These are the days of hypermuscular celebrity soccer superstars, prodigious athletes with intensely marketed personas. Only Lionel Messi, with his preternaturally low center of balance and ability to touch the ball twice before he could reasonably have touched it once, has escaped the need for a ripped body or any discernible personality. Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, and David Beckham may or may not be the world’s greatest players, but they are good enough to have sold millions of shirts off their backs — which works well for them and their teams, because they look great with their shirts off.
In the end, all these shirtless wonders are just excellent pawns in systems pioneered by Dutch players-turned-coaches Rinus Michels and Cruyff in the 1970s and ’80s. As Messi acknowledges on the back cover of Cruyff’s excellent memoir My Turn: A Life of Total Football, there would be no Messi without the Dutch master. Nor would Pep Guardiola, triple-winning manager of FC Barcelona, exist without the man he describes as “[u]nique, totally unique.”
For soccer fans like me, Cruyff is not only the one whose spin for the Netherlands or volleyed goal for FC Barcelona you grew up trying to emulate in the back garden, but he’s also a spectacular double hero. If you like hockey, imagine that Wayne Gretzky grew into Scotty Bowman; if basketball is your sport, imagine that Phil Jackson had, as a player, been Michael Jordan, LeBron James, or, at least, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Not only did Cruyff brighten up any field of play he entered, but he transformed the way the game was played, first as a player, then as a visionary coach of Ajax Amsterdam and FC Barcelona.
In the last century, when soccer fields were bare and rutted, money was counted in the millions rather than billions, and a strict dietary regime meant perhaps going easy on the beers between games, there were three playing greats who stood head and shoulders above the others: Pelé, World Cup winner with Brazil in 1958, 1962, and 1970 — striker par excellence and, more recently, a soccer eminence who has had great influence on the Brazilian football confederation CBF and the international governing body FIFA without yet being stained by the gross corruption that has enveloped both of those institutions; Diego Maradona, World Cup winner with Argentina in 1986, talk show host, unsuccessful manager of the Argentine national team, and recovering and relapsing drug addict; and Johan Cruyff.
Cruyff was the captain of the Netherlands team that forgot to win the 1974 World Cup after schooling world champion Brazil in the de facto semifinal. He was captain of Ajax as they won an unprecedented three European Cups in a row, and captain of Barcelona as they began to grow into a European powerhouse. When Ajax wouldn’t renew his contract, he did a stint in the United States playing on the real grass of the Los Angeles Aztecs and Washington Diplomats in the then top-level North American Soccer League, later becoming a double-winning captain of Ajax’s great enemies Feyenoord Rotterdam.
Winner of everything in club football, but winner of almost nothing in international football, his time in the Netherlands as a player and coach saw the golden age of Ajax Amsterdam and the transformation of a country that had not qualified for the World Cup since 1938 into the best team (if not necessarily the most successful) in the world. His time in Barcelona saw the Catalan team go from bastion of soccer opposition to General Franco and his Madrid teams to the world’s favorite — and probably finest — team.
Known for the “Total Football” that the debuted in 1974, Cruyff espoused a simple, yet visionary, form of soccer that still shapes La Liga in Spain, Germany’s Bundesliga, and the Premier League in England. Bringer of the gospel of Total Football to Barcelona as manager, Cruyff designed a new approach to soccer from the ground up. Total Football engages the whole team in creating space for the ball, meaning that all the outfield players need to be fluent in all the positions, and even the goalkeeper needs to be a highly proficient ballplayer with both feet.
Cruyff changed the way the sport was played in Barcelona, allowing Spanish soccer, a generation later, to reap the benefits with a team that was almost unbeatable over an eight-year period. Pep Guardiola, winner of the 1992 European Cup at Barcelona as a player under Cruyff and, in 2009 and 2011, as coach, said of the Dutchman’s influence on Barcelona: “Johan built the cathedral, and it’s up to us to maintain it.”
In My Turn, Cruyff tells his story of growing up on the streets of Amsterdam near Ajax. Because his mother was a cleaner at the club, and his stepfather a groundsman there, the young Johan grew up playing soccer, both on the streets and even, by his own admission, kicking a ball from foot to foot under the desk at school.
His early experiences at the club made him vitally interested in players’ formative childhood years. Cruyff was instrumental to the 1979 founding of La Masia, the famed Barcelona youth training camp he hoped could emulate the Ajax Youth Academy. In 2010, it won enviable and historic acclaim, having trained all three of the nominees for the Ballon d’Or award — Xavi, Messi, and Andrés Iniesta.
Cruyff, who sadly passed away of lung cancer earlier this year, just short of his 70th birthday, recounts his life in a tone that is both chatty and businesslike, with the fascinating, self-justifying single-mindedness of a successful self-made man who has had more than his fair share of public arguments. He dwells longest, however, on the simplicity and primacy of soccer, and then on the ways in which the business of soccer interferes with the playing. He saves his bitterest comments for his home club, Ajax, lamenting — with regret rather than rancor — that they were unable to continue or even reclaim the legacies he left as a player, a coach, and a director.
Cruyff’s explanation of his philosophy of soccer — five lines pushing up together to compress the opposition when they have the ball, and to provide extra width and a multitude of triangles once your own team has the ball — is both simple and sophisticated. It is also, clearly, at the heart of the tiki-taka possession, high-pressing style that won Barcelona plaudits and tournaments in the past decade, as well as the philosophies of prominent contemporary managers such as Jürgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino, and Guardiola.
But the most important part of his philosophy is that soccer should be fun — for the players, for the spectators, for coaches. He tells the story of a contractual obligation while he was with the Washington Diplomats. After every game he had to “run a training session for disabled children.” It led to such frustration that he wanted to give it up, “it was absolutely pointless. Every time I told them to kick a ball one way they fired it off in the opposite direction.” When he tried to quit, the organizers showed him a video of a session and told him to watch not the ball, but the “eyes of the child, the eyes of the mother and the eyes of the father. And to see the happiness that I was giving them when they had simply kicked the ball.”
The eye-watching was eye-opening. He went on to become an ambassador to the Special Olympics and, eventually, to set up his own Cruyff Foundation to advocate disabled children’s involvement in sports. And it’s the legacy of that foundation, on whose promotion he spent much of his later years, that speaks to his profound sense of perspective and the importance of sport not just as an end in itself, but as an enabler of human joy, hope, and confidence.
Dan Friedman is the managing editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, forward.com.