It’s not often that a footballer’s performance enters popular culture as a metaphor for brilliance. In 2007, British Indie band The Hours recorded a song called ‘Love You More’. In it lead singer Antony Genn described his partner as “better than Elvis in his ’68 comeback, better than Cruyff in ‘74”.
It’s a simple line, but it goes some way to telling you how good Johan Cruyff was that year.
His move to Barcelona from Ajax the previous summer had been greeted with fanfare and hysteria. Already a Ballon d’Or winner, he was arguably the best player on the planet at the time and as such, could only move for a then world-record fee of £920,000. As if having the world’s greatest footballer wasn’t enough for the Camp Nou faithful, he would endear himself to the fans further by claiming at an introductory Press conference that he turned down Real Madrid because he could not play for a team associated with General Franco.
He immediately made an impact, and by January 6 1974 Barca were leading La Liga by two points, the Dutchman – fresh from picking up his second Ballon d’Or award – hitting a double in a 3-0 win over Las Palmas. And it continued to get better and better for the forward and his team. Goals against Elche, Celta Vigo, Real Sociedad, Castellon and one in the 5-0 annihilation of Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu meant the Blaugrana were never off of top spot all the way until May.
They won the League title for the first time in 14 years, scoring 25 more goals than their nearest opponent and losing just five games along the way. It was a truly dominant display, with Cruyff at its heart. The 27-year-old was at the peak of his powers, coming fourth in the Pichichi charts with 16 strikes and forming a devastating partnership with Juan Manuel Asensi that was the pre-cursor to the tiki-taka philosophy we see today.
However good the Netherlands international may have been for Barca during that season, the defining image of the man – with his slinking hips and flowing hair – came from the World Cup in West Germany that summer.
The group stages threw up matches against Uruguay, Sweden and Bulgaria, and although Cruyff didn’t score in any of those three, his greatest contribution to football did come to the fore. The Cruyff Turn was invented in the game against the Swedes as Jan Olsson was left befuddled, bemused and completely dumbfounded by the reverse move. It didn’t lead to three points – the game ended 0-0 – but it did leave a lasting impression on everyone who saw it and has ever seen it.
Rinus Michel’s men eventually qualified with two wins and a draw and went into a second round of group matches against Argentina, East Germany and Brazil.
It was here, in Gelsenkirchen and Dortmund, that Holland mesmerized the world with their Total Football and showed the traditional powerhouses that this tiny nation of just 14 million people had arrived.
The Oranje began by defeating Argentina 4-0 with Cruyff grabbing two, the first a beautifully nonchalant waltz around goalkeeper Daniel Carnevali.
East Germany were next, resoundingly dispatched in a 2-0 win. But it was the victory against Brazil that was the truly defining image of the tournament. The winners would be through to the final, in what was a straight play-off to face West Germany in Munich. The South American side were the reigning champions, and although they had lost the majority of the stars from 1970, still had a fearsome reputation.
However, in what was a proper passing of the baton, Cruyff and his teammates smashed the Selecao to pieces. Johan Neeskens got the first just after half-time before Cruyff put the icing on the cake by finishing off a glorious team move midway through the second half.
The world was theirs, and only a game against the home nation would stop them from writing their names in the annals of history.
It started so well. Cruyff was fouled by Uli Hoeness inside two minutes for the first ever penalty in a World Cup final, as Neeskens stepped up for the opener. Unfortunately for the Dutch, the second ever penalty in a World Cup final wasn’t far away. Paul Breitner dispatched that on 25 minutes, before Gerd Muller did what Gerd Muller usually did, and scored from inside the penalty area to give Die Mannschaft the win.
Netherlands didn’t win the World Cup. And still haven’t. But that side have gone down as one of the greatest losers of all time. Cruyff was named the tournament’s best player and he took that form into the next season for his club.
By the end of the year, Barcelona were just three points behind Real Madrid in top spot and were truly back from over a decade in the wilderness.
It didn’t stop there however, as he was named winner of the Ballon d’Or for 1974 and became the first player to win the award three times. A record he still jointly holds today.