“There have been four kings of football – Di Stefano, Pele, Cruyff and Maradona – and the fifth has not yet appeared. We are awaiting the fifth, and it is sure to be Messi, but so far he is not among the kings” — former Argentina and Barcelona coach Cesar Luis Menotti.
They say that you reach a certain point in your life where the familiar landmarks that have guided you so far, all start to crumble or fade away. It’s why old people often look so bewildered. The modern world bearing so little resemblance to the days of their youth.
Worryingly the last few months have started to have that effect on me. Dull certainty dictates that ‘the end’ will come to us all, it’s just that some people seem to stand above ordinary rules. By the very audacity of their life, they seem to rise above the ordinary mortality that governs the rest of us.
Except of course that they don’t.
Rather like my other teenage hero David Bowie, Johann Cruyff embodied a certain time and certain place in my life. Both seemed to have an alien other-worldliness. A trait that made their ability to do strange things beyond the understanding of normal men, seem like their kind of normal.
Three European Cups in succession for Ajax Amsterdam? Yeah. A World Cup runner up, when his opening minute run into the danger zone led English referee Jack Taylor to award a penalty in the first minute? Yep. And all good sense saying that the Total Football Dutch would go on to win with ease? Gotcha.
Except of course that they didn’t.
The vivid orange shirted Dutch, captured my suburban teenage imagination watching that 1974 tournament in West Germany. In one of life’s humdrum coincidences, my Dad had bought our first colour TV shortly before the competition. As was his own Cruyff-like way, he didn’t fuck about when the shopfitting game was going well. So he bought a Bang and Olufsen for £800 – equal to something stupid in today’s values. Rules being for other people.
The reason that Dad went to town so , was because of my interest in the game (he was never too bothered by comparison). The new TV was combined with an industrial strength roof aerial fixed into our Mottingham council house roof and pointed straight at Crystal Palace tower (no permission sought, no fucks given and it’s probably still up there.) The German TV images were razor sharp by the side of the old black and white set top job that previously occupied the corner of our front room. “They do love a public address system out there” I remember my grandfather interjecting as the West Germans struggled against their Eastern brethren in a game that I now realise was loaded with political significance.
Rob Rensenbrink. Johnny Rep. Johann Neeskens though? They seemed to laugh and breeze their way through. Strange names, cool accents and pop star looks. That Dutch side could easily have doubled as the Beach Boys on tour. Only Johann Cruyff, my hero, seemed to be impervious to the demands of the everyday world. In fact he seemed ever so slightly bored by it all – even his own talent. I imagine Leonardo Da Vinci being the same, though less skilfull with the ball. The famous turn? Yeah so what? Cruyff could just do it, get excited if you want to. Or maybe even try and do it yourself?
Except of course, very few could.
Johann Cruyff was always his own man. Never afraid to play or walk away if he wanted. Whether to Barcelona, from the Dutch national side or to the USA he did what paid and what he liked. His call – always.
Was he a genius? Well he always felt like my genius and maybe that’s all that counts. But let’s give the last word to a man that knows: the Sweden defender Jan Olsson, victim of ‘The Cruyff Turn’ at the 1974 FIFA World Cup.
“I played 18 years in top football and seventeen times for Sweden, but that moment against Cruyff was the proudest moment of my career. 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.”