Remembering a Dutch master

Soccer legend Johan Cruyff died yesterday at age 68. Cruyff is one of four magical attacking players I have had the privilege to watch, and the only European in the batch (the others are Pele, Diego Maradona, and Lionel Messi). Cruyff is also the only one of the four to have emerged from a soccer backwater (Holland). Argentina and Brazil were soccer powers before Pele and Maradona arrived on the scene.

And certainly, Cruyff was the only soccer giant ever to ply his trade in Washington, D.C.

Holland, a country of only around 13 million when Cruyff burst onto the scene, hadn’t accomplished much in soccer prior to the 1970s. As a footballing nation, it was known mainly for the bickering among its players.

The bickering continued during the Cruyff era (he was a revered but contentious guy) and beyond. But suddenly Holland became a soccer power.

Cruyff’s club, Ajax, won the European Championship (now the Champions League) in 1971, 1972, and 1973. He was named world player of the year in 1971, 1973, and 1974.

In 1974, Holland’s “Clockwork Orange” national team took the World Cup by a storm. Led by Cruyff, who was named the tournament’s outstanding player, Holland cruised into the tournament finals against the host nation, West Germany.

A minute into the match, Cruyff embarked on a brilliant run and was brought down in the penalty box. After his running mate, Johan Neeskens, converted the penalty kick, a rout seemed to be in the cards.

But West Germany buckled down, as the Germans usually do, and went on to win 2-1. Cruyff deserves some of the blame, not because of his play — only the brilliance of the great Franz Beckenbauer and goalkeeper Sepp Maier prevented him from shredding the German defense. However, the open frustration he displayed towards his teammates probably hurt the cause.

In 1978, Cruyff, now 31 but still brilliant, elected to skip the World Cup in Argentina. He did not want to be away from his family for nearly two months, as the Cup would have required (assuming a successful Dutch run).

Once again, Holland lost in the finals to the host nation, this time Argentina. The match was decided in overtime, leaving most observers convinced that Holland would have won had Cruyff participated.

Cryuff played only 48 times for the Netherlands. He scored 33 goals, a remarkable rate of return, especially considering that Cruyff was a playmaker, not a true center forward.

In 1979, Cruyff left Barcelona to play for Los Angeles in the North American Soccer League. The next season he came to Washington to play for the Diplomats.

I bought a season ticket that year in order to watch Cruyff in person. He didn’t disappoint. The magical soccer brain and the magical control were still on display, even if the end product wasn’t always there.

The home match between the Diplomats and the New York Cosmos (led by Beckenbauer and Neeskens) filled RFK Stadium at a time when soccer was a nothing sport in the U.S. Beckenbauer once again got the better of Cruyff. The Cosmos — basically and all-star team — won a “shootout” after the match could not be decided in overtime.

Nearly 20 years later, however, it was Cruyff, not Kaiser Franz, who was named European footballer of the century. Without a doubt, these two remain, respectively, the greatest attacker and the greatest defender in the history of European football.

When his playing career was over, Cruyff became a manager. He led Barcelona to the victory in the European Cup, its first ever, and won more trophies than any other manager in that club’s storied history. (Years later, Cruyff’s protege, Pep Guardiola, would surpass the master’s trophy count).

As a manager, Cruyff was initially viewed as a mad scientist. One prominent soccer, noting that Cruyff’s formation reminded him of an airplane, wondered whether “it would fly.” It flew brilliantly, metaphorically speaking.

The fact is that Cruyff revolutionized soccer both as player and manager. As a player, the moves he developed, such as the Cruyff turn, are commonly used today by players with sufficient skill to pull them off.

Moreover, his ability to play every outfield position (I once saw him play “sweeper” a la Beckenbauer for Los Angeles), helped produce “Total Football,” the revolutionary approach formulated by Cruyff’s mentor, Rinus Michaels, in which every player becomes both attacker and defender. The penalty Cruyff won in the opening minute of the 1974 World Cup final was an advertisement for total football. From the opening kickoff, all 11 Dutch players (and no German) touched the ball, before Cruyff embarked on the run that produced the penalty.

As a manager, the odd looking formations Cruyff developed became staples of the modern game. He introduced a pressing style, another staple. He emphasized short passing and possession football, tactics that evolved in “tika taka” — the trademark of the Spanish teams that, years later, produced back-to-back victories in the European Cup of Nations, plus triumph in the 2010 World Cup.

Cruyff also founded the modern Barcelona football academy, modeled on the legendary Ajax academy from which he “graduated.” The Barca academy produced the exceptionally skilled players like Xavi and Iniesta who took Spanish football to a whole new level, just as Cruyff had taken Dutch football.

Cruyff once declared that “in my teams, striker is first defender and goalie is first attacker.” When Germany won the 2014 World Cup, its goalie, “sweeper-keeper” Manuel Neuer, reportedly completed more passes than Lionel Messi. Neuer played under Cruyff’s disciple Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich.

As a Washington Diplomats season ticket holder, I got to meet Cruyff at a club banquet in 1980. From his appearance, you would have suspected that this was an exceptional person, but not an exceptional athlete — indeed, maybe not an athlete at all (but Cruyff was actually good baseball player before he turned full-time to soccer).

Rail thin, it looked like a strong wind might knock him down. But playing in an era when defenders routinely hacked down attackers with impunity, I can’t remember Cruyff being brought down except when it benefited his team (e.g., in the penalty box).

Thanks to his footballing brain, Cruyff was always at least two steps ahead of everyone else, whether as a player or a manager.

I’ll leave the last word to Guardiola:

Throughout my career I’ve simply tried to instill what I learned from Johan Cruyff. He has had the biggest influence on football out of anyone in the world, first as a player and then as a coach. He taught me a lot and you can see that in the fact that so many of his former players are now coaches.

Johan Cruyff built the cathedral, our job is to maintain and renovate it.