Johan Cruyff, The Legacy of #14

By Ryan J. BalfourScreen Shot 2015-07-09 at 2.40.22 PM

The “Cruyff Turn”. Countless of children playing soccer all over the world have most likely learned this trick, including myself. I was around 9 years old and I remember my first coach making us run around in a square box performing the Cruyff turn. Back then, I never stopped to think why it was called the “Cruyff Turn”.

On March 24th, 2016, Johan Cruyff sadly passed away and the world of soccer lost an icon but not his legacy. No other man has had this much of influence on the sport worldwide, from his inspirational quotes to his coaching legacy left behind in order for Barcelona to become one of the best soccer clubs in the world and everything in between.

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 2.34.14 PM.pngJohan Cruyff, 1947-2016. His name most likely doesn’t ring any bells to most people in the United States or to anyone that doesn’t follow soccer worldwide, but he was one of the most influential people in the world of soccer. In his career, he made 520 appearances for club and country, scoring a total of 293 goals. In addition, he won 22 European championship trophies. He earned footballer of the year three times and after his playing career ended, he went on to manage two top European teams, including his home club team, Ajax. For his country, Netherlands, he made 48 appearances with 33 goals and took his nation to the 1974 World Cup Final. Not only was he a fantastic player, he did much more for the sport than just play well. His technical insights revolutionized soccer while he was the Barcelona F.C coach..

He built his legacy at the Dutch club called Ajax, in which he and the team won the European Cup three times in a row during the early seventies. Cruyff then went on to play at Barcelona F.C, which is now one of the best teams in the world that they prove in world tournaments each year. After his spell at Barcelona, Cruyff moved back to Netherlands to play for Ajax once more. He continued his career at Ajax until he retired in 1965.

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 2.35.55 PM.pngJohan Cruyff stunned the world while he was playing in the 1974 World Cup for Holland. His acceleration, speed, and most of all his supreme technical skills combined to be a nightmare for other defenders (click here to see a video). This was when the world first saw the “Cruyff Turn” and it took off from there on (click here to see). Essentially, if you had the ball, you would fake a shot then immediately tap the ball to the other side of the defender in hopes that the defender would think you are shooting. This move put Johan Cruyff and his country on the map of soccer history.

During the 1970’s, Dutch, German, and English soccer dominated the European tournaments. In this era, soccer saw some amazing talent being produced, especially Johan Cruyff. Ajax F.C swept the other European clubs with a concept called ‘total football’, in which defenders and attackers would interchange positions during a game leaving their opponents stunned and beaten because it had never been used before Cruyff and the Ajax F.C made it famous. ‘Total football” took Ajax to win the European Cup in 1971, 1972, and 1973.

Not only did Johan Cruyff play the sport exceptionally well he was one of the few players of his time that played smart. During the beginning of the ‘total football’ era, other players were physically stronger and the sport itself transformed into a brutal physical fight in between the white crisp lines. Cruyff, on the other hand, he had different plans. His mentor, Rinus Michels, developed a program that would enhance his technical skills because of his weak physique. Instead of holding onto the ball and attempting to win a losing battling against a stronger opponent, he utilized his movements with and without possession of the ball to excel. He is famously known for his one-liner inspirations about soccer, he made soccer simple.

“Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is” (click here).

For anyone at the professional level in any sport, they most likely will not say their sport is simple. For example, when Cruyff was addressed about his own speed he responded:

“What is speed? The sports press often confuses speed with insight. See, if I start running slightly earlier than someone else, I seem faster” (click here).

After three winning seasons in a row, Cruyff decided to take his talents to an up and coming Spanish team, Barcelona F.C. In his opening season with Barcelona, they won their league title. He had a couple of more years until he retired in 1984.

Even though Cruyff had retired he still had so much to offer the sport. He took his soccer intelligence to the next level. Without any formal coaching qualifications, he took over as technical director at his home club, Ajax in 1985. In his first season, he led the team to the UEFA Cup championships and won in 1987. He then set his mind to training younger stars such as former English premier league player and Arsenal F.C forward, Dennis Bergkamp. Similar to his playing career, Cruyff decided to take his managerial skills to a struggling Barcelona team in 1988. He restructured the team, letting go some of the older players and bringing in young stars to fill his team roster. Soon, this beaten down team was flipped into the so-called “Dream Team”.

At Barcelona, he reinvented how teams saw soccer from a tactical viewpoint. On the first day with his new team, he drew a new formation for the team to start their next game. On the blackboard, he drew a 3-4-3 formation. His team reacted as imagined,

“What the hell is this?! This was the era of 4-4-2 or 3-5-2. We couldn’t believe how many attackers 
were in the starting line-up, and how few defenders” (click here).

The team reacted as anyone would have during this time, but Cruyff thought outside of the box. This new formation would allow his team to push more attacking players up while still holding a strong attacking-defense. At the foundation of his new system is the importance of ball possession, which remains Barcelona’s successful trademark style of play still to this day. As explained by Cruyff;

“It’s a basic concept: when you dominate the ball, you move well. You have what the opposition doesn’t, and therefore they can’t score. The person that moves decides where the ball goes, and if you move well, you can change opponents’ pressure into your advantage. The ball goes where you want it” (click here).

Now, this system does sound fairly simple to execute on paper, however, this is one of the prime examples that it is easier to say than do. One team, has mastered this style of play,  Barcelona F.C. Since Cruyff left Barcelona in 1996, the club has had tremendous amounts of success. They are now one of the best soccer clubs in the world based on the foundation that Johan Cruyff implemented. Barcelona is the most successful professional soccer club in Spain, having won 66 titles and consistently contending for European championships.

It was a revolution; he single-handedly introduced a new way to play soccer at Barcelona. Using this new system, Cruyff introduced an intelligent and beautiful way to play the sport.

Pep Guardiola appeared for Barcelona 366 times in his 11-year spell with Barcelona as a player, later he then went to take over as Barcelona’s coach years after Cruyff had left his legacy. Guardiola is one of Barcelona’s best coaches that followed in Cruyff’s footsteps; he won 14 major trophies in just 4 seasons as head coach. Humble and thankful, Guardiola stated,

“Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, 
and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it” (click here).

After eight successful years coaching Barcelona, leading them to win the 1992 European Cup and four domestic championships in a row, Cruyff was forced to give up coaching Barcelona due to medical reasons and swore he would never coach again but most importantly, Johan Cruyff’s legacy is priceless. His spirit will live on in every kid that is taught how to perform the “Cruyff Turn” and in the sport itself.

On April 2nd, 2016, Barcelona is honoring Johan Cruyff by wearing “Gracias Johan” embroidered in their jerseys for the upcoming rival game against Real Madrid.

Thank you, Johan.

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