Like with Socrates, the Brazilian football legend, Johan Cruyff’s influence on the sport went far beyond what he did with studs on. Neither won the World Cup and both had a somewhat indulgent lifestyle off the pitch. Cruyff was a two-pack-a-day man till he kicked the habit. And for all his deceptive back-heels and defence-splitting passes, Socrates called himself an anti-athlete. For both, football was a thing of beauty. “…Victory is secondary. What matters is joy,” Socrates said in his book Football Philosophy. Used to being praised for their style of play in the 1974 World Cup where Holland finished second, Cruyff said: “Winning is an important thing, but to have your style, to have people copy you, to admire you, that is the greatest gift.”
On that count, the legend of Cruyff lives. From Barcelona through Borussia Dortmund to Tottenham Hotspur, teams have adopted and tweaked the philosophy that Cruyff learnt under coach Rinus Michels and hardwired into the DNA of FC Barcelona. ‘Total Football’ is what the world called it though Michels himself preferred the term ‘pressing.’ It was as famous football writer David Winner put it, hunting in packs and defending on the halfway line. “Ten outfield players pushing forward even when we don’t have the ball. We always push forward,” was how Ajax, Holland and Barcelona coach Michels had described it. To perfect that, Michels said, he needed three to four of the world’s best players. Cruyff was one of them. Together, they got Barcelona to play that way when Cruyff joined in 1973 for a then transfer record 922,000 pounds. It was a club, city and a Catalonian way of life that Cryuff embraced, a love affair that ended with his death on Thursday. Cruyff’s Barcelona beat Real Madrid 5-0 and he named his son Jordi after Catalonia’s patron saint at a time when such names were banned by General Franco. He learnt Catalan to write in that language and as coach made Barcelona champions of Europe. After Cruyff, his handpicked footballer Pep Guardiola took the idea to another level by getting Barcelona to ‘press’ when rivals were at their most vulnerable, that is when they had just got the ball.
Playing this way, Juergen Klopp then got Dortmund to dethrone Bayern Munich for a while and is now trying to get Liverpool to adopt that style. Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs do a version of this and in the last Copa America final, Chile, coached by Jorge Sampaoli, pressed successfully to neutralise Lionel Messi’s Argentina. The philosopher’s gone but his idea is in good health.