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Football’s eternal magnifico – Remembering Johan Cruyff on his birth anniversary

Johan Cruyff
Cruyff remains to be the greatest Dutch footballer of all time.

Scottish maestro Jock Stein laid foundations for Total Football, Rinus Michels made it popular courtesy of some outrageous talents under his mentorship. But when you talk about Total Football and the Dutch connection, Johan Cruyff cannot go unmentioned.

Without a hint of a doubt the greatest Dutch Football personality of all time, Cruyff’s impact on the game, as a player and manager, was unmatched, perhaps a shade above the likes of Pele and Maradona.

When Michels returned to Ajax in 1965, he had some outrageous ballers like Cruyff, Krol (Joined a few years later), and Neeskens, who were still pretty young and needed grooming. Ajax nearly got relegated a couple of seasons prior to Michels’ arrival and that’s where “Total Football’s most spectacular era started.

To explain in blunt terms, total Football means versatility – every footballer should be able to play in more than one position, tactical awareness of the highest order and most importantly, this style considers Football as an art. If you had no creativity, Ajax was never a place to be in.

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Cruyff and Neeskens developed a lethal partnership, one which many footballers dream to have. Neeskens could hold it firm in the midfield, orchestrate forward movement and find Cruyff with his long balls without even looking at him.

Ajax became the first Dutch team to reach the European Cup final in 1969 and won the trophy three times in a row from 1971-74. The Netherlands too were doing great under Michels (He was managing Ajax and Netherlands at the same time).

Cruyff’s ability to make those cunning switches – sometimes go on the left, sometimes on the right, sometimes a bit deep but mostly central – made him untouchable. He could cut past full-backs with ease on the wings, find spaces between center-backs while assuming the number 10 role and had a proper striker’s instinct, always getting himself in the right positions. He was like four players in one body.

Pele and Maradona excelled and perfected what they knew, Cruyff was the one always keen on exploring new things, making Football innovative and decorative to watch. For him, Football was a beautiful painting or romantic movie, and the way his brain saw Football made everyone fall for his charm.

Gem of a player, beyond compare as a manager

Johan Cruyff managed Barcelona from 1988 to 1996, winning the league 4 times and lifting Barca’s first-ever European Cup.

He made some great memories with Barcelona as a player, but it was his time with them as a manager that changed the club forever. Pep Guardiola, who spent most his playing days under the Dutch legend, described Cruyff’s managerial stint with Barca like this – “Johan Cruyff painted the chapel and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it”.

Barcelona won the league just once in 14 seasons before Cruyff stepped in as a manager in 1988. He wanted to build motivation back in the team and picked up most of his future stars from La Masia, the famous youth academy. He also sold 15 players in the first two windows.

When he first presented his idea of a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 formation, most of his players were shocked and not very confident of pulling it off. His idea was to play with 4 defensive players and throw six on the attack.

Tracking back was an important facet, but unlike Helenio Herrera’s Catenaccio, this one was a cold-blooded attacking system that involved keeping possession and finding gaps with creativity. Most importantly, his ideology was to never allow the ball to go past their midfield, which is why he packed those positions with the best possible personnel.

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The dinks, flips, outrageous chips, swivels, pirouettes Xavi and Iniesta excelled in our generation, Cruyff was one of the pioneers of those dark arts. Eusebio Sacristan, a European Cup winner under El Salvador in 1992, recalls how Cruyff would always applaud and appreciate his players’ efforts to do something different, no matter how foolish it could look when it doesn’t work.

He inspired them, made it work and in what turned out to be the greatest season in the club’s history, under the stewardship of El Flaco, Barcelona won their first-ever Champions League title in 92. A trophy long overdue finally fell in the cabinet with a Ronald Koeman free-kick winner in the final.

Barcelona’s deadlock of doing well in Europe was broken by this man and he did so in the most spectacular fashion possible, which laid inroads for some of Spain and Dutch’s greatest attacking outlets in the coming seasons.

His contribution to Football was much more than making it look pretty. As a player and coach, he helped the ones around him grow from nothing to something and impacted more lives in Football than anyone I can remember.

The greatest architect of the “Beautiful game”, Hendrik Johannes Cruyff AKA Johan Cruyff, was born this day, 1947.

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