Written by Ben Howard

Johan Cruyff: How the Dutch legend changed the modern game

He may be gone, but his impact will be long-lasting. Johan Cruyff changed football forever: as a player, a coach, an advisor and one of the game's great thinkers, the Dutch legend leaves a lasting legacy. He transformed the sport in the modern era.

Cruyff liked to be different. Determined to succeed as a youngster as his father passed away before his teenage years, the young Johan (born Hendrik Johannes) honed his skills as a footballer.

His mother worked as a cleaner for Ajax and his step-father was a labourer at the Amsterdam club. So the young Cruyff learned the value of hard work from a young age and practising persistently to perfect his talents, he joined the Ajax academy and went on to become the finest footballer in the club's history.

Cruyff led Ajax to three European Cups and won the Ballon d'Or three times as well. Under the revolutionary Rinus Michels, Johan became the leading exponent of a new playing style. Total Football. And together, the pair also led Netherlands to the World Cup final in 1974 - losing out to West Germany in Munich.

Despite the defeat, they won the hearts of football fans all over the world with their pioneering play.

"We lost one of the most important games of our lives, but I think that brought us more fame than we could ever have had by winning," he later said. "Because everybody wanted us to win, that brought even more attention, sympathy and affection. For four weeks in that tournament no one was talking about winning or losing – the world audience just wanted to see the nice football we played. So, it is not an excuse, it is true – the result of the final doesn't even bother me."

Netherlands lost the 1978 final as well, but this time Cruyff was not present. He had decided to miss the tournament for personal reasons, but was exerting his impressive influence in a new place: Barcelona.

Ajax had wanted to sell the midfielder to Real Madrid, but again Cruyff wanted to be different.

"I remember my move to Spain was quite controversial," he said. "People said I was going to a fascist country. The president of Ajax wanted to sell me to Real Madrid. But I was born shortly after the war, though, and was taught not to just accept anything. Barcelona weren't at the same level as Madrid football-wise, but it was a challenge to play for a Catalan club. Barcelona was more than a club."

And with Cruyff, they would become even greater. The Dutchman's first year at Camp Nou was spectacular as the Catalans claimed La Liga for the first time since 1960, thrashing Madrid 5-0 along the way in a result shrouded in symbolism even today.

The rest of his time in Catalunya was less successful, yet he had some stellar advice for president Josep Lluis Nunez before he departed. Cruyff told the club chief to build an Ajax-style academy and bring through young players as he himself had emerged at the Amsterdam side. That way, he said, they could compete with Madrid.

Always atypical, Cruyff then moved to the United States, had a spell back in La Liga with Levante and led Feyenoord to the title in his homeland when most believed he had little left to offer.

When he returned to Barcelona to continue a coaching career he had started successfully at Ajax, it was again amid an era of Madrid dominance. Cruyff arrived in 1988, with Real's Quinta del Buitre in the middle of five straight Liga titles. Nunez thought bringing back the Dutchman could change all that - and he was right.

It took a while, but young players were emerging from the youth team and Cruyff combined them with some of the world's finest footballers. The Dream Team was born, winning four consecutive Liga titles between 1991 and 1994, as well as a maiden European Cup. Suddenly, Barca were no longer in Madrid's shadow.

In his first week back at the club, Cruyff went to watch the youth teams and spotted a young Pep Guardiola playing on the right of midfield. He asked former team-mate Carles Rexach to move the skinny youngster into the centre for the second half and play the 'pivot' position. He adapted instantly and was soon turning out for the first team.

Guardiola would become Cruyff's "coach on the pitch" and Pep pulled the strings in a tremendous team that, at the time, was the most successful in Barca's history.

Later in his reign, Cruyff suffered a heart attack and was advised to quit coaching by his doctors. When he left in 1996, he would never take another top job, but his influence would not end there.

Back in an advisory capacity alongside Joan Laporta, he recommended the appointment of Frank Rijkaard in 2003. Again Barca were successful, winning back-to-back league titles and another Champions League crown in 2006.

But again, there was even more to come. After two relatively disappointing campaigns, Laporta survived a censure motion and an overhaul was needed. Rijkaard left the club and even though Jose Mourinho was pushing for the job at Camp Nou, Cruyff chose Guardiola.

Many were quick to point to the Catalan's lack of coaching experience, but the Ducthman said: "The biggest test for a coach at a team like Barca is the strength to make decisions and the ability to talk to the press, because they don't help and you have to manage that. After that, it's easy for those who know football. But there aren't many who know."

And Guardiola knew. So the baton handed by Michels to Cruyff was passed by Johan to Pep and Barca embarked on the most successful spell in their entire history, winning all six trophies on offer in the former club captain's first 18 months as coach. And in 2010, a Spain side featuring the core of that team went on to win the World Cup, beating Netherlands in a final upon which Cruyff had left an indelible impression - although he was much more identified with the style shown by La Roja.

"This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style, yes it served the Dutch to unsettle Spain," he said afterwards. "If with this then they got satisfaction, then fine. But they ended up losing. They were playing anti-football."

Cruyff was all about style and as he had said with regard to the Dutch defeat in 1974, if he was going to lose, then it must be respecting a philosophy. That, to him, was more important than winning.

On Thursday, the 68-year-old ultimately lost his battle with lung cancer, yet his unique style will be imprinted upon football forever, and the game is infinitely richer thanks to the influence of Johan Cruyff.

An innovator, a fashion icon, an educator, a fabulous footballer, brilliant coach, great thinker and an all-round guru in the modern game, Cruyff leaves with the team he helped to build dominating modern football and with his famous passed penalty in 1982 immortalised recently by Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.

Through his Foundation, his University and his programmes for youngsters, meanwhile, he also strived to change the lives of kids all around the world.

"Children need help from us," he told Goal in an exclusive interview in 2009. "I educated myself on the streets. I went on a bicycle, played football, was running around doing whatever, but today it's always in a car, and there's no place to play on the street. So you have to create something different. It's the same body that you are born with that you die with. Okay you can change a few things, but not too much. And today with cars, computers, the Internet and whatever else, physical education is at a very low level and sport can do something about it."

Whatever he did, Johan Cruyff fought to make a real difference. How he will be missed.

Goal.com 

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