Goodbye Mr. Total Football

Johan Cruyff's story was a remarkable one. He was brought up in poverty, his father having died very young and his mother took a job cleaning the floors at the Ajax club. Eventually she persuaded them to give the boy, Johan, a chance and he made his way through their excellent youth scheme all the way to ultimate triumph in the first team.

In this July 3, 1974 file photo, Dutch forward Johan Cruyff scores his team’s second goal against Brazil in their World Cup match, in Dortmund, West Germany.   -  AP

Perhaps the greatest irony of the dazzling career of the late Johan Cruyff is that he and Holland never won a World Cup. They should surely have done so in 1974 when, after a coruscating start in the World Cup final in Munich against West Germany, and what should have been an ultimately match-winning goal, they failed to press home their advantage and ultimately lost.

I was lucky enough to see that game as indeed I saw so many of Cruyff's appearances. It began with the Dutch playing possession football from the kick-off to the whistling abuse of a frustrated German crowd. Suddenly Holland broke and Cruyff went tearing through the scattered German lines until in the penalty area, he was brought down by Uli Hoeness for an inevitable penalty. Cruyff's chief lieutenant and foil, the powerful Johan Neeskens, slammed the kick past Sepp Meier, who went one way while the ball went the other.

The German defence seemed to be in a state of shock but surprisingly and ultimately fatally the Dutch failed to press home their advantage. Instead, they seemed to content themselves by running rings around the Germans in midfield, depriving them of the ball, but failing to create scoring possibilities. Why you might ask, even at this remove, did the Dutch relax? One theory at the time was that their attitude and display were a reflection of the lasting bitterness of the Dutch over the brutality of the German occupation of their country in the Second World War.

As it was, the Germans after some 25 struggling minutes, gradually recovered equilibrium, settled in defence and midfield, took the game to the Dutch and eventually equalised from the penalty spot.

Yet still late in the half the Dutch had a golden opportunity to regain the lead and potentially win the game. Once again, as in the opening stages, the German defence was all at sea. Cruyff broke away together with the striker Johnny Rep, bore down on his famous German rival Franz Beckenbauer, drew his opponent, unselfishly passed the ball to Rep for what seemed the easiest of opportunities. But Rep failed disastrously to take it, allowing Meier to plunge at his feet and take the ball. West Germany, as we know, went on to win from a goal by ‘Der Bomber’ Gerd Muller, who in fact by the frank admission of the English referee Jack Taylor had another valid goal ruled out for offside when it was quite legitimate. Cruyff did not play in the subsequent 1978 World Cup in Argentina. Being there, too, I am absolutely convinced that had he been present, Holland and not Argentina would have won that final, which the Argentines revived in extra-time after they had seemed so likely to lose.

Why did Cruyff refuse to take part in those finals? One story told at the time was probably the stuff of fantasy. Towards the end of the tournament, at the Dutch headquarters, Cruyff and several of the other Dutch players went skinny dipping with a group of girls. Among the players, unfortunately, was a young German journalist, who reported the goings on in his newspaper. “Are you mad?” Cruyff upbraided him when he turned up again at the training camp. But the rumour that it was at the insistence of his wife Dani that Cruyff pulled out of the subsequent 1978 Finals was shown many years later to have been no more than a rumour.

In fact, after decades of silence, Cruyff revealed that his family home had been invaded by armed raiders who had tried to kidnap the family, and tied them up. He managed, however, to escape and the kidnapping failed, fortunately, to materialise, but it was enough for Cruyff to eschew the Argentine tournament in fear of what might happen in his absence.

Cruyff's story was a remarkable one. He was brought up in poverty, his father having died very young and his mother took a job cleaning the floors at the Ajax club. Eventually she persuaded them to give the boy, Johan, a chance and he made his way through their excellent youth scheme all the way to ultimate triumph in the first team. His intelligence off the field as well as on it was quite remarkable. How well I remember seeing Cruyff surrounded by journalists from all over the world in 1978 to whose questions he replied almost casually in a multiplicity of languages. Not only Dutch, but English, French, Spanish and German.

He and Beckenbauer would be the architects of so called ‘Total Football’ and you could still choose which ones you thought of as the initial innovator. The exciting theory behind the new phenomenon in the 1970s was that anybody could and should do anything. Holland, West Germany, Ajax and Bayern Munich rejoiced in the brilliant players capable of doing that. Beckenbauer invented the role of the attacking libero, basing the idea on what he had seen of the Inter and Italy left-back Giacinto Facchetti, who would storm forward to score goals with his right foot. Cruyff, now in the middle of attack, now on the left using his remarkable ‘Cruyff turn’ dragging the ball back behind his standing leg with the other foot while turning 180 degrees to beat the opposing defence, was able to operate anywhere across the front or in midfield. Much of his time was spent electrically on the left flank where he left so many opponents standing. He once told me that he never thought he was really very fast but simply got off the mark so quickly.

With Ajax, he won three European Cups in a row. And three times in a row he was voted European player of the Year. In 1973, quarrelling with Ajax, he followed his mentor Rinus Michels to Barcelona, whom he would promptly haul up the table to win a Championship. Later, as manager of Barcelona, he would excel in the European Cup he had once distinguished as a player.