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Illustration by Federico Manasse

The multifarious sphere of footballing history encompasses many greats. Some prove greatness via a trophy cabinet, some gain notoriety for a single goal or piece of skill, some are famed for their embodiment of a style or era, and on very rare occasions, a player might just be responsible for shifting tactical and technical approaches to the game itself. Impossibly, one Hendrik Johannes Cruijff achieved magnitude by all those virtues, and a few more.

Born in Betondorp, east Amsterdam’s post-modern experiment of concrete expressionism, Cruyff was the second son of a working-class family. By the time 10-year-old Cruyff signed for Ajax, he was already part of the club’s furniture.

Unlike his teammates in the youth team, De Meer, Ajax’s modest stadium, was a second home to Cruyff. His mother, Nel, was employed as a cleaner at the club, and young Johan would spend all his free time at the stadium. He sometimes helped mum, nearly always kicked a ball around, and consistently poked his nose around with a confident and childlike curiosity.

Nel’s blossoming relationship with Uncle Henk, Ajax’s groundsman, further accentuated Cruyff’s connection to the club, and Henk would prove a most genuine second father to a boy who lost his own father, Hermanus, aged 12.

The scrawny cleaner’s son was conveniently on-hand to make-up the numbers at first-team training sessions. Obvious ability and assured confidence, despite his tender years, gained him notoriety and accelerated his development. Ultimately, an Eredivisie debut came in 1964 and 17-year-old Cruyff scored Ajax’s only goal in a 3-1 defeat.

The following season brought about a relationship which would shift football’s tectonic plates. With Rinus Michels as coach, and Cruyff demonstrating an almost superhuman ability, intelligence and interpretation of Michels’ ideologies, Totaalvoetbal was born. Ajax rose from obscurity to European domination. They baffled, delighted, bewitched and dazzled in equal measure. The scrawny young kid called Cruyff epitomised it all. He, and Totaalvoetbal, became revered around the world.

Original Series  |  The 50

After winning everything with Ajax, Michels and Cruyff would repeat the gloriously transformational process at Barcelona. Appointed in 1971, Michels signed his jigsaw’s most vital piece – Cruyff – two years later. Barcelona’s first league title in over a decade was the instant result.

If Cruyff’s understanding of Ajax was acquired over time, at Barcelona it was instant. Notwithstanding a La Liga title in his debut season, Cruyff was adored like a lost son after naming his own son Jordi, a significantly Catalan name. As at Ajax, an emotional connection combined with technical ability, tactical understanding and unerring confidence equalled trophies.

As within most forms of genius, the depths of Cruyff’s persona housed elements of the mad and the neurotic. There weren’t many lows during his career, but losing the 1974 World Cup final was a blow marred with obsessive and divisive in-house debates. With Cruyff the focal point, the Netherlands teams of the 1970s were amongst the world’s best, yet fell tantalizingly short of the ultimate prize.

If Cruyff wasn’t entirely to blame for World Cup final defeat, or missing the 1978 tournament due to fears of family kidnapping, he was to blame for an early retirement aged just 30. A subsequent and ill-advised investment in pig farming may have nearly bankrupt Cruyff, but it did lead to a return to football. Spells in Los Angeles and Washington provided a different perspective, and gentle rejuvenation. The North American Soccer League was good to Cruyff and heralded a shift in his thinking. Player became coach. Via a sojourn in Spain’s second tier, and after nearly joining Leicester City, Cruyff was back at Ajax combining duties of player and technical advisor.

The 1982/83 league and cup double appeared a fairy tale ending, yet with Cruyff there is always more than meets the eye. Upon Ajax refusing to offer a new contract, Cruyff departed, signed for rivals Feyenoord Rotterdam, and won another league and cup double in 1983/84.

As a manager Cruyff, unthinkably, replicated and surpassed his achievements as a player. At Ajax, Barcelona and again at Ajax multiple times in various roles, he revolutionised and transformed. Talent spotter supreme, man-manager, orchestrator of attractive, attacking and successful football, and to another generation of intelligent footballers, eternally inspirational. That’s Johan Cruyff 

Writer  |  Glenn Billingham  

Editor  |  Matt Gault