Cruijff was not only the greatest Dutch footballer of all time, he stands with Pele as the best the sport has ever produced. Born in Amsterdam in 1947 and raised in the shadow of the Ajax stadium. His early success was partly due to his mother who 1959, while employed as a cleaning woman at the Ajax offices, convinced the coaches to take the twelve year old Johan on to the youth team. The result was a quarter of a century of successes, awards and achievements both as a player and as a trainer. Cruijff debuted on Ajax’s first team at 17 and scored during his international debut for Holland at 19. Piet Keizer and Cruijff became Ajax’s first full-professional players, essentially launching a new era for the club. The club’s international history began with his ascension.
Cruijff was the inspiration behind the “Total Football” teams of Ajax and Holland during the Seventies. He was the quintessential Total Footballer. As a center-forward, he was often spearheading the attack. He would drop deep to confuse his markers or move to either wing with devastating effectiveness. He was equally likely to be found roaming the midfield and then move up to pierce the defence from a variety of angles. His unorthodox attacks were the thrust behind Ajax’s 2-0 defeat of Inter Milan for the 1972 European Cup, both goals coming from Cruijff. A year later he inspired Ajax again as they took out Juventus to claim their third European title. The tactics of Total Football were perfectly suited to his versatility. His awareness of his colleagues’ positions, his vision and ability to hit accurate passes (much in evidence later in his career when he dropped deeper and
wider) ripped open the world’s best defences. It must also be said that Cruijff benefited from developing simultaneously with a whole generation of immensely talented players in Holland.
Soon foreign teams were bidding for his talents, a contest won by Barcelona in the newly opened Spain. They paid a world record breaking £922,000. He led this struggling team to victory in the national championship against all odds in just half a season. Cruijff was voted European Footballer of the Year for the third time, the first player to have been so honoured. It was now 1974 and Holland was in the World Cup. The world could now witness Total Football and they did. As captain, Cruijff’s Holland seemed unbeatable especially when in the Semi-Finals they defeated Brazil, the defending champions. Cruijff played his weakest match of the tournament in the Final but nevertheless Holland outclassed the Germans, they just did not outscore them. Cruijff was still voted the best player of the World Cup.
When Holland was in the Final again in 1978, it was without Cruijff. He had retired from the national team just before the tournament. After Barcelona, he played in the North American Soccer League for the Los Angeles Aztecs, where he won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award, and then for the Washington Diplomats. Late in 1981 he returned to Holland to win the league title twice more, once with Ajax and later with their greatest rival Feyenoord. It was after his brief period with the Rotterdam club that Cruijff retired as a player. In total, Cruijff’s club career included winning ten national championships, seven national cups, three European Cups, one World Cup (clubs) and one Super Cup.
His coaching debut aroused controversy as he lacked the proper qualifications, but it did not matter as he led Ajax to victory in the 1987 European Cup-winners’ Cup. He then left for Barcelona where he coached the team to four league titles in a row. In 1991 Cruijff suffered a heart attack but was fortunately able to recover well. So well in fact, that he led the Catalans to a European Cup victory in 1992 and runners-up in 1994. On two occasions the Dutch public awaited his arrival at the helm of the national team, once in 1990 and again in 1994. In both cases the plans fell through.
After retiring from coaching, Cruijff was a regular commentator for various television networks. He died of lung cancer in 2016.