Defining Cruyff is not easy but there are some objective facts to assist: three times European Champion, three times Ballon d’Or winner, voted Europe’s Player of the Century in 1999, and third place in the World’s Player of the Century at the same time.
On the field, the most damming criticism of him is that he wasn’t Pele or Maradona, both of whom won World Cups, but neither changed the direction of travel in the game as Cruyff did. Pele’s Brazil seemed out of sight as they strutted their stuff at the 1970 World Cup. By 1974 the Dutch, with Cruyff pulling all the strings, had tactically moved the game on a generation. It would be decades before Brazil won the tournament again.
The Dutch know all this and, rightly, place Johan at the pinnacle of the game, but there was more going on in the Netherlands at the time. Feyenoord beat Cruyff and Ajax to the European Cup by 12 months as a generation of players matured together.
While the Netherlands took hosts Argentina to extra time in the 1978 World Cup final, Cruyff was watching on TV. Of course they would have won had he played, but that they came so close without him is a testament to the rest of his Dutch generation, forever in his shadow, but great nonetheless.
So would the Dutch revolution have happened without him? Something would have happened, Luxemburg would not have beaten the Netherlands in the 1970s, as they did in the 60s, but it would have been a revolution you might not have noticed. Ajax’ European Cup adventures may have ended with the 1-3 home defeat to Benfica in the 1969 quarter final. Feyenoord may not have edged extra time in the final the following season.
Allied to his skill, speed and strength, Cruyff opened the eyes of all who played with and against him. After Cruyff, opponents knew the old rules didn’t apply anymore.
Yesterday’s story in the Guardian, citing “sources at a major Premier League club” would signal the end of the last pretence of meritocracy in football, where the most wealthy will only play each other in European competition.
Resist of wither like Miss Havisham.