Johan Cruyff has died at 68

The massive Oranje influence of Johan Cruyff

The main man was talking this week.

He’s in South Africa and said, “If you play attacking football, like Spain do, you have more chances of winning. And if you try to play on the counter against a team that really wants the ball, you deserve to suffer.

“The fact is that if you try to outplay Spain, they will kill you and Holland now know they face the best team in the world. When you look at Spain, you see Barcelona, you see Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets and Pedro in midfield, players who want the ball but then will put pressure on high up the pitch to win it back.

“Now, deservedly, Spain are in the final, a match that is only about winning, as I know. Spain have a great footballing generation, who may never get another chance like this.

“I know the whole of Holland wanted to play Germany in the final, because they fear Spain will simply keep the ball for 90 minutes. Their only chance is if Spain fail to take their opportunities, like they did against Germany. It is Spain’s game to lose but I will take intense joy if they win it.”

Those are the views of the incomparable Johan Cruyff.

He is 63 now and we shall not see his like again.

Personally, I think this World Cup Final is the highlight of his extraordinary career.

In Britain we tend to say, “Bobby Robson was a real football man” or we say, “Alex Ferguson is a real football man.”

But consider the early life of an Amsterdam lad whose greengrocer father had died before  Johan was 12, whose mother worked as a cleaner at the old De Meer stadium, where his uncle was the groundsman.

Cruyff admits he does not remember who Ajax played in his first game for the club on  November 22, 1964.

But he made these comments  in the 1998 World Soccer booklet Ajax Barcelona Cruyff – the ABC of an Obstinate Maestro : “When I made my first team debut, I already had a whole football life behind me at De Meer. I have nothing but beautiful football memories of De Meer. I knew every inch of the place. I was 17 when I made my debut, but I’d been running around here for 10 years. I’d put up corner flags, cleaned boots, scraped nap off shirts, painted corridors, put sand in the goal mouths. I helped Uncle Henk with everything for as long as I was a child.

“Uncle Henk, my second father, was the Ajax groundsman. We cleared snow together, rode the tractor, put up nets, marked the lines, hung flags on the roof of the stand. I did it all : I was there day and night. I arrived when I was six years old, became a member of Ajax at ten and left when I was 26. De Meer is 20 years of my life.

“When I see the old photos now…the uncovered stands….magnificent memories. Now the paths round the ground are asphalt, but it wasn’’t like that then. Before a first team game, we had to lay gravel on the paths and approach roads. Helping Uncle Henk, all those things we did together, that means much more to me than that first match.”

In other words,  Johan Cruyff was a real football man long before he was a man.

A  one-off  personality, a true giant of the game alongside Pele and Di Stefano, he left Ajax twice to join Barcelona. His influence is colossal and ongoing.

He played for Ajax from 1964-73 and then joined Barcelona and played for them until 1978. He coached Ajax from 1985 to 1988, then re-joined Barcelona and coached them and won 11 trophies. Think of all the managers who have failed in that politicised pressure cooker.

Cruyff was Barcelona’s coach for eight seasons, longer than anybody ever. He  coached  them from 1988 to 1996 and I met him at the European Cup Final at Wembley in 1992, after Ronald Koeman’s free-kick beat Sampdoria 1-0.

Afterwards, in a conference centre just across from the old Wembley Stadium, he answered questions from the stage. When he got down he was asked more questions, and even more questions, it just went on and on. As you know, Cruyff can really talk.

I’ll always remember him pinned against the inside of the glass wall of that building, a big scrum of journalists round   him, scribbling in their notebooks, dictaphones inches from his unmistakeable  face.

I was amazed by how relaxed Cruyff was in such an uncomfortable position, one from which he could not escape because he was blocked on all sides.  As he  carried on patiently explaining how that final had been won, I realised that he was a veteran of press conferences and ambushes, realised this slim middle-aged man had been pinned to a wall since he was 17 years old. He could handle it because he had been  handling it for such a long time.

Johan Cruyff once said, “Football is a game of mistakes. The ones who make the least mistakes win.”

He also said, “If I start running a  little earlier, I’ll seem faster.”

Adding to that notion, he also said, “When you see a player sprinting, he left it too late.”

Walking round the Ajax academy training pitches with a coaching assistant  while hundreds of  lads were playing practice games, Cruyff spotted a fair-haired schoolboy.

“Who’s that skinny kid on the wing?” he asked.
“Dennis Bergkamp,” came the reply
“I want him training with the first team.”

Very little escapes the eagle eye of Johan, who could see everything when he was on the pitch and see everything when he was off it too. He turned young winger Pep Guardiola into someone who could conduct the orchestra from centrefield.

Dutch radio journalists Fritz Barend and Henk van Dorp, authors of that book on Cruyff,  asked Marco van Basten to explain why Cruyff had always shown such tactical insight.

Van Basten said, “Johan is so technically perfect that even as a boy he stopped being interested in that aspect of the game. He could do everything when he was 20. That’s why he’s been very interested in tactics since he was very young. He sees football situations so clearly that he was always the one to decide how the game should be played.”