Johan Cruyff, the 'Pythagoras in boots'

Holland's Johan Cruyff inspired 'Total football', which remains the style of play that the elite-level teams want to emulate.

Former Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff at 1974 World Cup in West Germany.   -  Getty Images

Total Football's blinding success, exemplified by the all-conquering Ajax team that won three European Cups in succession from 1971 to '73, tends somehow to get overshadowed by its one heartbreaking defeat, Holland's at the final of the 1974 World Cup.

The overbearing effect of the World Cup defeat is understandable, given the reach and undeniable romance of the competition, especially in the less globalised world of the early 70s. The dominant images of Total Football we carry in our heads, therefore, are those of floppy-haired players in orange, and not the white and red of Ajax. At the centre of it all is Johan Cruyff.

On paper the team's centre forward, Cruyff was not restricted in any way on the pitch, his roaming complemented by the movement of the players around him, nearly all of them his teammates at Ajax with whom he had an intuitive understanding. The precision of his passing and his awareness of space were best summed up by Times sportswriter David Miller, who called him 'Pythagoras in boots.'

 

At the '74 World Cup, Cruyff scored three goals, all in the second round, played in a two-group round-robin format. Against Argentina, Cruyff set up a 4-0 win, scoring twice and finding the head of Johnny Rep with a pinpoint far-post cross from the left wing. In the must-win virtual semifinal against Brazil, Cruyff was magnificent in the face of cynical Brazilian fouling a 2-0 win, slipping a low cross from the right that Johann Neeskens slid home in the 50th minute, and settling the issue 15 minutes later with an acrobatic volley from left back Ruud Krol's first-time cross.

The first minute of the final showcased Total Football, and Cruyff's place in it, in its entirety. After receiving the 15th languid pass of the game near the halfway line, Cruyff, at that point the deepest-lying of Holland's players, changed the tempo abruptly, setting off on a dribble that took out three defenders before West Germany knew what was happening. Panic set in, and Uli Hoeness slid in to bring him down just as he entered the penalty area. Neeskens converted from the spot, and Holland was on its way.

How such a dominant beginning gave way to a disappointing 2-1 defeat has been the subject of a million debates. If there's any consensus, it's that the Dutch became complacent and underestimated the skill and resilience of the Germans.

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