“Football has given me everything in life, tobacco almost took it all away.” Those were the words of Johan Cruyff in a Catalan health department advert, shortly after he underwent double heart bypass surgery in 1991. A quarter of a century on, the Barcelona legend has tragically lost his subsequent battle with lung cancer at 68, but his legacy in Spanish football will never be forgotten.
Before he had even stepped foot in Spain, Cruyff was already regarded as one of the world’s best footballers while plying his trade for hometown club Ajax, having won eight Eredivisie titles, three European Cups and a Ballon d’Or. It was therefore fitting that he commanded a then-world-record fee in 1973 to join Barca, who at the time were lagging some way behind Real Madrid.
Cruyff’s arrival at Barca was not just hailed as a sporting feat, but one which indirectly had repercussions for the state of Catalonia. Having seen Alfredo Di Stefano, among other world stars, previously slip through the net, La Blaugrana made a bold statement of intent by landing the Dutchman – even more so when he declared he chose Barca over Madrid.
His reasoning was clear – he refused to represent a club with alleged links to General Franco, who ruled Spain with an iron fist between 1939 and 1975 and oppressed Barca’s Catalan pride. Cruyff wasted no time in further endearing himself to his new team as he helped them to their first La Liga title in 14 years at the end of his debut campaign. With that, his journey in revolutionising Spanish football began.
Cruyff’s five-year spell may not have heralded much in terms of silverware, but his inspirational performances led to some unforgettable moments, such as his second Ballon d’Or and a starring role in Barca’s 5-0 away demolition of Los Blancos en route to his sole League triumph. The latter is particularly remembered for how it liberated the Catalan people, who were slowly beginning to take back pride in their identity after years of oppression.
There was also the 1974 World Cup, which confirmed the Netherlands’ incredible rise from the doldrums to finalists on the international stage, with Cruyff the heartbeat of Rinus Michels’ runners-up. Despite their defeat to West Germany in the final, the Oranje were widely considered the team to have played the best football at the tournament, their Total Football philosophy no better embodied by the No 14.
As magical a player Cruyff was, however, it’s his post-playing impact for which Spain will remember him for most. His 1978 departure from Barca was followed by the appointment of Josep Lluis Nunez – the club’s first-ever democratically-elected President – the same summer, and Cruyff couldn’t keep away from Camp Nou for long as he had his request for the Catalans to implement an Ajax-esque youth academy accepted a year later.
It made a return to Barca after his playing career all the more inevitable, and destiny was indeed fulfilled in 1988, when he succeeded Luis Aragones as Coach. Despite ending his six years at the helm with two trophyless campaigns, Cruyff still led his ‘Dream Team’ – compromised of La Masia’s first outstanding graduates and some foreign stars – to four consecutive League titles between 1991 and 1994 and a first European Cup in 1992.
Equally noteworthy was how Cruyff managed his troops in such an innovative way. Not since his Ajax team of the 1960s had a club’s success been reliant on so many of their own graduates, and more than just coaching Barca’s first team, he helped to formulate La Masia’s blueprint. In need of players who fit his ethos, the result was a production line of shorter footballers adept at playing in his 3-4-3 formation, maintaining possession and pressing their opponents. Sound familiar?
While the end of his Barca reign may have been bloody, little was it known that Cruyff had sown the seeds for the most successful eras in Barca and Spain’s history. The Catalans, under the Dutchman’s former protégé Pep Guardiola, would surpass the Dream Team by collecting 18 trophies between 2008 and 2012, all while exhibiting a style of play which was built on both Total Football and Cruyff’s own philosophy.
On the international scene, Cruyff’s Barca predecessor Aragones put his faith in a similar approach and consequently began a period of world domination for the Spain national team, with success at Euro 2008 being followed by the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, Vicente del Bosque presiding over the latter two. This style of play has since become the norm for Spanish clubs and the Catalonia national team, also once trained by Cruyff.
With his name tied to as many as 10 entities, including the Cruyff turn and an asteroid, and countless players and Coaches being influenced by his footballing genius, none of those measured Cruyff’s impact better than another of the great man’s former players, Miguel Angel Nadal, who once claimed ‘Cruyff reinvented the concept of football in this country.’
Fortunately for the beautiful game, Cruyff continues to defy cliché. He may have gone today, but he’ll still be here tomorrow.