It seems to me that the number of sporting revolutionaries is greatly over-estimated. They are, for instance, far less common than actual revolutions, those explosions of tumult and rebellion that challenge old orders and political regimes. Yet sporting revolutionaries do exist. And Johan Cruyff, who died last week from lung cancer at the age of 68, should certainly be counted amongst their number. As Richard Williams notes in his piece on the Dutchman, “football has never quite had a revolutionary quite like Johan Cruyff”.
It is not difficult to see why Cruyff deserved such an accolade. His athleticism, his ability to glide past opponents, and, above all else, his grace were unique. Cruyff was the star name in the unfathomably talented Ajax side of the late 1960s and early 1970s that won six Eredivisie titles in eight seasons and swept to three consecutive European Cups. Rinus Michels may claim to have masterminded Total Football but it was Cruyff who proved to be its charismatic figurehead.
Total Football was a style of play built upon technical excellence, fluidity and positional interchangeability; Cruyff was the brightest of its creative sparks, its theorist and conductor. As David Winner explains in the wonderful book, Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football: “His vision of perfect movement and harmony on the field was rooted in the same sublime ordering of space that one sees in the pictures of Vermeer or church painter Pieter Jansz Saenredam. It was the music of the spheres on grass."
The way Ajax played was new but it represented more than just a tactical revolution. Winner again: “Total Football was profoundly imbued with democratic impulses. It prided itself on being the most cosmopolitan, creative conception of the game; a perfect balance between collective responsibility, equality and individualism, a system that allowed every player to excel and express himself.” While Cruyff would welcome those “democratic impulses” on the pitch, they did not always sit well with him off it. When in 1973 the Ajax players elected Piet Keizer club captain, a disgruntled Cruyff decided his time in Amsterdam had come to an end. Within three weeks he had moved to Barcelona.
As with so many revolutionaries, the enduring romance of Cruyff’s story is not his success but, rather, his glorious failure. By 1974 totaalvoetbal was to become the national style of play. The Netherlands, comprising a core of Ajax players, reunited Michels and Cruyff. Their footballing superiority and attacking abandon endeared them to fans the world over, and made them the neutral’s choice for the final against West Germany. More than this they, and Cruyff in particular, oozed cool. That they should play so well and still lose merely cemented their legendary status.
Yet the appeal of Johan Cruyff went far beyond the pitch. He was the rarest of creatures: a footballer you actually wanted to hear talk. As a manager he combined style and success. As a much sought after pundit he would skewer the fad for defensive football, attack the game’s preoccupation with statistics, and was lambasting Louis Van Gaal long before disgruntled punters in the Stretford End took up the cudgel. Equally he never seemed short of opinions on politics, religion or life. Did Cruyff have a political philosophy to match his footballing philosophy? It’s difficult to tell. Trying to fathom Cruyff’s political outlook is a bit like trying to unpick the Gordian knot whilst wearing mittens. Perhaps Cruyff didn’t know himself; perhaps he never wanted us to know. One cannot help but be reminded of Cruyff’s response to a journalist’s persistent line of questioning during a press conference: “If I wanted you to understand, I would have explained it better.”
There has always been the temptation to view Cruyff through the prism of Dutch stereotypes: the artist, the Dutch master, the synthesis of Orange inclination to arrogance and contrarianism. Such appeals to national characteristics always strike me as decidedly trite. Those traits we most associated with Cruyff – his outspokenness, originality and self-belief – might similarly be used to describe Bill Shankly and Brian Clough, products of the Scottish and English working class respectively. Each made their name prior to the point media coaching became part and parcel of one’s football training. This is not to say, however, that Cruyff was not a product of his time.
While it may be more accurate to say that Johan Cruyff the man was ‘progressive’ rather than ‘revolutionary’, one can detect the vestigial traces of Amsterdam’s mid-1960s radicalism. From the moment, as a brash teenager with long hair, he refused to wear anything other than the number 14 shirt, Cruyff captured the era’s anti-establishment, counter-cultural air. When Cruyff’s wife Danny gave birth in 1974 they named their child Jordi in what was widely interpreted as a gesture of solidarity with the people of Catalonia. His decision not to participate in the 1978 World Cup because it was being staged in Argentina, then under a brutal military dictatorship, was another example of a man unwilling to negotiate away his principles. “How can you play soccer,” asked Cruyff, “a thousand metres from a torture centre?” And he carried that anti-authoritarianism throughout his life – as witnessed by his numerous spats with the hierarchies of Ajax and Barcelona. Certainly he was indulged and insulated, courtesy of his wealth and reputation, but Cruyff seemed like a man who would never shy away from controversy, always on the lookout for the next conflict.
By virtue of his prodigious footballing skills, the sheer force of his personality, and his bouts of outrageous egotism, Cruyff could simultaneously forge a team around him, and, as an “explicit elitist”, supersede it. He was both the key figure in Total Football – the beautiful apotheosis of teamwork – and the man after whom the Cruyff turn was named, a piece of skill often copied but rarely mastered. This is no coincidence. At a time when society had yet to decisively determine which should come to dominate, he epitomised the glorious tension between the collective and the individual.