Dutch Legend Johan Cruyff, Football’s ‘Pythagoras in Boots’, Dead

He is kept alive by his vision of football that remains successful to this day, through players who demonstrate a preternatural understanding of space as well as a dislike of the establishment.

Legendary Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff, 1947-2016. Credit: nazionalecalcio/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Johan Cruyff, 1947-2016. Credit: nazionalecalcio/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Johan Cruyff is alive. Football as played today at the highest level is a tribute to his vision and ideas. Bayern Munich, a club Cruyff disliked for its overly commercial agenda, is promoting the Dutch legend’s brand of football with manager Pep Guardiola at the helm. Guardiola is a disciple of Cruyff and is the true adherent of his guru’s philosophy. Ronald de Boer is seeking to accomplish the same at Ajax Amsterdam, the original home of Cruyff. His body gave up its fight against cancer in his spiritual home, Barcelona, on March 24 but FC Barcelona – the city’s most hallowed institution – is the living monument to the Cruyffian philosophy.

While the club has slightly digressed from his ideals in the past couple of years, the team is coached by Luis Enrique, another of Cruyff’s disciples. Barcelona has tried to loosen the grasp of its father-figure but in moments of doubt it keeps coming back to its conscience-keeper. First as player, then manager and finally as an ideologue, Cruyff has guided the club on the path of success. A success that has brought not just glory but respect as well. Teams have sought to emulate the club’s model with varied results. It’s a model of football that gave birth to the greatest football team in the 21st century. A model that Guardiola and other disciples will keep establishing wherever they go. “Johan Cruyff painted the chapel and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it,” said Guardiola once.

Cruyff will not be there to criticise digressions from what he saw as the one true path to success but his shadow will hang heavily over football. The style that sought not just to win but also entertain. Cruyff came down on the side of entertaining football against winning – but he won as well. A lot. His victory is not limited to the trophies and medals he gathered; his victory is the widespread celebration of the style he so vigorously propounded. A style that the world came to call ‘Total Football’ in the 1970s, a style that has brought historic success to Spain, Barcelona, Ajax and Netherlands.

Johan Cruyff is alive. Lionel Messi does not have hair as long as Cruyff in his youth but his play evokes reminiscences of the Dutch master. ‘Pythagoras in boots’, Cruyff was called. Creating space where there was none, making the pitch as wide and narrow as he wanted it to be. When Messi runs on to the football pitch, he acts as a reference point for his teammates and the spectators. Cruyff was the same, satisfied only if he could influence the direction of play. However, he differed from Messi in one respect. Messi is the leader because he is the best player on the pitch; Cruyff was a leader because he was one. Even if his footballing gifts had not resided in him, he would have always seen himself as the supreme voice in a group.

The Cruyff turn

His everlasting belief in his leadership credentials led him to leave Ajax for Barcelona in 1973. His teammates undermined his captaincy by voting for another player to lead the side. A fortnight later, Cruyff moved to Catalonia. The captaincy issue aside, Messi and Cruyff have a lot in common. Messi’s physical stature is not as impressive as some of the other footballers we see today. While growing up, he was diagnosed with a growth hormone disorder. Cruyff was thin, too. At the age of 15, he himself admitted that he could not kick the ball too far away. But his brain understood space like nobody else – something we can say for Messi as well. And as his career has progressed, Messi has preferred to play in a deeper position from where he can control the play. There’s no better way to keep Cruyff alive even though it’s not a conscious choice by Messi. Another player who was thin, understood space well and was even coached by Cruyff? Guardiola.

Johan Cruyff is alive. The Cruyff turn has become the most common way of dribbling past opponents. What is the Cruyff turn? It’s a feint, a dummy move that leaves the defender aghast, lonely and a bit sad. Or maybe not. Cryuff’s first victim was Sweden’s Jan Olsson, who had this to say: “My team-mates after the game, we looked at each other, they started to laugh and I do the same. I laughed then and I laugh now. It was very funny. He was a world-class player. I do my best but I was not a world-class player. The players in my team, they all laugh because they know me. We laughed together in the changing room because everyone saw what a player he was. What more could we do?”

What more could they do, indeed. Olsson described it as the proudest moment of his career. Everyone laughed and everyone had fun. Cruyff sought to entertain and you could say he had achieved his objective. It was the World Cup and even the opponents took it well but we’re not sure defenders are taking it in the same spirit today. Players use the trick every now and then. It’s the simplest of moves but as effective as it was when Cruyff decided to employ it the first time. “Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is,” said Cruyff, probably thinking of the famous turn as he uttered the words.

Johan Cruyff is alive. In the 1960s, the Dutch society discovered that provoking the political establishment was an enjoyable thing to do. Amsterdam became a centre for leftist and anarchist demonstrations. A revolution was not on the cards but the demonstrators enjoyed the conflict. The social and cultural upheaval changed the city. In the 1950s, it was notorious for its gloomy atmosphere. Albert Camus, by the looks of it, didn’t really enjoy his time there. “Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams,” he had remarked. The city’s conservatism was replaced by a generation that sought to be liberal and provocative.

It’s an image that has persisted to this day. Cruyff was not an anarchist himself and remained rooted in the ideas of family and religion. But in his professionalism, he demonstrated little respect for authority, becoming repeatedly involved in arguments. His artistic conception of football was coupled with an acute awareness of his own interest. In the 1974 World Cup, Cruyff wore Puma shoes even though the country’s football board had signed a sponsorship deal with Adidas. His individualism, however, did not distract him from the needs of the collective in a team sport. In some senses, Cruyff stood for the marriage of both approaches. A reflection of this association can be seen in Barcelona under the stewardship of Guardiola. The team’s ethos was based on the interests of the collective but it was Messi’s decisiveness that tipped the odds even further in Barcelona’s favour. Outside the field of play, the rise in power of the footballer is noteworthy. Throughout his career, Cruyff remained resolutely bound to securing his own interest like today’s footballers. It was a provocative idea in the Dutch society of late 1960s and early 1970s. And his rebellious streak only served to add to his aura.

The maker of the Netherlands

Johan Cruyff is kept alive by his vision of football that remains successful to this day, through players who demonstrate a preternatural understanding of space, the Cruyff turn and a dislike of the establishment. Yet, he’s dead. He couldn’t have chosen a better time perhaps. While there are elements that keep Cruyff alive and will continue to do so, he was doomed to fail in his attempt to recreate the past he passionately loved. Ajax no longer plays at the De Meer stadium that had allowed his gifts to flourish. Instead, their home is the spaceship-resembling Amsterdam Arena. The market-logic that guides most decisions in modern-day football obviously claimed that a new stadium is good for the business.

Barcelona has also imbibed this idea thoroughly. The team’s interest has to make a compromise with the need for signing a star player every year. His national team, the Netherlands, no longer plays the football he would like. He had become a vocal critic of the national side in his final years; the Netherlands will not be a part of the European football championship this summer for the first time since 1984.

Cruyff, however, was not just a great footballer. In his fantastic book Brilliant Orange (2000), David Winner reckoned that Cruyff was the best-known Dutch person alive. Probably the most important, too, he added for good measure. Hubert Smeets, in an essay titled ‘Cruyff gave form to the Netherlands’, had little hesitation in saying, “He made this country after the war. I think he was the only one who really understood the sixties.” If that was the case, Cruyff would have been pained by the rise of extreme right-wing politics in his country. Geert Wilders, leader of the Freedom party, is gaining ground ahead of next year’s elections. Funded by anti-Islam groups in the USA, Wilders’ movement has incited hatred towards the Netherlands’ substantial Muslim population.

The Netherlands’ history of religious tolerance and liberal values is under serious threat. Dutch football is fighting for relevance continentally as the economically stronger English, Spanish and German clubs dominate. The reign of market forces in football is reducing the power of the collective. The heady days of 1960s Amsterdam seem far away. It has become a tourist destination for yuppies as the Provo anarchists of the swinging sixties are conspicuous by absence. A dream is dying, and so Johan Cruyff is dead.

Priyansh is a Chevening Scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.