This writer is not above certain conceits. Affectations, shall we say. I play in a 5-a-side football match with work colleagues once a week, and a year ago we ordered jerseys for ourselves. We were also asked if we wanted numbers on the back. On hearing which numbers had already been taken, I opted without hesitation for having Number 14 on my back. I’m slightly disappointed that nobody has yet picked up on that being the number Johan Cruyff always wore after returning from a groin injury in 1970, but let’s see if that changes. Tonight’s friendly between the Netherlands and France was halted after 14 minutes for a minute-long silence, which must go down as one of the more innovative tributes you’ll see in a sporting arena.
Growing up, while becoming introduced to football and its history, discussion of the game’s greatest players tended to revolve around a handful of names – Pelé, Maradona, Di Stéfano … and Cruyff. And it was Cruyff who was the favourite player in the house I grew up in, his gracing of the screen when colour television first arrived to my family a generation previously providing indelible impressions that were subsequently recounted to me. Of course he had a mesmeric effect on many millions of others. What then does Cruyff represent in the game of football?
This writer has never been convinced by a “show us your medals” method of measuring a sportsman’s career. It’s also a very trite saying that only winners are remembered, and losers are forgotten. If you pause to think about it, most top sportspeople spend most of their time losing. And besides, plenty of winners themselves are forgotten – many a footballer with a World Cup winner’s medal at home could walk unrecognised down most streets, even in their own country. Even if he didn’t win the World Cup, Cruyff still won plenty in his career, but his legacy isn’t particularly defined by his victories. He himself said that “quality without results is pointless”, but followed that up with the following rejoinder to himself, “results without quality is boring”.
What makes Cruyff an enduring figure is that he will be forever associated with one of the supreme forms of footballing expression, as the most perfect embodiment of ‘totaalvoetbal’. That’s the kind of thing that people really remember. The gliding movement, the graceful evasion of opponent’s attentions, those moments that encapsulate his transcendent qualities. His influence didn’t stop with the end of his time with Ajax and the Dutch national team. He moved to Barcelona, and not only became a great player in their history. As manager, he constructed the modern Barcelona, developing the playing ethos that prevails to this day, and which has made the current Barcelona team of Lionel Messi the most celebrated club side for decades.
On top of having several illustrious footballing careers contained in one life, Cruyff could be befittingly enigmatic about himself and his philosophy. “Playing football is very simple”, he said, “but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is”. For those who might have considered that unhelpful, perhaps this quote applies: “If I wanted you to understand it, I would have explained it better”. Another of his lines is surely in error, however. If I may humbly offer my own correction, Cruyff was certainly immortal.