Profile: Greatness still the goal: Johan Cruyf: Simon O'Hagan assesses the qualities of the Dutch enigma managing Barcelona's fortunes

  • @SimonOHagan
THE GREATEST sportsmen often have their enigmatic side, but this seems to be more true of Johan Cruyff than most. The manager of Barcelona, Manchester United's opponents in the Champions' League on Wednesday, is still a puzzle to his long-time assistant, Tonny Bruins Slot, a man who knows him as well as anybody.

'Every day he surprises you,' Bruins Slot says. 'You think he's settled on a team and then suddenly he will say, 'I want this player in, that player out' when you are least expecting it. But more often than not he is right.' Bruins Slot then offers a rather odd illustration of Cruyff's elusiveness - and he means it literally. It concerns the moment when the time comes to make the short journey from dressing-room to team bus. Even if Bruins Slot leaves before him, somehow Cruyff always gets there first. 'That is typical of him,' Bruins Slot says.

Cruyff has been ahead of the game for most of his 47 years - so far ahead that he seems to exist on a different plane from most normal mortals. If Pele is the greatest footballer ever, then Cruyff is not far behind - a byword for grace, athleticism and intelligence, with more than a touch of the ethereal.

It is now more than 20 years since Cruyff's lissom frame darted into the West German penalty area a minute into the 1974 World Cup final and Berti Vogts brought him down to concede the penalty with which Holland went a goal up. It says something about Cruyff that this moment - so bitter- sweet in the memory of all those who fell in love with that Dutch team - seems to encapsulate his career better than any other.

We thought we were about to witness the glorious and rightful crowning of one of the finest international teams in history, their status merely enhanced by having the genius Cruyff as their captain and inspiration. But, of course, it wasn't to be. And while there is an aura of sadness that attaches to any great sportsman in retirement - simply because they are not what they were - this is especially the case with Cruyff. For all that Cruyff achieved, the feeling is still that but for his own perverseness, he could, and should, have achieved more. No amount of success as a manager - and he has had more than any other legend of the game - can make up for that.

Cruyff was born in Amsterdam in April 1947. His father ran a grocery shop, and the family lived across the street from the Ajax stadium, which was destined to become Cruyff's second home. He was playing junior football for Ajax when he was only 10, making his first-team debut at 17 and his international debut at 19, scoring in a 2-2 draw with Hungary.

A natural attacker, he was too slim as a teenager to take on the role of centre-forward, and so started out on the right wing. Once he had filled out a little, he moved inside, from where his prodigious dribbling skills and extraordinary vision as a passer of the ball helped him oversee the golden age of Dutch football, in which he was three times European Footballer of the Year. This embraced Ajax's three successive European Cup wins, from 1971 to 1973, and the World Cup in West Germany the following year when Holland's Total Football swept all before them - until the final.

At his best, Cruyff exuded a princely authority. He had pace, balance, and could do extraordinary things with the ball, but his individualism always served the needs of the team. As the glory years went by, Cruyff turned into not just an incomparable player, but a powerful figure within the politics of Dutch football - an irresistible area to one whose cleverness was matched only by his strength of will. Cruyff's lobbying did much to improve the lot of the average Dutch footballer, in terms of pay and conditions.

He was quite happy to be controversial - like the time he refused to go to Poland for an international when he discovered the players were not insured. Then there was his Adidas protest. The Dutch Football Association had done a deal with the shirt manufacturer, but Cruyff felt the players were being insufficiently rewarded. So he wore his Adidas shirt with its three-leaf logo taped over.

Cruyff was so big he felt he could get away with anything. As he walked off at half-time in the 1974 World Cup final he lectured the referee, England's Jack Taylor, over his handling of the match and was booked for his impertinence.

In the years that followed life turned sourer for Cruyff. As a player for Barcelona, whom he had joined in 1973, he never scaled the same heights as he had with Ajax. For reasons that were never very clear, he retired from the national team when he was only 30, resisting all attempts to persuade him to return for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. He had played 48 times for Holland, scoring 33 goals.

He says now that it was because he was injured, and exhausted after years of playing at the highest level. But his fans remain unconvinced. The fact that a Cruyff-less Dutch still managed to reach the final only made his absence the more galling.

For three years Cruyff drifted around in the lucrative backwaters of American soccer, before he returned to Ajax as a player, and then coach, in 1982. Victory in the European Cup-Winners' Cup in 1987 was the high point of his time there, which ended in 1988 when he moved back to Barcelona.

The last six years have been among the most settled in Cruyff's career, this in spite of his suffering a heart attack in 1991. He was then a heavy smoker, and the experience had a salutary effect. Bruins Slot says that 'before his heart attack he wanted to win both on the pitch and off. Now he only worries about winning on the pitch'.

Cruyff is still fit enough to be a tracksuit manager - he has said he will give up once he is unable to take training - and still showing his stubbornness of old. After Holland qualified for this year's World Cup finals, he was supposed to take over as manager from Dick Avocaat, but the deal collapsed when Cruyff insisted on appointing his own staff. It was a typical episode in the often troubled history of Dutch football, which in Ruud Gullit had by now acquired a latter-day Cruyff, off the pitch if not quite on it.

Barcelona is where Cruyff belongs now. Their longest-serving manager, revered throughout Catalonia, he has shaped one of their best teams ever, managing them to victory in the Cup-Winners' Cup in 1989 and, for the first time, the European Cup in 1992. Meanwhile, a new generation of Barca heroes have emerged - Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov, Romario, and now Gheorghe Hagi.

His footballing philosophy remains impeccable. 'You have to attack,' he says. 'All over the world coaches want to win with defending. We must not forget that football is played for the public. You don't play for yourself. I don't want to win if it means being ashamed of how I have done it.'

Unlucky, perhaps, to meet Milan at their most formidable in last season's Champions' League final, Barcelona have embarked on this season's European campaign with a new name on everyone's lips. Only it is not so unfamiliar. He is Jordi Cruyff, the 20-year-old son of Johan, scorer of two goals in Barcelona's opening Champions' League match against Galatas

aray. 'It's so difficult for him with that name,' Cruyff says. 'He is just another person. But he has done well, and naturally I am very proud of him.'

But a measure of the extent to which the Cruyffs have detached themselves from all things Dutch is that Jordi is in the process of gaining Spanish citizenship, so if he ever does play internationally, it will not be in the orange that his father wore so resplendently.

Cruyff still returns to Holland, where his closest friend from his playing days is Wim Jansen, the sturdy midfielder who figured in the World Cup teams of both 1974 and 1978. Cruyff will be forever a hero in the hearts of the Dutch people, although his tendency to assume an expertise in almost any subject from cars to politics does not always go down well.

In Barcelona, the now non- smoking Cruyff leads a quiet life away from football: a spot of golf, weekends in his second home in the mountains. He has the inevitable 'business interests' - a range of sports clothing - while earning a reputed pounds 1.5m a year from Barcelona. But money was unlikely ever to be a problem once he married, 26 years ago, the daughter of an Amsterdam millionaire. They have two daughters as well as Jordi, one of whom is married to Barcelona's reserve-team goalkeeper.

Cruyff does not go out of his way to seek publicity. You won't find him juggling little footballs with Pavarotti at the draw for the World Cup. His way of handling the media pressure is to give regular press conferences, but no 'one- on-one' interviews. If any manager of a club of Barcelona's stature can be said to have got things under control, it is Johan Cruyff. But having control over his destiny was always his way.

(Photograph omitted)