Alongside Rembrandt and Vincent van Gogh, he is the most famous Dutchman ever. A study even proved that more than two billion people know the name of Johan Cruyff – the other Dutch master, born on 25 April 1947 in Amsterdam.
A phenomenon as a player and as a coach, football has been his life, from his early years with Ajax and the Netherlands to his triumphs with Barcelona. A man loved by many, yet often misunderstood due to his inimitable thinking and actions.
However, his attitude brought him close to the fans – the people who cheered him, cherished him and never let him down – because the man in the street understood that Hendrik Johannes Cruyff always had the interests of the spectator in mind.
As player and coach, providing top entertainment was always the priority for Cruyff. And despite a controversial attitude that made a lot of experts shake their heads, Cruyff insists he always knew exactly what he was doing. "Wherever I played or worked, I wanted people to talk and think about football," he said.
"That's why I gave not only the club but also the fans, a story – always something to think and talk about. Negative or positive, that didn't matter, people were talking about football and the way it should be played. The biggest gossip was football."
His coach at Ajax, Rinus Michels once recalled Cruyff as a "a thin boy" who grew in stature on the field – a stature matched by few other footballers in history. Cruyff was the leader of the famed Ajax team that Michels built in the late 1960s, a team that brought to life the concept of 'total football' and won six Dutch titles and a hat-trick of European Champion Clubs' Cups between 1971 and '73.
After teaming up with Michels at Barcelona, in his first season he inspired the Catalan club to a first Spanish title in 14 years in 1974 – the same year the pair orchestrated the Netherlands' run to a FIFA World Cup final that they lost to West Germany. It was also the year he won his third Ballon d'Or.
Cruyff later took his talents to the North American Soccer League, then Levante in Spain before returning home to win league titles with both Ajax and Feyenoord. In total he made 704 appearances in club football, scoring 392 goals – 266 of them for Ajax. For the Netherlands he struck 33 in 48 games.
In his debut for Ajax in 1964 and his final appearance for Feyenoord 19 years and six months later, he found the net; suffice to say, Cruyff was always focused on scoring goals and this translated into his coaching philosophy too. While the emphasis in international football was becoming more and more defensive, Cruyff foresaw a three-striker system, involving two authentic wingers and pinning the opposition in their own half.
The key to this concept was a positional game that required the maximum in concentration and skill, based on triangles and governed by the idea that the third man decided what was possible. The crucial thing was to ensure that the ball was continually moved around the pitch.
While the critics accused Cruyff of letting his teams commit suicide, the players started to enjoy their master's vision because the adventurous attacking style yielded results. For example, in 1987 Ajax were the youngest ever winners of the European Cup Winners' Cup. Also, with Barcelona he conquered Spain and Europe, giving them their first European Cup.
After he left the Barcelona post in 1996, Cruyff's life took another turn when he started the Johan Cruyff Foundation and the Johan Cruyff Institute for Sports Studies, with centres in the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Mexico and Peru. The institute created a school system, tailor-made for sportsmen and women who wanted to study during their careers.
With the foundation, he adopted nearly 100 projects all over the world for poor and disabled children and used football as a means of improving their lives. One notable project is the Cruyff Courts initiative, promoting street football. UEFA recognised its positive impact on young people when selecting it for the UEFA Grassroots Award on the opening of the 100th court in late 2009, and he received the 2013 UEFA President's Award.
According to Cruyff himself, "playing on the street is still the purist's way of playing football". Who would argue with a man whose own way of playing was itself a purist's dream? The sport is indebted to him.
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