Johan Cruyff: The balletic genius who changed football all over the world

His subtle and graceful movement made him a joy to watch – and he knew it and used it to his advantage. Ian Herbert pays tribute to the Dutchman who danced to his own tune 

Rudolph Nureyev – who knew him and was fascinated by how he could move so suddenly, unexpectedly, swiftly and yet with control, balance, grace – always said Johan Cruyff should have been a dancer. 

The Russian saw something incredibly dramatic in the footballer’s sudden shifts of direction and pace, which ballet could not replicate. “In dance every movement is studied so it can sometimes become very boring and bad,” Nureyev’s great friend and collaborator Rudi van Dantzig once told David Winner, the writer who has articulated better than anyone what Cruyff encapsulated. “Football is the spur of the moment; you can never tell what’s going to happen. But Cruyff always seemed to be in control. He made things happen. There was something very dramatic about him, like a Greek drama – life or death, almost, even when they played ordinary Dutch League games.”

It seemed that way with Cruyff for all his days. The images of him taken by Niels Den Haan – accompanying the signature interview with The Guardian’s Donald McRae 18 months back in which he pleaded the values of fast, creative football in the face of the “militaristic” offering of his old foe Louis van Gaal – reveal the same alert, wide-eyed intensity. 

The 1972 film about Cruyff, entitled Number 14 after his legendary lucky shirt number, displays this characteristic, too – though as Winner observes, the really indelible aspect of that arthouse production is the slow-motion images, capturing Cruyff’s most extraordinary grace. 

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The Dutch legend passed away at the age of 68 (Getty)

The formative years of the rakishly thin, angular teenager, born into the working class Bettendorp district of Amsterdam in the lee of the great Ajax club’s De Meer stadium, were very modest but he crashed into the world at the optimum moment. Football players were enjoying the fruits of the onward march of labour, freed of the feudal shackles at a time when television was making it a mass phenomenon. These were a new kind of cultural icon and Cruyff, first bringing his flowing locks and ethereal balance to the Ajax side in 1964, was the epitome of that newfound self-confidence. He was aware of his value and ready to provoke football’s establishment and old hierarchies with it.

When he realised that the officials of the Dutch national football association (KNVB) were insured while travelling at the federation’s expense but the players were not, he successfully led a revolt. When the same association ordered players to wear Adidas boots to fulfil a contract they had signed, he refused, having agreed his own deal with Puma instead. At the 1974 World Cup he painted out the Adidas stripes on the boots that the KNVB equipped him with and wore a shirt with two stripes across the shoulder, instead of the Adidas three. He was the first to appreciate that playing for the Dutch national team was important not only for him but also for the Netherlands. 

And yet, for all those principles, his sense of self-worth imbued him with a readiness to seize the money that was beginning to lie on offer. He was doing for football what Bobby Fischer was doing for chess, making football “sexy” many years before Ruud Gullit coined that word. He was the artist while Johan Neeskens and Wim van Hanegem were the artisans, and he did not feel any embarrassment about it. “I don’t want to be a thief of my own pocket. I don’t want to steal from myself,” he said in 1971, when as Winner observes “everyone was leftist”. He knew his worth. He had a very open relationship with the press but charged those publications which were shifting copies on the back of his name. There was something very significant in that – an appreciation, to his mind, that success in sport entails combining individualism with the collective.

That is a very long way from Van Gaal’s near Communist system of football by numbers, where everyone is subsumed by the machine. Cruyff could afford to be the free thinker of the two, of course. His geometrical and spatial awareness allowed him to do whatsoever he wished in his magical 14 jersey – with the 180-degree swivel executed against the unsuspecting Swede Jan Olsson in the Netherlands’ opening match of that 1974 World Cup earning him a place in the football lexicon. No Cruyff Turn equivalent for Van Gaal, whose awkward midfield football was, by his own admission, “not so good”.

Cruyff’s utter conviction of his own superior judgement stirred up holy hell at the clubs where he went on to forge a managerial and directorial career. So did that belief in individualism within the collective, which made it seem like one rule for him and another for the rest at times. Winner’s interview with playwright Johan Timmers, who with true Dutch introspection co-authored a tragicomic play investigating the painful legacy of the 1974 World Cup final defeat to West Germany, captures that well.

“He was always telling the other players: ‘We must play as a group,’” said Timmers. “But the moment he got the ball, he was allowed to run everywhere with it and at the same time he would criticise the others for doing the same thing. And at a certain point, the collective stands up and attacks its leader.” 

There was always beauty before the storm, though. The revolutionary style of play Cruyff inculcated across eight years at the helm of Barcelona, after leaving the Ajax managerial chair in 1988, would become the envy of the world.

This individual defied life’s compartments in very many ways. There was a conservatism about his life beyond football and not a lot of the superstars can say that. A family man and a religious man, there was only ever one woman in his life – his wife Danny, who, with their two daughters and son, aged 45, 44 and 42, survive him. Contrary to popular conceptions about Cruyff’s compatriots, there was something very Dutch about that. 

For a generation of footballers whose freedom to articulate thoughts and challenge the orthodoxy has been removed by the plastic world of media sound-bites and press office decrees, Cruyff’s example suggests there is another way to be a superstar. There is an anti-intellectual strain that runs through football – British football, above all – which can leave those who dare to speak for their profession held up to ridicule. Cruyff’s formal education was over by the age of 17 and yet he thought and spoke with a clear mind.

Images speak louder than words, of course. There is a moment, five minutes into a YouTube film entitled simplyJohan Cruijff in which he finds himself back to goal with two white-shirted defenders in attendance on the dead-ball line, breathing down his neck. He digs the toes of his boot into the ball and levers it to knee height, to tee up a left-footed overhead volley which an advancing midfielder arrives to head home. The trick is repeated twice more in the course of the 15-minute film. The quartet of defenders are equally powerless each time. 

It was a beautiful simplicity befitting the words of Toon Hermans, the late Dutch writer and comedian:

And Vincent saw the corn

And Einstein saw the number

And Zeppelin saw the Zeppelin

And Johan saw the ball

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