Football lovers drone on endlessly about who is the greatest player. The debate usually converges on the trinity of Pele, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. Older fans may add Alfredo Di Stefano to the candidates’ list. Romantics will also venture the name of Johan Cruyff, who died on Thursday aged 68.
What football’s big five have in common is that they left lasting images of ingenuity, power and grace in our collective mind’s eye. What is unique about Cruyff is that his footprint is deeper, longer and more enduring than those of all the rest. There is no Pele style, or Maradona style, or Messi style, or Di Stefano style to be found in the way the game is played today. But there is a Cruyff style. Or, as they say in Spain, a Cruyff ideology.
The most admired and most successful team of the present day – on this point there is no discussion – is Barcelona, the living expression of the Dutchman’s idea of how the game should be played. Cruyff’s spirit hovers around the Barcelona team, penetrating the thought processes of every player on the field.
Johan Cruyff: the balletic genius who changed football
Cruyff’s most ardent disciple, Pep Guardiola, is this Barça’s architect, the manager under whom they won 14 out of 19 possible leagues and cups in four years, a feat unequalled in the history of the game. But one thing Guardiola has never failed to repeat is that the original design belongs to Cruyff, under whom the Catalan played and learned his craft in the early 1990s. “Cruyff made the Sistine Chapel,” Guardiola has said. “The job of those that have followed him at Barcelona has been to maintain it.”
Football’s Michelangelo, it should be acknowledged, had a Dutch master of his own. Cruyff’s coach at his boyhood team, Ajax Amsterdam, was Rinus Michels, the man who devised the concept of “total football”.