AMSTERDAM — It seemed no one could keep up with Johan Cruyff.
Not the greatest defenders of the 1970s.
Not rival coaches, tacticians or analysts.
Not even occasional critics during the half century that Cruyff voiced his thoughts — often profound, sometimes wacky — about all things football. The Amsterdam street kid had enough chutzpah, football smarts and aura to stare down and silence anyone.
Football lost one of its greatest on Thursday when Cruyff died in Barcelona after a battle with lung cancer. He was 68. Cruyff stands next to Pele, Diego Maradona and Franz Beckenbauer among the best the sport has ever produced.
A child of 1970s Netherlands, Cruyff symbolized how the country shed post-World War II shackles of rigid social mores and embraced the sense of flower-power freedom that had blown over from California.
On the pitch, that sense of freedom was called “Total Football,” a revolutionary change in tactics with players interchanging roles, pressuring the opposition all over the field and constantly moving with the mesmerizing fluidity of an orange lava lamp. The innovation dumbfounded rival teams for several years before they started to copy it in full or in part.
It never was fully clear whether Cruyff or Ajax and Netherlands coach Rinus Michels was the chief architect of Total Football. But Cruyff was its personification.
He won three European championships with Ajax from 1971 to 1973. He was European player of the year three times and was named Europe’s best player of the 20th century.
During the early 1970s, his magic eluded him only once, and only for 89 minutes of one game. It was when he needed it most – the 1974 World Cup final against archrival West Germany in Munich.
Cruyff never won the World Cup.
From Ajax, Cruyff moved midseason in 1973 to Barcelona, the underdog and fierce opponent of Real Madrid and the Franco regime. The adversarial conditions fitted him like a glove. He led the mid-table team to its first national title in a decade.
Thumbnail photo via Associated Press
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