Fair Play Award
Very few players have earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as Pele, Beckenbauer and Diego Maradona. Although he never won an international title at country level and played in only one World Cup, Johan Cruyff is one of them. Such was his natural talent, the Dutch Master enjoys an undisputed reputation as one of the game’s all-time greats.
Johannes Hendrikus Cruyff was born two years after the end of the Second World War, on 25 April 1947 in Amsterdam. He was brought up in the shadow of Ajax Amsterdam’s stadium and training ground, where his mother worked. His father died from a heart attack when Johan was 12. From a very early age, the young Cruyff set his sights on one thing alone: becoming a professional footballer. He began formal training when he was seven years old, and to his mother’s horror, left school at 13 to concentrate exclusively on sport.
Coaching legend Rinus Michels spotted the slightly-built youth’s talent, and designed an exercise programme aimed at developing his frail physique to withstand the rigours of a professional career. Cruyff quickly won a place in Ajax’s first team, and in 1966, at the age of 19, picked up the first of nine Dutch league titles destined to come his way.
He soon rose to international prominence as a fleet-footed, elegant and technically gifted footballer, who never bottled a tackle. Cruyff was a playmaker, ammunitions provider and marksman rolled into one, with an ability to time a pass that has hardly been equalled before or since.
He was a leading figure off the field as well, confident and opinionated, and never one to mince his words in order to avoid making enemies. This has not always worked in his favour, as when he was removed from the captaincy at Ajax by a 13-3 vote of his team mates in 1972. Accusations of arrogance have also been fanned by interview quotes such as “I don’t think there will come a day when you can say Cruyff and people won’t know what you’re talking about”, or “Before I make a mistake, I don’t make that mistake”.
As well as skirting the boundary between honesty and arrogance, Cruyff's quotes are also widely known for walking the fine line linguistically. In addition to his inimitably mangled grammar, which has been the subject of articles in language journals, he is also famous for the meandering logic of his longer monologues, which invariably lead him to the conclusion that he was right about something, while leaving his adversary baffled. “Essays in their purest form”, a noted literary critic called them. In the Netherlands his quotes have been published in book form, and are used in management seminars.
For one of the greatest players of all time, Cruyff's international career was relatively short. He made his debut for the Dutch national side against Hungary in September 1966, and would go on to make 48 appearances for the “Oranjes” before calling time in October 1977. His last feat as an international was to help Holland qualify for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, though even then he was only called up for the important games.
His greatest achievement as an international came in the 1974 FIFA World Cup finals in Germany. Holland went into the tournament with few expectations, having only barely qualified and with the team giving little indication that they were comfortable with coach Rinus Michels’ tactics. The pieces of the puzzle fell into place just in time however, and, after the first round, Holland were unanimously appointed the leading favourites for the title by the world press.
It was the unveiling of total football, a style of play epitomised by Cruyff himself. Although he was fielded as centre forward he wandered all over the pitch, popping up wherever he could do most damage to the opponent. The other players adapted themselves flexibly around his movements regularly switching positions, so that the tactical roles in the team were always filled but not always by the same person. This was a revolutionary concept, and it took the world by storm.
So did Oranje and Cruyff. In the second round the Master himself got involved in the scoring, and netted his first two goals in Holland's 4-0 thrashing of Argentina, arguably their best game in the tournament. The match against East Germany was a more subdued affair, won 2-0, and in the last of the second round group games Holland met Brazil in what was for all practical purposes a semi-final. After a rough-and-tumble contest Holland walked off 2-0 winners. Cruyff scored Oranje's second goal, and it is remembered as one of his best ever in international play. It came in the 65th minute, when he met a centre from Krol with a flying volley which wrongfooted Leao and crashed into the left side of the goal.
Cruyff's brilliance was again on display in the final, which started spectacularly. Cruyff kicked off, and Holland passed the ball around. After having gone through 14 players, all of them Oranje, it came back to Cruyff who started a rush, slipped past Vogts, and was mowed down by Hoeness inside the box. Neeskens scored from the resulting penalty kick before a single German player had had occasion to touch the ball. The Dutch failed to press their advantage however, and allowed the Germans back into the game. The home team equalised through a penalty kick, and were ahead two minutes before half-time through Gerd Mueller. In the second half the Dutch failed to overcome the barrier that was Josef “Sepp” Maier, and so they lost the title. Cruyff’s player of the tournament award was scant consolation.
During the World Cup in Germany, Cruyff had already announced that he would not play in the next World Cup in Argentina, mainly because he didn't want to be away from his family for so long. That and a series of disagreements with the national federation brought a premature end to his international career.
However, at club level Cruyff excelled. Between 1971 and 1973, he won the European Cup three times in a row with Ajax Amsterdam. In 1973 he moved to Spain with Barcelona, collecting the league title in his first season. He announced his retirement in 1978, only to resurface in May 1979 in the US Professional League. He played for two seasons in the US and then less than a dozen matches for Spanish second division side Levante before returning to Ajax Amsterdam in the summer of 1981. In 1983 he moved to arch-rivals Feyenoord Rotterdam, enjoying one final taste of glory as a player as his new team did the domestic double. In his mid-30s, Cruyff was amazingly playing some of the best football of his life and was voted Dutch Footballer of the Year in 1983 and 1984. The best Dutch player of all time hung up his boots once and for all in 1984.
Although Cruyff had no formal coaching qualifications, he took over as technical director at Ajax Amsterdam at the beginning of the 1985-86 season. Indeed he had given an indication of his aptitude in 1980 when, in Holland training with Ajax during the US off-season, he came down from the stands during a Dutch league game and started handing out unsolicited advice to Ajax coach Leo Beenhakker. Ajax were down 3-1 to FC Twente at that moment, but ended up winning the game 5-3. Although he left after three years because of opposition within the club, he helped Ajax win the 1987 European Cup Winners’ Cup and developed talented youngsters such as Dennis Bergkamp, Aaron Winter, Brian Roy and the Witschge brothers Rob and Richard, all of whom went on to become accomplished performers themselves.
In a repeat of the journey he had made as a player, Cruyff left Ajax for Barcelona, where he was installed as coach and technical director. He set about reconstructing the team, releasing a dozen players including German Bernd Schuster, and spending million on new stars. Soon, he had fashioned another top European side which won the European Cup Winners’ Cup, Champions League, the Spanish Cup and four domestic championships in a row between 1991 and 1994 with a side known in Spain as the “Dream Team”.
This glittering track record established Cruyff as the undisputed master of the club’s on-field activities, and he held onto his job for longer than any of his predecessors. He also came close to making his return to the World Cup as a coach, but at the last moment negotiations with the Dutch Football Association broke off and in the end Cruyff did not become part of Oranje's 1994 World Cup campaign.
After an eight-year relationship, Johan Cruyff and Barcelona parted company for a second time in 1996. Cruyff, who had had to give up smoking after a bypass operation in 1991 and had recurring heart trouble in 1997, swore he would never coach again and, as could be expected, he has kept his word – though his name still seems to come up every single time Oranje need another coach, while he continues to be revered at the Nou Camp.
For the past five years he has divided his time between the Johan Cruyff Foundation, which makes grants to disabled sportspeople and finances a sports medicine research programme, and the Johan Cruyff International University, which he set up in 1998 to assist retired sportspeople in defining new career paths.
1964-1973: Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
1973-1978: Barcelona (Spain)
1979: Los Angeles Aztecs (USA)
1980-1981: Washington Diplomats (USA)
1981: UD Levante (Spain)
1981-1983: Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
1983-1984: Feyenoord Rotterdam (Netherlands)
1966 Dutch Championship winner
1967 Dutch Championship winner
1967 Dutch Cup winner
1968 Dutch Championship winner
1970 Dutch Championship winner
1970 Dutch Cup winner
1971 Dutch Cup winner
1971 European Champions Cup winner
1971 European Footballer of the Year
1972 European Champions Cup winner
1972 Dutch Championship winner
1972 Dutch Cup winner
1972 World Club Cup winner
1973 Dutch Championship winner
1973 European Champions Cup winner
1973 European Super Cup winner
1973 European Footballer of the Year
1974 Spanish Championship winner
1974 European Footballer of the Year
1978 Spanish Cup winner
1982 Dutch Championship winner
1983 Dutch Championship winner
1983 Dutch Cup winner
1983 Dutch Footballer of the Year
1984 Dutch Championship winner
1984 Dutch Cup winner
1984 Dutch Footballer of the Year
48 caps (33 goals), 33 as captain
1974 FIFA World Cup Germany™ runner-up and Player of the tournament
1985-1988: Ajax Amsterdam
1986 Dutch Cup winner
1987 Dutch Cup winner
1987 European Cup Winners Cup winner
1989 European Cup Winners Cup winner
1990 Spanish Cup winner
1991 Spanish Championship winner
1992 Spanish Championship winner
1992 European Champions Cup winner
1992 European Super Cup winner
1993 Spanish Championship winner
1994 Spanish Championship winner