Cruyff's immortal turn

Cruyff's immortal turn

Tribute: The Dutch legend, who revolutionisied Total Football, leaves a lasting legacy and great memories

Cruyff's immortal turn

Inside his modest townhouse in Vinkeveen, the Netherlands, just south of Amsterdam, Johan Cruyff offered beer or spirits. “Mine,” he said, “is soda water. Has to be. I’m trying to be a good athlete.”

Moments later, Cruyff leaped off the sofa in the lithe and athletic way that characterised him and grabbed his Camel cigarettes before his 2-year-old daughter, Chantal, could reach them.

It would be 20 years before a heart attack prompted Cruyff to give up cigarettes, and another 25 years after that when lung cancer cut short his life.

Cruyff retired as one of the greatest players of all time. He was up there with the Brazilian Pele and the three extraordinary Argentines, Alfredo Di Stefano, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi.

But Cruyff was something else. He changed the Dutch style of play, and he changed the ethos of two top clubs, Ajax Amsterdam and Barcelona. It started with their youth academies and went on up to the senior teams, which won European and world championships several times over, with a flow that brought soccer as close to ballet as we have seen. The Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev made the comparison between how Cruyff moved and how Nureyev danced.

For a taste of that, search YouTube for ‘Johan Cruyff turn’ for the moment during the 1974 World Cup when the Dutchman slipped the ball through his own legs, reversing his own momentum and sending the Swedish defender Jan Olsson careering off in the wrong direction.

“Every time I see the video,” Olsson said, “I think I have got the ball, Every time, he surprises me. Every time, I love that moment.”

Olsson is not alone. I had the privilege of knowing Johan Cruyff when we were young men. I first interviewed him for television in 1972, and two years later we worked on a 16-week newspaper series, ‘Cruyff’s Eye View,’ analysing specific players and tactics of the coming 1974 World Cup.

Cruyff had a home videocassette recorder before they were on the market. He had his own library of tapes on players who interested or inspired him.

Di Stefano was his reference point, but we also pinpointed what made Gerd Muller an exceptional scorer for West Germany, how Kazimierz Deyna made Poland tick, the way that Roberto Rivellino bent those Brazilian free kicks, and how his friend Johan Neeskens put the fighting spirit into the Dutch Oranje.

Sometimes, the tutorials were physical and not just verbal. There were insights beyond what a spectator, or even an average pro, would see. There were moments in his living room when Cruyff rearranged the furniture and used cutlery, salt and pepper and even cigarette packets to illustrate a point.

When asked at what stage he might attempt a 40-yard pass as Germany’s Günter Netzer imperiously did, Cruyff responded: “I don’t answer. First, tell me who the pass is for?”

He meant which Dutch colleague was in which position on the field. This, remember, was the gestation of ‘Total Football’ — the soccer attributed to Coach Rinus Michels as he revolutionised tactics with Ajax and the Netherlands and later Barcelona.

The essence was that players rotated within the team. A fullback like Ruud Krol might appear on the wing, a winger like Piet Keizer might drift inside and Cruyff might pop up anywhere.

So, if the nimble Keizer was the recipient of the long pass, then yes, Cruyff would hit it. If it was another, slower individual, Cruyff would instead run forward with the ball, take out an opponent or two with his hyper-quick mind and movement and then pass for a colleague in free space.

Total Football meant total integration of the mind and the footwork. Coach Michels encouraged it, but players had to initiate it.

Cruyff learned it on the streets near Ajax’s old De Meer stadium. He was a child laced to the ball. His father died of heart failure when Cruyff was 12, and the boy decided then to opt out of formal schooling. His mother was a cleaner at the stadium, and Johan was on the streets, whirling around lampposts, bemusing older kids, living his game and inventing his own moves. Jan Olsson needn’t think he was the first, or the last, to be flabbergasted by those moves.

Cruyff said he wasn’t especially quick, but if you always knew what you would do and could move the ball just a fraction of a second before your opponent, there was no way he could catch up.

Tough price

There was, though, a physical price to pay. “I’m 1.8 metres,” the 5-foot-11 Cruyff said, “and I should be 75 kilos. But I’ve always been only 67 kilos,” or 147 pounds.

He then rolled down his socks to show five bruises and cuts from his last game. “This I call routine,” he said.

He laughed, drew on another cigarette and said that the way to hit back was to make the offender look foolish by running off with the ball.

“I have an instinct to do wrong things,” he continued. “The coaches always said you must trap the ball with your foot, but if you do that you have stopped it, lost momentum.” The most wrong thing he ever did was smoke. He kicked the habit after a cardiac surgeon told him in 1991 he was three breaths away from death. In the end, it was lung cancer that took him, at 68.

He thought he was beating the cancer. A colleague working on Cruyff’s memoirs knew only two weeks ago that time was running out.

His legacy remains. The Cruyff Institute — named after a boy who quit school at 12 — offers degrees in sports management with academies on three different continents, and his foundation financed hundreds of play areas for children in inner cities.

He was a special player, an extraordinary man. When Jordi Cruyff, his son, was asked how he compared with his dad, he replied, “The rest of us are just mortals — we come and go.”

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