Many consider Johan Cruyff to have been a Dutch artist, much like Van Gogh and Rembrandt.
The difference was that Cruyff’s canvas was the football field. He was hugely influential in the way football is played today.
He was a pioneer of a footballing philosophy known as ‘total football’ and a three time European Player of the Year. He was voted European Player of the Century by the international Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS) in 1999.
Cruyff the visionary
He had great speed and acceleration but his most impressive asset was his vision and creativity. He played as a centre forward but he reinvented what it meant to play in that position. He would drift all over the pitch and would often be seen dropping deep or hugging the wing. He was the first centre forward to play that way.
He also invented the ‘Cruyff turn’, a move in which a player shapes to play the ball but instead drags it behind his standing foot and changes direction. His vision was so great that Sports journalist, David Miller, nicknamed him ‘Pythagoras in boots’ for his ability to see angles for passes.
First team debut aged 17
When he was 17, he scored on his debut for Ajax in 1964, but his team lost 3-1. The following year was his first full season for the club and he became a regular first team player. He scored 25 goals in 23 games as Ajax were crowned Champions.
He was learning to play ‘total football’ under the legendary pioneering coach, Rinus Michels. Total Football is a system of football in which every outfield player is comfortable playing in every position. It allows players to move out of position knowing that a team mate will be able to cover for them. This makes it very difficult for the opposition to organise their defense because the play can be free flowing and unpredictable.
The following year Ajax won the double with their second league title in a row and the KNVB Cup. Cruyff was the top scorer in the league with 33 goals and was named as Dutch Footballer of the Year. He was named Dutch Footballer of the Year again in the next season and Ajax won the title for the third year in succession.
Ajax reached the European Cup final that year but lost 4-1 to AC Milan.
European Footballer of the Year
They won the league and cup double again in 1969-70, and in 1970-71 they won the European Cup. They beat Panathinaikos 2-0 in the final. Cruyff was named as European Footballer of the Year for the first time.
The following year, Ajax retained the European Cup. They faced Internazionale in the final and won 2-0 thanks to two goals from Cruyff. It was a great victory for the total football philosophy against the defensive minded Italian approach.
Ajax also won the Dutch league and Cruyff was top scorer with 25 goals. To cap off a great year for him and the club, Cruyff scored in the KNVB Cup final as Ajax beat ADO Den Haag 3-2.
The 1972-73 season saw Ajax retain the Dutch title and also win the European Cup for the third year in a row. This time they beat Juventus 1-0 in the final.
In nine years at Ajax, Cruyff scored 190 goals in 240 games.
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