R.I.P. #14

By Paul Gardner

Johan Cruyff, dead at the far too early age of 68, will surely not be forgotten. He leaves the most wonderful memories of sublime soccer skill, of course. But not just memories -- Cruyff becomes one of the first of the soccer greats to leave a career-long record -- on film and tape and discs -- of his dazzling skills.

George Best, another cruelly early death, has shown the way. And we have fragmented archive clips of Alfredo Di Stefano. The arguments over who was the greatest -- and, of course, Cruyff is up there among the small group who deserve, nay demand, to be seen in that light -- will never cease. But in future it will not be just the names that are spoken, it will be the movement, the play, the player himself who comes back.

You can now call up, so easily, the famous move that Cruyff put on Swedish defender Jan Olsson in the 1974 World Cup. Watch it and marvel. In that same tournament, Cruyff was to be seen -- and can still be seen -- gliding elegantly all over the field, scoring two goals and leading the Netherlands to a 4-0 win over the Argentines, who could find no answer to his magic.

The 1974 tournament ended with Dutch beaten in the final by the Germans. Not Cruyff’s greatest game ... and there was that halftime incident to recall. With his team trailing 2-1, Cruyff left the field while protesting very publicly to referee Jack Taylor. As Cruyff finally turned away, Taylor gave him a yellow card. Yet Cruyff then vigorously and dangerously resumed the argument as he and Taylor entered the tunnel.

Some six years later, when Cruyff was in New York, I asked him whether he was not taking a huge risk, in prolonging the dispute, of getting himself ejected. Cruyff scoffed: “No referee would send anyone off for arguing. Not in a World Cup final.”

Supreme confidence in his own judgment and his own opinions was a Cruyff trademark. To many it came over as arrogance. At other times it could cause laughter. The late Gordon Bradley was the coach of the 1980 Washington Diplomats -- with Cruyff as their star player. Between fits of laughter Bradley told me of the occasion when the team flew into Minneapolis to play the Minnesota Kicks. For whatever reason, the team was to go straight to the stadium. They piled into the waiting bus, and off they went. After about 10 minutes, Cruyff walked down the bus to the driver and told him he was taking the wrong road. The driver nodded and kept on driving. Cruyff went back to his seat. Five minutes later, he was back, saying the driver had missed a turning and they were going to be late. Just as he had done with referee Taylor, Cruyff kept up his criticism. Finally, the driver pulled the bus over, clambered out of his seat and snarled at Cruyff, “You wanna drive the effing bus?”

Bradley escorted Cruyff back to his seat. The driver resumed and the team got to the stadium. Bradley assured me that Cruyff had never even been in Minneapolis before.

But, Minneapolis aside, Cruyff’s self-assurance -- certainly in soccer matters -- was abundantly justified. He knew and understood and felt the game better than anyone. He was largely a self-taught player, from the streets of Amsterdam. His ball skills were phenomenal ... and original. His bewildering footwork was matched by a razor-sharp soccer brain. He thought about the sport, he worked things out. From boyhood he was better than everyone else, and of course he knew it.

His name will always be associated with Total Football. He didn’t invent it -- that was the Dutch coach Rinus Michels. Or maybe not. Maybe it was the Romanian coach Stefan Kovacs. Then again, the Austrian journalist Willy Meisl had pretty much laid out the theory involved in his 1955 book “Soccer Revolution.”  

Maybe, maybe. My own feeling is that, in the only sense that matters, Cruyff did invent total soccer. He brought it to life, he made Meisl’s words and the shouted instructions of Michels and Kovacs work. I’m tempted to say that total soccer needed Cruyff for it to work at all.

That 1974 team marked the high point for total soccer. With Cruyff, by now identified always by the #14, ebulliently and majestically in command, as he was against Argentina, the Netherlands looked irresistible. In the final, the Germans managed to keep Cruyff quiet, and the Dutch were reduced to looking like a very good team. But not irresistible.

Cruyff decided not to go to Argentina with the Dutch team for the 1978 World Cup. Replacing Cruyff was Robbie Rensenbrink, a crafty ball player, but no one could replace Cruyff. Suddenly, a hard physical edge was apparent, notably from the van de Kerkhof brothers, Rene and Willy. Rugby players, the Argentine press called them. Again, the Dutch got to the final and again they lost. Argentina got its revenge for that 4-0 drubbing in 1974. And total soccer no longer looked like an attractive or a desirable style of play.

It was the same for Ajax, his Dutch club. Cruyff’s presence was vital for success. Ajax played Cruyff-led total soccer and won the European Cup in successive years, 1971-72-73. In late 1973, Cruyff moved to Barcelona, and Ajax did not win the European Cup again until 1995. At Barcelona, Cruyff began the stylistic revolution that led to the Barcelona we know today.

Well, this was more of an artistic revolution. The basic Spanish player was much more of an artist than the basic Dutch player. Cruyff could do things in Spain that would not have been possible in Holland. He made his ideas felt, the quick, sharp, short, on-the-ground passing, the constant movement of the players. I asked Michels about that movement. He sighed “It is not difficult to get players to run. But to move intelligently ... that is not so easy.”

Maybe Cruyff could get that idea across because his game relied on intelligent movement, and he made it look easy. The way that Iniesta and Messi and Neymar and Suarez make it look today.

Running through any discussion of Cruyff’s soccer brilliance is the theme of artistry. That needs to be understood from the start. Cruyff’s game was based on pitch-perfect skills -- perfect in timing, perfect in execution, perfect in artistry. It never relied on strenuous muscular effort. All that movement, so smoothly performed, so beautiful to watch, came from one of the slightest, slenderest bodies ever to be seen at top level soccer -- 5-foot-11 and a mere 147 pounds. A bean pole. But, oh, such an elegant bean pole.

How did he survive? By being super-quick -- both mentally and physically, and by not being afraid. Watching Cruyff, I never feared for him, never felt that his skinny build was going to get shattered by a clattering tackle. To cripple a Cruyff, you first have to catch your Cruyff.

Sadly, there was another theme, one that darkened and then cut short Cruyff’s life. Smoking. The ever-present packs of Camels. The unavoidable haze of cigarette smoke. Cruyff duly had his heart attack, in 1991. It scared him into quitting, but lung cancer has had the last laugh.

All the highest words of praise seem right for Cruyff -- genius, legend, inspiration, even “the greatest.” Though we’ve surely by now arrived at the point of realizing that there is, never will be, just one great player, eternally better than all the rest.

Cruyff has a claim to fame that others don’t. He continued to have enormous influence on the sport even after he had quit playing. His way of seeing, of understanding, and of playing the game never changed.

Cruyff’s vision was nurtured by the total soccer of Ajax in the early 1970s. But he left that behind when he joined Barcelona. There he developed his own vision of a skill-based soccer.

His ideas brought out the beauty of the sport, made it a joy to watch, and surely to play.

There is not much talk of total soccer these days. But the Cruyff vision of soccer is alive and well -- not just on the film and tapes and recordings that I mentioned at the beginning -- but in live action at Barcelona. Which tells you he got it right. And, Johan, you’re still getting it right.
8 comments about "R.I.P. #14 ".
  1. uffe gustafsson, March 25, 2016 at 7:47 p.m.

    My daughter been using #14 for most of her time playing and one of the first moves I taught her was the Cruyff move.
    So his legacy will always be known with that very simple but great move.
    It's etched in stone.
    Thx you for this great article.

  2. Wilson Egidio, March 25, 2016 at 11:05 p.m.

    A great writer writes about one of the greatest players. Great job once again Paul. Love it!

  3. Jogo Bonito, March 26, 2016 at 1:50 a.m.

    Wonderful dedication to a player like no other. I can't think of anyone I've seen that I can compare Cruyff to. He was marvelous.

  4. stewart hayes, March 26, 2016 at 10:34 a.m.

    In his own words, " I never practice tricks. I play simply. That's what it's all about. Playing simple football is the hardest thing. That's the problem of all trainers. Simple play is the most beautiful. How often do you see a pass of 40m when 20m is enough? Or a one-two in the penalty area when there are seven people around you when a simple pass around the seven would be a solution? The solution that seems the simplest is in fact the most difficult one." (Ajax, Barcelon, Cruyff. 1998, pg 11)
    I am thinking about carrying his insight forward and how we can best develop future players. He was talking about vision; it is interesting that so much of training is ball focused, ball control, dribbling moves etc...from the earliest ages instead of shoot or get the ball to a teammate who can. Perhaps, if we want players with vision, 1 ball for 10 is better than 10 for 10. Perhaps we should not use vests. Perhaps we should demand vision and let the body figure out the details.

  5. Gus Keri, March 26, 2016 at 11:16 a.m.

    Great article. On the subject of best player in history, I divide them into categories. Best current players: 1- Messi 2- Cristiano Ronaldo. Best players who won the world cup: 1- Pele 2- Maradona. Best players who never won the WC: 1- Cruyff 2- Platini. Best players who never played at the WC: 1- De Stefano 2- Best

  6. Bob Ashpole, March 26, 2016 at 4:47 p.m.

    A great piece of writing about a great footballer.

  7. Jay Chisolm, March 28, 2016 at 4:24 p.m.

    Great article and great comments. I have tried to wear the #14 since the 70's. Now my son is wearing the #14 as well. He has seen some videos of Cruyff. I had the pleasure to see him live playing against the Cosmos way back when. May he rest in Peace.

  8. David V, March 28, 2016 at 9:51 p.m.

    Love the Johan... one of my favorite players of all-time. The following statement in the article is off target: "The way that Iniesta and Messi and Neymar and Suarez make it look today." It should say "The way that Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets and Messi made it look yesterday" or if you like "made it look from 2009-2014".

    Cruyff was not the Inventor of Barca Method, the inventor of the Barca method and of Rondos (please don't pronounce Ron-doze - the first syllable doesn't sound like the first name of the guy who made the Popeil pocket fisherman, Ron Popeil... pronounce it to your kids and players as "ROAN (rhymes with "moan"- DOS (as in uno, DOS, tres... or the amount of the medicine the doctor prescribes you in a "DOSE" … ROAN-DOS, or ROAN-DOSE. <<< anyway, the inventor is a guy named Laureano Ruiz (Roo-eeth).
    Here's an interview with Ruiz from a few years ago...

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