The Renaissance Man

The remarkable journey of the Dutchman who inspired the Renaissance in Catalonia and influenced generations to come. Dhrubajyoti Ghosh writes on Johan Cruyff.

The 19th of March happens to be “El Día del Padre”, Father’s Day, in Spain. Jordi Cruyff, who was born in Barcelona in the early winter of 1974 and has a strong Spanish connection, tweeted about his loving father last weekend. While it was a loving son’s endearment to a father, ailing from deadly cancer, it was in many ways true for football lovers all across the planet. Johan Cruyff was the archetype, the footballing DNA that transformed and modelled footballers and teams, over eras. The fact that he became arguably Europe’s first global superstar from extremely modest backgrounds, is testimony of his immense talent and perseverance.

The Ajax Years

Johan lost his father to a heart attack even before he stepped into his teens. The strong-willed boy foresaw a football career as a way of paying tribute to his father. It helped his cause that his mother Nel started working at AFC Ajax as a cleaner. Nel soon met her second husband, Henk Angel, a field hand at Ajax who would prove to be a key influence in Cruyff’s life. Johan rose up the ranks at Ajax making the first team at the tender age of 17, which was exemplary given his modest beginning. It was around the same time that Ajax got another messiah in the form of its manager, Marinus Michels. Rinus who went on to be known as The General later in his career, due to his successful authoritarian style as coach, was a local Amsterdam boy like Johan having spent his entire playing career at Ajax. It was going to be a match made in heaven as Rinus groomed a team of the future that was going to conquer Europe. An array of superstars besides Johan including Johan Neeskens, Arie Haan, Ruud Krol, Piet Keizer, Wim Suurbier were all groomed by the master.

Together with this skilled bunch, the General slowly transformed football by introducing a novel concept that was to rule the game for the next 50 years and more. This new and radical concept was known as “totaalvoetbal” or Total Football, an influential tactical theory in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team. Rinus was slowly building a team of the future, and Ajax, with their brand of totaalvoetbal, dominated the Eredivisie winning all but one championship in the second half of the 60s. Johan was the lynchpin of his team and the main architect of Total Football. Ajax reached the final of their first ever European Cup in 1968-69 but lost to the AC Milan inspired by Pierino Prati. However, this was learning curve for the now mature Johan who was going to turn Ajax’s fortunes very shortly.


Inspired by his genius, Ajax reached the final of the European Cup in 1970-71, winning the final against Panathinaikos, the start of a three-year period of domination when they swept everything in their way, winning two more finals against Italian strongholds Inter and Juventus. Rinus left for Barcelona after the 1971 final, but Cruyff stayed for two more European wins before following the master on to Catalonia. With these two having gone, Ajax could not scale the dizzy heights of Madrid of the mid 50s to early 60s at the international arena. A brilliant phase for Ajax was over with the passage of these two luminaries, but what was to follow was the emergence of Barcelona as a footballing superpower.

Stepping into Francoist Spain

It was no secret that Real Madrid, the prima donnas of Spanish football with their enviable track record in Spanish and European football, courted Johan. The president of Ajax wanted to sell him to Real Madrid rather than to Barcelona who weren’t at the same level as Madrid football wise before Johan arrived at Catalonia. However Johan, always headstrong and an independent personality, maintained that he could not join a club associated with Franco and his fascist regime. This demeanour ensured that it wasn’t a tug of war of sorts like in the case of another superstar Alfredo Di Stéfano, and endeared Johan at Catalonia over the years.

The relationship between Real Madrid and Barcelona has been extremely complex and difficult to define, since the days of Franco. It was more than a mere rivalry, but more about passion and hatred shared by each. Although very similar in track record, goals and ambitions, the clubs are vastly different when it comes to tradition and history. Madrid, also the Spanish capital, has been known from an efficient business standpoint, where revenues and profits are as important as champagne football and silverware. Barcelona and Catalonia, on the contrary, has a very unique style and identity, based around nurturing and developing young players into world greats. Although this philosophy dated back to the 1950s, it was the Johan Cruyff era in which Barcelona went from strength to strength, and gained global recognition.

The fact that one of the very reasons of Cruyff choosing Barcelona as his second club, was that it represented the opposition to Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, almost made Johan one of them, in Catalonia. Along with Rinus, Johan imported totaalvoetbal to the Iberian Peninsula, and changed not just El Clasico and Barcelona, but the entire game itself in Spain. In his very first season at Barcelona, he helped the club win La Liga for the first time since 1960. But the magnus opus came in the month of February, when the Barcelona of Cruyff pulverized bitter rivals Real Madrid by an astonishing scoreline of 5-0 at the cauldron of Bernabeu in the Spanish capital. The astounding result sent shockwaves around Spain and left many in the country’s regime seething. La Vanguardia made headline, ‘Today was the definitive death of a giant of world football’. Ironically, the dictator would die the following year, possibly harbouring the bitter memory of this humiliation and demolition. Catalan writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán wrote later: “On that day, so it felt million in the country, began the decline of the fascist dictatorship.

cruyff catalonia

The same month of February in 1974 was doubly sweet for Johan, with the birth of his son Jordi. 17th February was the date when ‘El Clasico’ was scheduled and this was the day when Johan and his wife Dani was expecting their first child. Dani agreed to bring the birth forward by a week having a cesarian section so that Johan could play the derby against Madrid. The rest was history. Cruyff chose the name Jordi after the patron saint of Catalonia, St Jordi. This was again seen as a provocative gesture towards Franco who had made all symbols of Catalan nationalism illegal. Cruyff had to fly Jordi back to the Netherlands to register his birth as the name Jordi had been banned by Spanish authorities. Cruyff’s decision to go to such great lengths to support Catalan nationalism is part of the reason he’s considered such a hero to Barcelona supporters and Catalan nationalists, casting his status as “El Salvador” in stone.

However, his tenure in Barcelona was bitter sweet as he could not replicate his initial success in his later years. The departure of Rinus and others meant that Barcelona did not build on Cruyff’s success and his only other silverware was the Copa Del Rey in 1977-78 after which he left for the relative anonymity of North American Soccer League (NASL) after signing a lucrative deal with the LA Aztecs.

Copa Mundial 1974

Cruyff teamed up with Rinus to lead his national team, Netherlands, to an enigmatic journey in the 1974 World Cup. However, the elegant maestro had his share of luck during the 1974 World Cup qualification. The Dutch needed a draw in the final qualifying game against Belgium. They started the battle in high notes but couldn’t score against the grim opponent. The apparently easy plot took a huge twist when Belgium scored a legitimate goal at 89th minute but it was ruled offside. Amsterdam breathed a sigh of relief and Johan was eyeing the greatest stage to exhibit his armoury.

The Dutch, by then the masters of Total Football, cruised their way into the final sweeping away everyone in the way, knocking out Argentina, East Germany and defending champions Brazil. Legend has it that before the final, Cruyff had promised his teammates that he would score in the final even before a German opponent could touch the football. When the final kicked off, the Dutch passed the ball around 13 times before Cruyff went on a run past Berti Vogts and ended up being fouled by Uli Hoeness, resulting in a penalty. Though it was Neeskens who scored from the penalty, to Cruyff’s satisfaction, no German had yet touched the ball before the Dutch scored after 90 seconds. Unfortunately, the Dutch instead of ensuring more goals and victory, went about playing romantic football and allowed West Germany to make a comeback and lost the final 2-1. Johan was named the player of the tournament but eternal World Cup glory deserted him as he skipped the WC finals in 1978, a tournament where the Dutch reached the finals yet again. The initial reason given by Johan were political, attributing the military dictatorship in power in Argentina at that time. However, three decades later, in 2008, Cruyff stated that he and his family were subject to a kidnap attempt in Barcelona in 1977, and that this had caused his retirement from international football. During an interview with Catalunya Radio Johan stated, “You should know that I had problems at the end of my career as a player here and I don’t know if you know that someone put a rifle at my head and tied me up and tied up my wife in front of the children at our flat in Barcelona.” Though they managed to escape from the grip of the kidnappers but their lives changed dramatically. For next few months his family was surrounded by bodyguards and police, which left Johan under huge emotional pressure.

It was unfortunate in the end, that the master and his protégé could not attain crowning glory at the world level. Michels’ totaalvoetbal got its impetus mainly through the gifted Cruyff. “Without Cruyff,” said Rinus Michels, his mentor and manager at Ajax, at Barcelona and with the Dutch international side, “I have no team.”

Return to beloved Catalonia

Johan’s love for Catalonia knew no bounds and no sooner had he established his coaching pedigree at Ajax than he returned to Barcelona, taking up the coaching mantel in the summer of 1988. Building on the model of Total Football, Cruyff brought in stars Pep Guardiola, Ronald Koeman, Michael Laudrup, Romário, Gheorghe Hagi and Hristo Stoichkov while building up his “Dream Team” that won four La Liga titles, a Copa Del Rey, the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the European Cup beating Sampdoria on both European finals. They reached the finals of few more domestic and continental competitions and Johan finally won 11 trophies in his eight seasons as a Barcelona coach, a record since surpassed by his pupil Pep Guardiola who won 14 titles.

However, his biggest contribution was instilling the football philosophy of his mentor Rinus into Barcelona permanently. While he showcased totaalvoetbal in a sporadic capacity as a player at Barca, it was as a coach that the philosophy attained permanence at the Camp Nou. Cruyff wanted to establish a replica of the Ajax Academy in Barcelona and was instrumental in creating the now famous Barcelona youth academy, La Masia. His brainchild is now reaping its harvest, almost 30 years since its inception. The greatest and finest players of Barcelona’s senior team have come from La Masia. While these players majorly represent the home grown talent, there have been foreign superstars as well coming out of this great academy, including none other than a certain Lionel Messi.

Cruyff always had huge confidence in and backed youth, which is why he possibly espoused the La Masia concept. He once famously said, “I was here under the Franco dictatorship and
I understand how Catalan people think, I know the character. Barça fans like seeing players from the cantera in the first team – it makes them feel that the coach somehow is more a part of Barcelona. I tried to produce a game that they could claim as Catalan.”


Influence on the Modern Game

The extension of the Dutch totaalvoetbal was carried out by Johan’s pupil, Guardiola, who, using the same concepts, gave shape to its Spanish cousin, the Tiki Taka. Tiki Taka took Barcelona to the next level winning them multiple European championships and was also the blueprint for the huge success of Spanish national team. La Furia Roja won two European Championships in 2008 and 2012 and their maiden World Cup in 2010, cementing their place in history as one of the best teams ever. And while Pep Guardiola and Vicente del Bosque as the head coaches of Barcelona and the Spanish National teams took a lot of credit, a huge invisible recognition was due to the Flying Dutchman, who made football so attractive and enterprising. Holland’s loss was Spain’s gain as epitomized in the 2010 final.

“Cruyff reinvented the concept of football in this country,” said famous Spanish player Miguel Angel Nadal. “Today, Barcelona and Spain are the ultimate modern testimonies to his spell as coach.”

Johan Cruyff was the forefather to arguably one of the greatest clubs and national teams. With the unfortunate passing away of the legend, football lovers across the world would remember his legacy not just as a premiere football player and coach, but a football institution that delighted us for the last 50 years.

The King, Johan, is dead, Long Live the King!!!

Dhrubajyoti Ghosh

About Dhrubajyoti Ghosh

Dhrubajyoti, is a Management Consultant who eats, sleeps & breathes soccer. He adores AC Milan, East Bengal & team Brazil and loves to analyse Serie A, La Liga and Latin American football. Passionate about music, movies and wildlife, he loves to write on these topics in his free time. He can be followed @