I’ll be the first to admit that when pop icon David Bowie died in January of this year, I was more than a little cynical. The seemingly endless outpouring of grief across social media and other platforms seemed, to me at least, to be somewhat disingenuous in some part. People seemed in competition to be the one expressing the most devastation over the death of a man they claimed had had such a great impact on their life. I mean, how could someone they had never met have affected them so much? Surely real grief isn’t that tangible in such a situation?
Those thoughts were brought into sharp perspective for me earlier this week with the news that Holland, Ajax and Barcelona great Johan Cruyff had succumbed to the effects of lung cancer. It had been publicly known the Dutch master was suffering from the condition since October 2015 and yet his death came as quite a shock to most, with many, including former AC Milan and Chelsea favourite Ruud Gullit expressing their impression that his health had been improving in recent months. “I’m perplexed,” he said in a piece in The Guardian this week, “I thought he was getting better. Holland lost a face in the world. He put our football on the map. Furthermore he’s been extremely important for my career.”
There are many reasons that, like Bowie for so many, Johan Cruyff’s death has affected me more than probably expected for a man I never had the honour to meet. From a personal point of view, I saw Cruyff as very much a part of my parents’ generation, a major reason why they fell in love with football and so, indirectly, a major reason why I would go on to do the same. Seeing him in such a light does, however, bring into stark reality the mortality of not only me, but of those around me.
I’ve spent the days since the news broke reading about the Dutchman’s many achievements. Many of them I knew. His honours as both a player and manager are almost too numerous to count. 9 Eredivisie titles with both Ajax and Feyenoord, 5 La Liga titles with Barcelona, 4 European Cups and 3 Balon D’Ors are just some of the achievements worth listing. But it’s in reading more in depth that I’ve come to more acutely appreciate the wider impact he had on football as a whole, rather than just in the trophy room.
With his philosophy of endless attacking and total voetbal, it was Cruyff’s firm belief that every player in a team should be well-rounded and play to a high standard in a number of areas, while also excelling individually in certain roles. Despite being born some 15 to 20 years after Cruyff’s playing prime, I and so many others with a love of the game, owe this philosophy a great debt for the way in which it’s contributed to the modern game we enjoy today.
It’s my belief that Pep Guardiola is a revolutionary. A man who has changed the way football is viewed and I genuinely believe he will go on to become the defining manager of my generation. It’s fair to say, however, that he wouldn’t have been able to achieve what he has without the work of Cruyff before him. Cruyff’s influence on the world-famous youth academies at Ajax and Barcelona saw him implement a system whereby the teams at every stage of development played in the same systems with the same style and the same responsibilities bestowed upon each member of the team. It was his belief that such consistency meant that the players could more easily adapt to each team as they rose through the ranks, with the hope that the players would have years of experience playing together in a consistent manner by the time they reached the senior side. Both Barcelona and Ajax maintain this philosophy today and it’s been adopted elsewhere, with similar set-ups contributing to the success of both Germany and Spain on the international stage over the last 10 years.
What’s also worth remembering is that Cruyff was a man never afraid to voice his opinion. He was deeply critical of the Dutch football system in his later years, stating at the 2010 World Cup, “Who am I supporting? I am Dutch but I support the football that Spain is playing. Spain’s style is the style of Barcelona… Spain, a replica of Barça, is the best publicity for football.” Even in his playing days, he wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers. When told by Ajax in 1983 that he no longer featured in their plans as a player, he immediately signed for rivals Feyenoord, winning the Eredivisie and KNVB Cup double in the season following. Point proven, I think you’ll agree.
We could talk all day about the impact Johan Cruyff has had on football. We could list the players who have directly benefitted from his input. Bergkamp, Messi, Iniesta, Overmars, the De Boers, Xavi, Van Der Saar and even Guardiola himself – the list is endless. But perhaps it would be best to leave it to the man himself to explain his view on football.
“Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.”