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Johan Cruyff, stylish incarnation of Total Football

It was during a group-stage match against Sweden at the 1974 World Cup in Germany that Johan Cruyff unveiled the move that would come to bear his name.

football Updated: Mar 24, 2016 21:25 IST
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This is a Nov 13, 1972 file photo of Dutch soccer player Johan Cruyff in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP)

It was during a group-stage match against Sweden at the 1974 World Cup in Germany that Johan Cruyff unveiled the move that would come to bear his name.

Finding his route blocked by Swedish right-back Jan Olsson on Holland’s left flank, Cruyff made as if to play the ball infield, only to drag the ball behind his standing leg with his right foot and race off towards the touchline, leaving his bewildered opponent floundering in his wake.

“I played 18 years in top football and 17 times for Sweden, but that moment against Cruyff was the proudest moment of my career,” Olsson told British writer David Winner in the 2000 book ‘Brilliant Orange’.

“I thought I’d win the ball for sure, but he tricked me. I was not humiliated. I had no chance. Cruyff was a genius.”

An idea that had sprung from Cruyff’s imagination left observers open-mouthed and like so many of the things that he introduced to the game, the ‘Cruyff turn’ became a football staple.

Cruyff, who died from lung cancer aged 68 on Thursday, was a balletic, dazzlingly elegant player who came to embody the brilliant Ajax and Holland teams of the mid-1970s.

Together with visionary coach Rinus Michels, he popularised the concept of ‘Total Football’ -- a fluid playing system based on aggressive pressing, swarming attacks and positional interchanging that seemed to depend on an almost telepathic understanding between players.

Cruyff, given licence to roam from his nominal position as centre-forward, was the on-pitch conductor, calculating angles, cajoling his team-mates into position and launching vertiginous dribbles into opposition territory with the ball at his feet.

The former Times sportswriter David Miller dubbed him “Pythagoras in Boots”.

Dutch midfielder Johann Cruyff dribbles past Argentinian goalkeeper Daniel Carnevali on his way to scoring a goal during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between the Netherlands and Argentina on June, 26, 1974 in Gelsenkirchen. (AFP)

Number 14

The 1974 World Cup was Cruyff’s finest hour and although Holland fell short in pursuit of glory, losing 2-1 to West Germany in the final, he took immense solace from the plaudits they had earned.

“I don’t go through life cursing the fact that I didn’t win a World Cup,” he once said.

“I played in a fantastic team that gave millions of people watching a great time. That’s what football is all about.

“There is no better medal than being acclaimed for your style.”

A child of the 1960s, Cruyff also boasted a personal style that transcended football, with his long brown hair and irreverent pronouncements turning him into the game’s first counter-cultural icon.

He insisted on wearing the number 14 shirt, despite starting players usually wearing 1-11, and wore a shirt with two stripes, rather than the three stripes of kit manufacturers Adidas, at the 1974 World Cup so as not to anger his sponsors, Puma.

His vision of football has been adopted by some of the modern era’s great teams, including Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan and Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, and he continued to bang the drum for stylish football in later life.

Ever the provocateur, he risked the wrath of his homeland by declaring his support for eventual champions Spain ahead of their meeting with Holland in the 2010 World Cup final.

“Spain, a replica of Barcelona, is the best publicity for football,” Cruyff said.

“Who am I supporting? I am Dutch, but I support the football that Spain is playing.”

First Published: Mar 24, 2016 21:24 IST