From Sportstar Archives: Johan Cruyff

When you say that name, you say it with the same kind of reverence with which you say Pele or di Stefano or Beckenbauer. And now, in hindsight, more than a quarter of a century away from the days when the cleaning woman transported herself and her little son to another world, a world of the future, we are able to see clearly that it wasn't just another dream.

Johan Cruyff dribbles past Argentinian goalkeeper Carnevali to score his team's second goal on June 26, 1974 in Gelsenkirchen during their World Cup quarterfinal match.   -  AFP

She was not just another mother. The Dutch cleaning woman had a dream. A very special dream. She would pause now and again at that massive Ajax football stadium in Amsterdam to be transferred to another world... a world of the future.

A world where in the scheme of things dominating her dreams, her little son would be star. Just like them. Just like the young men who played everyday in her stadium. Just like the glamour boys of the country's glamour soccer club. Ajax. And just like them her son too would be famous and would drive those wonderful cars and buy all those magnificent holiday homes.

It was a very special dream. But dreams are funny things. They remain just what they are without that very special human gift that can turn them into tangible reality. The cleaning woman had this. She would will it into reality.

Before her son was 10-years-old, she would stubbornly case him out of the cosy comfort of his bed and drag him along to the stadium. "There, my son. Watch them practise. See how they do it. You are going to have to learn to do all this... do it better than any of them can."

Before long, the boy was playing in the Ajax junior sides. Quickly the cleaning woman's frail, little son had worked his way through 14 junior sides. Before age 19. the boy had played for Ajax in the Dutch league championship and then...

Well, as of now there are not too many ball players in the history of the game who knowledgeable critics deem lit to rank with the cleaning woman's son in soccer's hall of fame. And fewer still, if at all. to rank above him.

JOHAN CRUYFF. When you say that name, you say it with the same kind of reverence with which you say Pele or di Stefano or Beckenbauer. And now, in hindsight, more than a quarter of a century away from the days when the cleaning woman transported herself and her little son to another world, a world of the future, we are able to see clearly that it wasn't just another dream.

In infancy, dreams and foresight look just the same. Only lime's little weeding process sifts one from the other. And now we know-vvith the montage of freeze frames of Johan Cruyff doing this, that and just about anything that is great and spectacular in football-that the cleaning woman's was a special dream, just as special as the splendid gifts of her own son.

Johan Cryuff   -  Getty Images

In the halcyon days of Total Football in the early 70's no player was as complete a footballer as Johan Cruyff. There was nothing that he could not gracefully and successfully do on the field, whether in defence or midfield or up front.

After Pele's exit, the mantle of the greatest footballer on the earth fell on Cruyff as the great man lifted Dutch football from the backwaters of the international game to within a step of becoming the best football playing nation in the world.

He won the European Footballer of the Year award an unprecedented three times (1971. '73 and '74) and inspired Ajax to a European Cup hattrick (1971- 73) and the world club championship in 1972.

Given his all round skills and in the light of Cruyff's achievements in the game, it is most difficult to put down a position tag to his name. Where did he really play on the field? Cruyff began as a centre forward for Ajax in the late 60s but soon he became the hub of the teams in which he played.

He was so wonderfully versatile that it was impossible for him to play just an assigned role, up front or in the midfield or even in defence. At his peak he played everywhere — and that means everywhere — with the same kind of energy and skills.

Nothing that Cryuff did on field was anything less than brilliant. His passing was incisive and he was such a wonderful learn man with the natural ability to make others play and get the best out of the team he was playing for.

Essentially, thai kind of talent is what you call leadership ability. And Cruyff was a natural leader of men; one who was aware of his own gifts and used them just as well as he understood the potential of other members of the side and helped them play to their own peak.

"I think he is more of a natural leader than Pele." writes Jimmy Hill in his book Great Soccer Stars. "The Brazilian had such natural ability. He was fantastic. But Cruyff is more of a student," he says.

"He knows the game from A to Z. and if the alphabet had any more letters he would know those as well. Everything for Cruyff starts from his brain. With Pele it starts from his physique, and that is the difference between the two." writes Hill.

"There have been times when Cruyff's considerable powers of leadership have not been appreciated but not by those who have played alongside him. He is a strong personality. From time to time, there were clashes with some of his Dutch team-mates. But he was so supreme compared with most of his colleagues that the best dividends came when Cruyff was left to get on with it. his way."

And his way was the way of the winner. He played with the absolute confidence of the man who perhaps knew that there was no greater footballer than himself on the field. His speed off the mark was one of many assets and Cruyff was never afraid to go for the ball in crowded defences.

Then again. Cruyff was no mere midfield maestro appealing to the romantics with his wizardy and inventiveness in the middle. He was an explosive shot and was exceptionally good in taking the volleys which he relished so much.

In his first full season with Ajax, 1966-67, Cruyff was Holland's leading league scorer with 33 goals. But even then Cruyff was not just an executioner but a remarkably inventive schemer, too. His ability to lose markers and make space and goals for his colleagues was evident even then.

It was in a European Cup match in December 1966 that the world took note of the young genius from Holland. Ajax was playing Liverpool and the 5'11" Dutch teenager tore the famous English team's defence apart. Johan Cruyff had arrived.

From 1966 through 1972. barring one year. Cruyff was Ajax's leading scorer and he was the Dutch Footballer of the Year in 1968 and '69. It was at the beginning of the game's glorious chapter. Total-Football, and Cruyff himself was authoring some of the most magical lines in the text.

It was Cruyff's magic that took Ajax to the final of the European Cup for the first time in 1969. Ajax was beaten 4-1 by AC Milan that year but Cruyff inspired the team to a hat-trick of European Cup wins from 1971-73. He scored both the goals in the 1972 final against Inter. Quite appropriately, it was at the home of football the Wembley, that Ajax was first crowned European champion.

Cruyff masterminded a 2-0 victory over Panathinaikos. the Greek team coached by a man called Ferenc Puskas. It was reported that this gentleman - Mr. Puskas - was considerably impressed by Cruyff"s performance. But neither Cruyff nor Ajax were impressed by Inter in the 1972 final or even Juventus in the final of the following year. And suddenly Ajax was making the feats of Real Madrid, that great team of Di Stefano and Puskas. look puny.

Total Football was 'in' all right, but it was the genius of Cruyff that made it such a successful strategy for Ajax and Holland. Players with No.3 and 4 jerseys consistently scored goals and photographers delighted in capturing centre forwards making goal-line saves for Ajax and Holland. And all along Johan Cruyff was quite the master on the field, the greatest exemplar of Total Football, and quite simply the greatest player of the times.

Cruyff"s physical gifts were splendidly complemented by a sharp football brain and with a man like Rinus Michels managing the show for Ajax the locker room combination for devising game plans became a formidable one. And when Rinus Michels left Ajax for Barcelona, he took Cruyff with him. The Spanish side had a great following in Barcelona, something next only to the big bull fights and when a different kind of matador landed, there was a great upsurge of interest. Barcelona signed Cruyff for £922.300 of which Cruyff himself took £400,000.

In his first year with Barcelona, Cruyff helped the team win the Spanish league championship. The big money, after all, had been worth it. And "Ei Faco." the Thin Man. the footballer with the delicate skills of a ballet dancer and the killer instinct of the merciless picadors of the Barcelona bull rings, was at once a hero. All along, the great man had been waging his own little battle with the Dutch Football Association.

In his early years he had tended to be a little impulsive on the field and this may have translated into a studied arrogance when he dealt with officials. On the eve of the 1974 World Cup finals hosted by West Germany. Cruyff. seemed to have reached the point of no return in his relationship with the Dutch Association. But his good friend Rinus Michels. ever the master of the art of gentle persuasion, saw to it that the great man would commit to play for the country. And the kind of football that Cruyff, Neeskens, Krol. Rensenbrink and Haan played in West Germany was nothing less than breathtaking. (The Bulgarians) The Sportstar, April 23,1994 49 "simply had no answer to the galvanic Cruyff, whirling past them at will, his pace, his passing, his finishing alike irresistable." writes Brian Glanville in his book. The Hislorr of the World Cup.

Against Argentina, to quote Glanville again, "the electric Cruyff scored two of the goals himself, and made a headed goal for Johnny Rep." as the Dutch team won 4-0. But Cruyff reserved his best for the match against the Brazilians. In that match. Cruyff scored the second goal in a 2-0 victory. That volley off a left wing centre Krol would be talked about for a long, long time. But that goal itself had come only after Cruyff had a set up the first for Neeskens. In the final against the West Germans, in front of crowd that was baying for the Dutch blood. Cruyff did everything he could to win the trophy for his country. Even before a German player had so much as touched a ball. Cruyff set off on a long, undulating run and charged into the penalty area to be chopped down by the desperate Hoeness. Neeskens slotted the penalty. But after Brietner equalised for the West Germans through the second penalty of the game. Cruyff produced yet another magic moment to give Holland the chance of winning the Cup. Pre-match analysis had put down the final to a simplistic Beckenbauer v Cruyff equation and the crowd was on seat edge when Cruyff went up with Rep and then beat the great Beckenbauer himself.

"Cruyff did everything he should, drawing his famous rival, then giving the ball sweetly to Rep. But Rep hadn't the skills to score." writes Glanville. In conclusion the English football scribe says: "If West Germany had taken the Cup then Holland, surely had been the most attractive and talented of all losers."

A few years of depression followed the 1974 World Cup and Cruyff had the worst few years of his playing career with a Barcelona side riven by squabbles.

He also made a few bad business deals and when a kidnap threat was made before the 1978 World Cup fianls. Cruyff decided to call its quits. He was still not too old. he was still a long way ahead of the ordinary class of international footballer. Yet he said a firm 'no' to the Dutch association before the finals.

Rinus Michels entered the scene yet again and took Cruyff to the game's new Promised Land - the United States. Cruyff played for the Washington Diplomats for a short while before going back to Holland.

He came out of retirement in 1981 to play for the second division side Leavante. He went back home (that is. to Ajax) in 1983 and helped the team to the league championship but crossed the fence to play for Ajax's arch rival Feyenoord in 1984.

No marks now for guessing who won the Dutch league championship in 1984. Feyenoord. of course. Some men are born winners.

Perhaps the cleaning woman knew this the minute she delivered.

(This article first appeared in Sportstar's issue dated April 23, 1994)

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