Grace­ful ex­po­nent of the beau­ti­ful game

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - David Brear­ley

Nureyev fa­mously held that Jo­han Cruyff was wasted on foot­ball, such was the Dutch­man’s poise on the field, the ease and pur­pose of his move­ment. The pun­dits called him Pythago­ras in Boots, a nod to his vi­sion and spa­tial aware­ness. When he died last March, YouTube was flooded with slow-mo bal­letic mon­tages, many of them scored to ro­man­tic sym­phonies.

The clas­sic im­age, how­ever, is a still. It shows a rangy man with scruffy hair in an orange shirt, im­pe­ri­ous with or without the ball, al­ways point­ing: you go here, you there, now do this, then that. Cruyff knew bet­ter than any­one what needed to hap­pen next, and where and when, and how things might un­fold if ev­ery­one played his part. He got the game.

Was he the great­est? Prob­a­bly not. A player needs World Cups to stake that claim, which is why Lionel Messi and Cris­tiano Ron­aldo in our own time must line up be­hind the likes of Pele, who won three with Brazil, and Diego Maradona, who dragged a mid­dling Ar­gen­tine side to the sum­mit.

Cruyff failed in 1974 when Hol­land dis­patched Brazil, Ar­gentina and Uruguay with great non­cha­lance, then scored af­ter 90 sec­onds in the fi­nal against West Ger­many, only to snatch de­feat from the jaws of vic­tory. Sober writers have re­cast that match as a for­got­ten theatre of World War II, and it’s true there were Dutch­men on the Mu­nich pitch who had lost fam­ily in the hos­til­i­ties.

In this posthu­mously pub­lished au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Cruyff says only that the Dutch played with too much pride and that pride comes be­fore a fall. “That said,” he con­cludes, “I got over it quickly enough.”

Cel­e­brated vic­to­ries, prized tro­phies, mir­a­cle goals and in­can­des­cent pas­sages of play are of lit­tle in­ter­est to him. The 1974 World Cup fi­nal mer­its not quite two pages while the “Cruyff turn”, the be­wil­der­ing sleight of foot ex­e­cuted against a hap­less Swedish de­fender at the same tour­na­ment, is done in a para­graph.

What mat­ters to Cruyff is “the idea of foot­ball”, by which he means good grass, clean boots and tight nets. And the rest of it: peerless tech­nique, rev­o­lu­tion­ary tac­tics and a phi­los­o­phy of the game that val­ues brain over brawn, and beauty above all else, even vic­tory if needs be. Win­ning ugly was anath­ema to the Dutch, in Cruyff’s day at least.

The na­tion that taught the mod­ern world how to play had first to teach it­self, and much of the grunt work was done on the cob­bled streets of Am­s­ter­dam-East where Cruyff and a gag­gle of urchins honed their craft in the late 1950s. In the fol­low­ing decade they came to­gether at Ajax FC and by the early 70s no team could touch them. In 1974 they were in­ter­na­tion­als and cham­pi­ons, or very nearly, and the phrase on ev­ery fan’s lips was To­tal Foot­ball.

To that ex­tent, it was child’s play. Cruyff al­ways main­tained that the best foot­ball was the sim­plest, but that play­ing sim­ple foot­ball was the hard­est thing in the world. At Ajax and later with Hol­land, ev­ery player was re­quired to be ex­pert in ev­ery po­si­tion, mean­ing the goal­keeper launched the at­tacks while a striker who lost the ball be­came the first line of de­fence.

Some called the na­tional team Clock­work Orange, which cap­tured their tech­ni­cal per­fec­tion but sold their artistry short. Today the class of 74 are old mas­ters and Cruyff is the most fa­mous Dutch­man since Vin­cent van Gogh.

No, he was not the great­est, but it’s hard to name a more in­flu­en­tial foot­baller. Aus­tralia en­joyed a lit­tle of his legacy in 2006 when Guus Hid­dink coached the Soc­ceroos to the World Cup fi­nals for the first time in 32 years. Cruyff’s style lives on in Barcelona, where he ex­celled as a player and won the Cham­pi­ons League as man­ager, and in Mu­nich, where he en­chanted the masses all those years ago.

Cruyff was no­to­ri­ous for his de­light­fully man­gled ar­got, what­ever lan­guage he was speak­ing. The Dutch have a word for it — Crui­jf­fi­aans — and the best­seller among the 50some­thing books about him con­tains noth­ing but quotes. His bril­liant ver­bal mis­takes ap­pear to have been ironed out in the English trans­la­tion of his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, which is a pity and, in a sense, a be­trayal of who he re­ally was.

He had a love-hate thing with club and coun­try. Cata­lans de­ify him, thanks to his ex­ploits at Barcelona. But his Ajax team­mates voted him out of the cap­taincy af­ter win­ning three Cham­pi­ons League crowns in a row, and he was never in­vited to coach the na­tional team. In these pages he is ar­gu­men­ta­tive, im­mod­est, blunt, con­tra­dic­tory, counter-in­tu­itive and ab­so­lutely right about ev­ery­thing. Dutch, in a word. is a jour­nal­ist and writer, and not a bad goal shooter.

Jo­han Cruyff pre­pares to score against Ar­gentina in the 1974 World Cup

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