By Bill Altieri
I was raised on a balanced diet of soccer — balanced in the sense that my upbringing was shaped by a steady supply of Brazilian, Italian, Dutch, and German influences, among others. Johan Cruyff, as he is known popularly, was responsible for the Dutch portion of my learnings. He was revered in my family and all over the world for his enormous contributions to the beautiful game of soccer as a legendary player, coach, philosopher, and champion of the importance of investing in the development of young players. He was a true soccer genius.
Sadly, I learned that Johan passed away this morning (March 24th, 2016) at age 68 after a valiant battle with cancer. It was rumored that his cancer was in remission after a diagnosis in October 2015, so his passing today caught many by surprise. Needless to say, his death leaves an enormous void in the global soccer landscape.
In October 2015, after Cruyff’s cancer diagnosis became public, Barça organized a tribute to the club’s iconic legend as both a player and manager, with Barça players wearing special t-shirts that bore the words ‘Anims Johan’ – Catalan for ‘Be strong Johan’.
Johan Cruyff was a transcendent figure in the sport of soccer. Johan was equally loved in his native Netherlands and his adopted home of Barcelona, Spain (Catalonia). Supremely arrogant and outspoken, Johan delighted in the fact that he was (almost) always right and that the depth and breadth of his soccer knowledge was unmatched. He launched a personal crusade to radically modernize the game of soccer around the marriage of technique and tactics during a period of time when the game was going in a completely different direction (favoring physicality and players possessing size and strength). That beautiful, charismatic, creative soccer that has become synonymous with FC Barcelona in the modern era is really because of Johan Cruyff — Barça plays in his image even today.
During his 20-year professional playing career Cruyff was named the world’s best player three times (’71, ’73’ ’74) while leading both club (Ajax and FC Barcelona) and country (Netherlands) to countless trophies. He was also named the best player of the 1974 World Cup despite losing to rival Germany in the finals. Johan was a true talisman — a player that changed the fortunes of every team he played for. It is said that he was so technically perfect as a player that he was forced to turn his focus to tactics as the only way to further his development — tactics and the quest for deeper understanding became the outlet for Cruyff’s notoriously obsessive soccer mind. His unique vision and ability to interpret situations on the field placed him light years beyond the capabilities of his teammates and opponents. He processed information incredibly quickly and viewed the game through his own unique lens, qualities he used to expert advantage as phenomenal player and then later as a world-class coach and manger. He coached Barça’s “Dream Team” in 1988 to Spanish and European glory and spent 8 amazing years lifting the important Spanish club to new heights. He then returned home and did the same thing for his boyhood club of Ajax.
While there have been many great players throughout history, Cruyff clearly stands out amongst the very best — arguably the finest European player ever. What is much more impressive, however, is how he continued to shape and influence the game long after his playing days were over. Cruyff was completely devoted to finding a better way to play the game and a better way to develop talented players. He accomplished both. He completely reconstructed the youth academies of both Ajax (De Toekomst) and FC Barcelona (La Masia), and in doing so created the two most important and consistently successful player development programs in the world. As shown below, Ajax and FC Barça have together produced almost 140 professional players currently playing in 1st division professional leagues throughout Europe. In fact, Barça alone has developed 44 players currently playing in the big-5 leagues of Europe (Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A, and Ligue 1). That number is absolutely astounding and it is a vital part of Johan Cruyff amazing legacy. The success of La Masia has proven him right. Every time a young player from Barça’s Academy becomes a professional player, it’s a success that Johan is part of. His playing philosophy was based on the importance of the ball — possession through the intelligent creation of space, linking short passes, and fighting hard to quickly win the ball back after losing possession. The result was simple, beautiful, attacking soccer and was wholly adopted across Spain (FC Barcelona as well as the Spanish National Team) and the Netherlands (Ajax and Dutch National Team). Perhaps the greatest tribute to the influence of Johan Cruyff on the modern game is the 2010 World Cup Final that featured The Netherlands vs. Spain. His mentorship launched numerous playing and coaching careers, including Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi, but none more so that Pep Guardiola, whom he helped carefully mold into a top player and coach.
Here’s a quote from Xavi, the legendary central midfielder for Barça and Spain:
“Some youth academies worry about winning, we worry about education. Our model was imposed by Johan Cruyff; it’s an Ajax model. It’s all about rondos. Rondo, rondo, rondo. Every. Single. Day. It’s the best exercise there is. You learn responsibility and not to lose the ball. If you lose the ball, you go in the middle. Pum-pum-pum-pum, always one touch.”
Johan Cruyff made the beautiful game much more beautiful. He completely shaped thee way we analyze and talk about the game of soccer today. He will be sorely missed. Follow this link to view a tribute video.