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The Legend Dies…

The religious analogy is badly overused in football. Yet if there is an instance when it is apt to wheel it out without running the risk of slipping back into the trite, it’s to mark the life of Hendrik Johannes Cruijff, better known as Johan Cruyff, who died on March 24.

He was one of the prophets who came out of nowhere, yet at the same time seemed to fulfill some kind of manifest destiny.

Cruyff came out of nowhere in the sense that there is no natural genealogical blueprint. He was never compared to his predecessors, because he had none, not in the way a young Lionel Messi was likened to Diego Maradona or Zinedine Zidane was compared to Michel Platini.

Simply put, nobody before him did what he did, in the way he did it. Cruyff’s rail-thin frame, floppy hair, languid stop-start motion and seemingly otherworldly grace made him look like a visitor from the future. Check out any highlight of him on YouTube and it becomes obvious.

The fact that he did all this wearing his trademark “number 14” jersey, one associated with benchwarmers at the time, made him even more of a trailblazer.

But there was also no rational reason why Dutch football should produce someone like Cruyff at the time that he began kicking around a ball in the East Amsterdam planned neighbourhood of Betondorp (which means “concrete village,” possibly the least appropriately named birthplace in recorded history).

Until he pulled on the Oranje jersey, the Dutch national team had failed to qualify for a major tournament since before World War II. No Dutch side had won European silverware. It was very much a footballing backwater, as likely to spawn a guy who would change the sport forever as Jamaica is to produce the world’s greatest downhill skier.

Yet at the same time, the stigmata of football accompanied Cruyff from a young age. His father, Manus, loved the game and many evenings, once he shuttered the family grocery store, they would kick a ball around together. His mother would work at Ajax’s old De Meer stadium as a cleaner. After Manus’ death, when Cruyff was 12, she re-married: His stepfather, Henk Angel, also worked at Ajax. Most of all, the De Meer was a quarter-mile from his house. When it comes to Ajax, while he would eventually transcend it, there is no question Cruyff was born into it.

In the age-old nature vs. nurture argument, though, he was squarely a check-mark in the former camp. Cruyff was a natural athlete, physically blessed with agility, coordination and stamina. But watch him play and what stands out for you most is acceleration and balance. The go-to party trick of simply stopping, waiting a beat and taking off before the defender has time to cover worked time and again. But, equally, there was a balletic gracefulness to his movement, the way he twisted his body into impossible positions without ever losing control. He reminded you of a cross between Rudolf Nureyev and a Capoeira master.

ESPN FC’s Adrian Healey and Alejandro Moreno discuss Johan Cruyff’s greatness as both player and manager.
The “Cruyff turn” as it came to be known is not a move he invented (or trademarked for that matter). He simply did it better than anyone before. Or since.

Equally, goals like this one against Atletico Madrid came to epitomize what he could do with his body.

Of course, all of this paled by comparison when set against Cruyff’s mind. It felt as if he thought faster and saw more than anyone. Maybe he really did.

That understanding of time and space, that ability to make those dimensions seemingly bend to his will would make him the perfect exponent for what we’ve come to know as Total Football. Few players seemed to understand it and be liberated by it as much as Cruyff. The fluidity and coordinated movement, the interchangeability of positions, the use of space to create mis-matches and exploit patterns was tailor-made to his skill set.

The legend of “Clockwork Orange” was born there. Cruyff’s Ajax won three consecutive European Cups. His Dutch side waltzed through the 1974 World Cup, scoring in the very first minute of the final against West Germany after a 14-pass move straight from kickoff which saw their opponents fail to get a single touch on the ball. Germany came from behind to become world champions and that Dutch side would be remembered by the critics for their arrogance and presumption in thinking they had already won.

As for Cruyff, he took it in style. For years, he repeated the mantra that everybody remembers and loves that Dutch team, while few, outside Germany, have any affection for the side that beat them.

By that point, he was already at Barcelona, which he joined in 1973. Five seasons at the Camp Nou were enough to write his name into blaugrana history and foreshadow what would come in his next life as manager. He missed out on the 1978 World Cup in Argentina and revealed years later that it was because he felt unsafe as he had been subjected to a kidnapping attempt.

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