It is an impossible task to fit a lifetime of football into one single article. The extent to which the Dutchman has inspired, influenced, and contributed to the game of football is close to immeasurable, and certainly rivals that of anyone else, alive or dead. His days as a player, arguably the greatest Europe has seen, and three time winner of the European Footballer of the Year – as a manager, winning Barcelona’s maiden European Championship – as a tactician, together with Rinus Michels creating a unique total football aesthetic – and as a legacy, founding Barcelona academy La Masia, the footballing school of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, and the great Barcelona sides of recent memory. This is without mention of his famous turn, penalty, and footballing musings.
It is perhaps easier, therefore, to explore the career and life of the man they called El Flaco through the metaphor of one single game. The match between Holland and Brazil in the second group stage of the 1974 World Cup in Germany is often cited as the zenith of total football, and was a game controlled by the Dutch number 14. Cruyff the player, Cruyff the tactician, and Cruyff the legacy are captured perfectly in this performance.
The Oranje entered the game having played 5, scored 12, and conceded 1 in the tournament, including a 4-0 defeat of Argentina. Brazil were also undefeated in the championship, but had been somewhat carried by Rivelino and Jairzinho, surviving stars of their triumph four years earlier, and required a win in Dortmund to advance to the final. The South American reigning champions recognised their technical inferiority, and chose to employ a rather more cynical game-plan than their famous side of 1970, evidenced by first half bookings of Lucas Pereira and Ze Maria, the latter for a rugby tackle on Cruyff. The Dutch were forced to alter their style in response, eschewing dribbling in favour of counterattacks and longer passing. Their shape and defensive strategy, however, was clear from the off. They were a side shaped by the philosophy of Cruyff and Michels, which required each individual to possess broad footballing ability, allowing them to, in theory, play in any position, and therefore making all eleven men almost to mark. Without the ball, their seemingly indefatigable pressing game demonstrated a remarkable level of fitness, and fearlessness in the sheer dedication of numbers to the ball. In this element, perhaps, is Cruyff’s legacy best represented in today’s game through the successful employment, and various interpretations, of the press by many of the great sides of the modern era; from Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan, to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
Cruyff played in every position on the pitch over the 90 minutes, a touch-map of the match would display an astonishingly multifaceted performance from the team’s starting forward. Despite the fact that he wore the 14 shirt, total football meant that Cruyff played as the most complete and extreme false 9 perhaps that we have ever seen, before the term became fashionable, taking and moving the ball across the defence, midfield, and forward positions. Whilst Cruyff was the conductor of the side, he was helped out by the dramatic movement of the rest of his teammates; a first half chance for right back Wim Suurbier, in which the most advanced players for the Dutch were defensive midfielder Wim Jansen and left winger Rob Rensenbrink, is evidence of this tactic in possession. In the 50th minute he received the ball in the right-hand channel, swapping positions with Johan Neeskens, for whom he produced a low early cross into the box, which Neeskens deftly lobbed over Emerson Leao in the Brazilian goal to break the deadlock. The second goal, coming 15 minutes after the first, was created by a swift counterattack led by the overlapping run by left back Ruud Krol, who crossed from the byline to Cruyff, appearing at the front post – surprisingly in the traditional position of a striker, who finished acrobatically on the volley.
The universal defensive capabilities of the side were demonstrated by the successfully deployed high line that the Dutch adopted, catching the Brazilians offside on multiple occasions. And when the trap failed, goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed acted as a proto-sweeper-keeper, in the less dramatic, but easily recognisable role of successors such as Rene Higuita and Manuel Neuer, and keeping a clean sheet in the process.
The Netherlands won the game 2-0, and in doing so secured top spot in the second group stage, sending them through to the final against West Germany, and eventually losing 2-1 thanks to a brace from German great Gerd Muller after famously going in front after 2 minutes from the penalty spot without the Germans having touched the ball. They fell to the same fate 4 years later in Argentina, losing 3-1 in the final to the hosts without the mercurial Cruyff, who had retired from international football the year earlier in the midst of kidnapping threats and the controversy of a military coup in Argentina. He retired from his playing days in 1984 having won everything possible at a domestic and individual level, although national honours unfortunately eluded him. The legacy left by the Dutch side of 1974, however, undoubtedly transcends a lack of trophies – they are cited by many today as the greatest side never to win a World Cup, which arguably therefore makes Cruyff the best player never to have lifted the trophy. It is difficult to envisage a man having such an impact on the beautiful game today, and to estimate how many great careers of todays footballers and managers he influenced and inspired. It therefore feels fitting to leave the final words to the man himself. Speaking on his success as a player, Johan Cruyff said that “We showed the world you could enjoy being a footballer; you could laugh and have a fantastic time. I represent the era which proved that attractive football was enjoyable and successful, and good fun to play too” – and isn’t that what it’s all about?