), with several league titles and more European glory in 2005-2006 (another double; “Man, that would be awesome to do” said Real Madrid). Rijkaard sort of loses the team later (or, generally managerial stays these days just don’t go that long with increasingly rare exceptions), so Pep Guardiola takes over. The strength of the team is again a mixture of La Masia and international signings, with La Masia having produced not merely the club’s foundation but the foundation for a Spanish national side that would win 3 major international trophies (Euro, World Cup, Euro) in one of the greatest runs of all time. Busquets, Inesta, Puyol, and the incomparable Xavi.

The Dream Team era was amazing, but it was nothing compared to Pep’s run. Tiki-taka produces 14 trophies, including: 3 straight league titles, 2 UCL trophies, a double in 2011 and a treble in 2009. Barcelona take home a trophy in every competition in which they are entered in 2009 (Supercopa, UEFA Super Cup, Club World Cup) for the world’s first ever sextuple. Tiki-taka is an evolution of the foundation that Cruyff laid.

There’s a bit of a dip after that, thanks in no small part to LaPorta’s tenure ending and quite possibly the worst possible person taking over as club president. Rosell’s tenure is greatly shortened due to scandal and he’s replaced by the getting-better-but-still-problematic Bartemo. The improvements are impossible to not to notice, though, and after 3 fallow years (including losing the league to Atletico on the last day of the season, giving the latter a “baby double” with the League and Copa Del Ray trophies), enter Louis Enrique. The winger played at Barcelona in the latter 90s, and like Pep he got his coaching start with the club, also managing Barca B (for 3 years to the former’s one). He then leaves and has success at Roma and Celta Vigo and then he’s tapped to replace the underwhelming Tata Martino hire. In his first season, Barcelona become the first ever club to do two trebles, winning their 5th European championship and looking absurdly dominant behind the famed trident of Messi-Neymar-Suarez along the way (Real look forlornly at the wiki page for “clubs who have done the double” and notice they haven’t in ages. Then a Celtic supporter says “you guys have a treble though, so that’s awesome!” and then Real hangs its head in shame, and thinks about asking Franco to engineer one). And he’s got Barcelona poised for a big run with 5 trophies and counting (and possibly 3 more to come this season; Barcelona cannot do the sextuple however with 5 being the max).

Barcelona’s style under Enrique is more mixed (out of necessity; teams just began parking the bus), but there’s still flashes (and sometimes entire games) of tiki-taka, still further evolved. Barca can be more direct as the situation requires and are sometimes content to be a little more counter oriented. But it’s all still Cruyff, with key off the ball movements and manipulation of space. That they have such gifted attackers just makes it all breathtaking in it’s own way.

The centerpiece of it all of course is La Masia product Messi (greatest of all time, I will not argue this; and I am pretty sure that’s across any sport and I’m not sure I care to argue that either). In some respects he’s the anti-Cruyff. There’s nothing inherently cool about him, he doesn’t strike this amazing pose on the field. He’s an unremarkable little guy just standing there. But then he starts playing, and you can see where he is in some ways the perfect embodiment of Cruyff. He sees and intuits the game the way Cruyff did as a player and manager. His every movement is something calculated and weighed (increasigly true as he ages; he used to be one of the top defending Forwards in the world. He’s still good, but he runs less than he used to out of necessity). He produces incredible, highlight real moments but they’re always rooted in something mundane; mundane but entirely perfect. It’s not just a cut or a run or a pass, it’s all of these things done at exactly the right time in the right way. There was no Ronaldinho-esque move to put Jerome Boateng on his butt in the Champions League semis last year. Rather it was a complete indifference to gravity and inertia, carried out through precise movements and split second decision making. Messi makes it all look simple and easy, even though it isn’t. This was Cruyff’s philosophy through and through. “Play as simply as possible, although this is difficult to do”. Messi is the perfect embodiment of what Cruyff wanted.

Barcelona are, in the modern UCL era, arguably the king of the hill (nobody has more hardware in this time, and they’re poised to add a whole pile on top). And it’s all directly traceable to Cruyff. Somehow, he was a combination of [Your teams best coach] + [one of your teams most famous players who produced that one amazing historical thing] + [your team’s biggest “secondary” contributor]. Who would we compare it to? I’m sure there are similar examples scattered through history although I don’t think any of them are this big across all 3 areas (e.g. Red Auerbach made big contributions as a coach and a GM; Brian Clough was a very good player and had a tumultuous but fascinating managerial career). But to do it all: success as player, massive success as coach, and then kicking off a philosophy, design, and coaching tree?

And be that cool while doing it?

Real Madrid haven’t done a double in decades, btw. Maybe next year, guys.

That was OUTSTANDING. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m neither pro-Barcelona or anti, but I’m definitely not a Madrid fan at all.

Being Dutch, it’s very cool to see so many wonderfull things written about ‘our’ Johan Cruyff :-). He was indeed one of the best, ever. Such a shame he never wanted to take the job of coaching the national team, or we might even have taken that world cup home after all…

Did it right on front of me at a game in Ft. Lauderdale…

Soccer was my favorite sport, forever. I played baseball (so badly, 3 years of little league and I couldn’t get away fast enough), basketball, and soccer in various leagues and then later in highschool (sans baseball). But soccer was always my favorite. It was the first sport I went from “bumbling trainwreck” to “possessing anything remotely approaching decency” in (and in some respects, the only sport I did ;) ). I made a local club team because the coach (who was a good guy, but not a good soccer coach) loved my hustle in both soccer and basketball. I went to Euro 92 with my highschool soccer team (Peter Schmeichel is one of my 5 favorite athletes of all time; I played keeper later in highschool and completely idolized him). I followed World Cups and such as best I could, my highschool graduation present was tickets for Orlando in 94 (all first round games, 1 second). But I came to a love of the game through playing it and then being amazed at what people could do with a soccer ball that I never would (also, and you can’t see this in highlights, but Aliens actually invaded during the Denmark v Germany finale in 1992; Schmeichel destroyed them all with a frightening indifference).

One of my oldest friends came to it through a combination of watching and history. We went to college at very different parts of the country but would get together a couple of times a year as “back home for hollidays” time permitted. I think it was 1995 when he did the “backpacking through Europe” type of deal that summer. He’s going to be going to Law School shortly thereafter and it’s a big present from his family. He gets down to Barcelona and he’s just the sort of guy who is opposed to what the Franco government does on every possible level. But of course he wants to see it all for himself. Before he even gets to Barcelona he’s sort of “primed” for what’s going to happen. We were both fans of the Dutch national team, who frequently played amazing soccer and sometimes suffer for it (oy vey, Ed de Goey’s goalkeeping in 1994. They could have won that Brazil game and then who knows?).

When we get together the following Thanksgiving (having not had an opportunity at all the previous summer), he’s completely smitten with Barcelona as both a city, a region, and the soccer club. From that day forward, every time we get together there’s Barcelona talk. After his law degree he moves to Atlanta I go up to visit on occasion (we used to take in 3-4 Braves games a season, he was in a season ticket package). Always, when the talk turns to sports, it’s soccer (and largely Barcelona), baseball (duh), and our own football (SEC/college predominantly). He being who he is, he goes out and reads all the books he can get his hands on. Over time little bits and pieces of it all come flowing steadily in my direction. I eventually move to Atlanta myself and we’re able to get together more often (no more Braves games alas; the tickets were long gone but he’s currently embittered by the Cobb move). I remember how excited he was when Pep was taking over.

I never had a club. I followed Man U in a sort of detached way as they were a vehicle for Schmeichel’s greatness. I wasn’t really a fan, though. But somewhere over a decade after his initial trip and all those talks I grew into a Barcelona fan. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I “hate” Real Madrid but I do take pleasure in their failure. I’ve actually grown into a big fan of Spanish soccer. The bottom portion of the table is very weak relative to the Premiership but the top thirdish of the table has been very good for several years now (Spanish sides have been great in Europa league over the past 10-12 years, e.g.). I’ve watched somewhere between 80 and 90% of Barcelona’s games since 2010 or 2011.

Anyway, I am completely fascinated by Cruyff moreso because of his work with Barcelona as a coach/administrator. It’s just crazy to have such a giant legacy that is both centered in one’s field (as a player) but so much bigger than is typically the case. Better than Pele? Probably not. Larger legacy? Yes, when you combine it all.

Also, I forgot to mention Cruyff’s stint as the manager of the Catalonian “non-national national” side (they just play exhibitions), from 1999-2003. That’s how invested he was locally. Just extraordinary.

A legend indeed. Together with Rinus Michels, he started the Dutch connection at Barcelona. Beyond that, generations of coaches and players have been inspired by the style of football he preached. A true philosopher of the game, and whilst he’s not been as active in the last few years, he will be missed by all who value his vision and thoughts about the beautiful game.

A true legend of football. Hope his family are doing as well as they can (his son is a footballer also).

Zico, Pele, George Best and Cruyff. Of their era’s the best footballers around and pretty much a huge influence on the game and players. People like Messi and Ronaldo (some of the best of the current era) owe much of their skills and techniques to players like Cruyff. They help make it the beautiful game :)