Dutch football great Johan Cruyff, who revolutionised the game as the personification of “Total Football,” has died. He was 68.
Family spokeswoman Carole Thate confirmed to The Associated Press that Cruyff had died. Joaquin Munoz of the Cruyff Foundation in Barcelona said he died in the Spanish city as a result of lung cancer.
Obsessed by football to the end and ever the positive thinker, Cruyff only last month said his recovery was going well. He said “I have the feeling that I am 2-0 up in the first half. The game is not over yet. Still I know that in the end, I will win.” On Thursday, he died.
Former France international Michel Platini said football had lost one of its best ever players. “Johan was my childhood hero, my idol and my friend,” said Platini, the former head of European soccer. “I will miss him dearly. My thoughts are with his family, and I send them my love.”
Cruyff won European Cups three times with Ajax as a player and once with Barcelona as a coach.
He was European player of the year three times and, in 1999, was named Europe’s best player of the 20th century.
Though a World Cup title eluded him, he was the pivotal figure on the Netherlands’ 1974 national team that electrified the sport with its “Total Football” tactics, with players constantly interchanging roles. The tactics influenced the game worldwide, bringing fresh life to a sport that had become stuck in a defensive mindset.
Cruyff smoked cigarettes most of his life and finally quit after undergoing an emergency heart bypass operation in 1991. After more heart trouble in 1997, he vowed never to coach again, though he remained a vocal football critic and analyst.
Cruyff’s wiry frame housed surprising athletic talent, unpredictable bursts of speed and agility and precise ball-control that allowed him to trick opponents, ghosting around them with ease. His genius lay in his eyes and mind, in his instinctive feel for how a move would develop.
His could pass the ball with uncanny accuracy and wind up time and again at the right spot at the climax of an attack.
“Speed and insight are often confused,” he said. “When I start running before everybody else, I appear faster.”
He scored 392 times in 520 games over a 19-year playing career.
But his influence reached far beyond creating goals, thanks to his qualities as a leader, thinker and speaker. With a brash Amsterdam accent, he put across his views about soccer and everything surrounding the game with irresistible force.
His commentary became oft-quoted classics: “Every disadvantage has its advantage,” ”You can’t win without the ball.”
As a coach he had 242 victories in 387 matches, with 75 draws and 70 losses.
Cruyff was heavily involved in tactics from the start of his career. Along with Rinus Michels, his coach at Ajax and Barcelona, he helped develop Total Football.
Under the strategy, players pass the ball frequently to seek advantage, and switch positions seamlessly to adjust to the flow of play. Latin American admirers referred to the orange-clad Dutch national team as “The Clockwork Orange.”
Cruyff was the personification of a total footballer, playing deep or shallow as the moment required, as deadly from the wings as from his assigned position in the center. He was among the first to see defenders as part of the attack.
With Cruyff on the field, Ajax won the European Cup for three consecutive years from 1971-1973 before he moved to FC Barcelona midseason in 1973 and led the middle-of-the-table team to its first national title in a decade.
That season was crowned with a 5-0 away win at Barcelona’s arch-rival Real Madrid so sweet the Catalans still sometimes refer to Cruyff as “El Salvador,” the savior.
The transfer fee paid by Barcelona was a world record and is seen as a milestone in the commercialization of sport. He was also one of the first soccer players to take on corporate sponsorships.
Even if it is common now for major players to enjoy a golden twilight in the United States, Cruyff did so almost 40 years ago, when at 32, he joined the the Los Angeles Aztecs.
British sports writer Dave Miller, who once called Cruyff “Pythagorus in boots” for his ability to calculate the geometry of players in motion, wrote that “few have been able to exact, both physically and mentally, such mesmeric control on a match from one penalty area to another.”
Many fans who watched Cruyff play as children can still replicate some of his moves, including the “Cruyff turn” ” a technique he used for passing defenders by faking toward them, then flicking the ball behind his own other leg in the opposite direction and darting after it.
Cruyff’s pronouncements on the game skirted the line between profundity and nonsense.
Criticizing overly defensive play, he once said: “Italians can’t beat you, though you can lose to them.”
Other much quoted lines were: “You can’t score if you don’t shoot,” and “Before I make a mistake, I don’t make it.”
Cruyff launched a tradition of great forwards coming out of the Netherlands that included Marco Van Basten, Patrick Kluivert, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Dennis Bergkamp.
He had a wife Danny, daughters Chantal and Susila, and a son Jordi, who also played soccer professionally.
*** Tributes to Dutch great Johan Cruyff:
“He was a genius and now we are missing this genius” ” former FIFA president Sepp Blatter to The Associated Press.
“He refused to play in three stripes so on his shirt he had only two. He was an exceptional personality,” Blatter said, recalling the special Adidas Netherlands jersey created for Cruyff, who wore Puma football boots.
“With his intelligent play, superb technique and leadership, he quickly became an icon for Barca” ” Barcelona website tribute to its former player and manager.
“Today football has lost one of its best ever players and ambassadors. I am very sad because Johan was my childhood hero, my idol and my friend. I will miss him dearly. My thoughts are with his family, and I send them my love” ” former France and Juventus midfielder Michel Platini.
“Another legend has left us today” ” Argentina and Barcelona forward Lionel Messi .
“He was not only a very good friend; he was like a brother to me” ” former West Germany and Bayern Munich player Franz Beckenbauer.
“Football has lost a man who did more to make the beautiful game beautiful than anyone in history” ” former England striker Gary Lineker , who played under Cruyff at Barcelona.
“I’m very sad, hurt, crying. He was my idol when I was young and then I had the good fortune to later play for him, so today is a difficult day. It brings back so many memories. He made us, as players, and the club, so happy. This is a huge loss” ” former Spain defender Ricardo Serna, who played under Cruyff at Barcelona.
“It’s a very sad day for everyone, not just for the Barca family, but for all of world football” ” current Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta.
“True football royalty. I don’t think anyone has ever influenced the game as much as he has done. We have all been touched and inspired by his vision and his beliefs. Football will miss him but we will never forget” ” Belgium and Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany.
“You were too great to ever be forgotten” ” former Netherlands and Barcelona striker Patrick Kluivert.
“We lost one of the best ever in world football. Johan Cruyff was simply an amazing player, coach, teacher and human” ” former Bayern Munich and Germany player/manager Jurgen Klinsmann.
“He was one of those great, great footballers that made you excited whenever he got the ball and began to play. There was always expectation in the crowd when Johan was on the pitch. There wasn’t a negative thought in his head” ” former Manchester United and England midfielder Bobby Charlton.
“One of the greatest players the world has ever known. A symbol of elegant play. An inspiration. A source of admiration for fans. He has marked football history forever” ” FIFA President Gianni Infantino.
“I feel honored to have met you” ” Dutch Formula One driver Max Verstappen, who met Cruyff at pre-season testing recently.
“May the world spend the day watching your highlights on YouTube” ” American comedian and talk show host Seth Myers .