In 2004, a public poll in the Netherlands to determine de Grootste Nederlander (the Greatest Dutchman) named Johan Cruyff the sixth-greatest Dutchman of all time, with the soccer legend finishing just below humanist philosopher Desiderius Erasmus and above Anne Frank, Rembrandt, and Vincent Van Gogh.
On the one hand, this is crazy. Van Gogh’s name is synonymous with his craft; he gave us a new way of looking at the world. Everyone knows who Van Gogh is. On the other hand, everyone should know who Johan Cruyff is. You see a lot more of his handiwork these days than you do Van Gogh’s.
Cruyff, who died Thursday of lung cancer at the age of 68, won 10 league championships, three European Cups, three European footballer of the year awards, and played in a World Cup final. As the manager of Barcelona, he won four La Liga titles and a European Cup. It’s a staggering résumé, but in his case a list of accomplishments misses the point. His legacy isn’t built on what his teams accomplished. It’s how they did it.
Like many soccer greats, Cruyff is not an obvious choice as one of the world’s great athletes. He was lanky, angular, and thin, like a dancer or a 1970s rock star. He was fast, as you had to be, and his touch, control, and passing were all stellar yet still somehow secondary. What Cruyff did was process the game in a way no one else had before. He had a genius for space, one the author David Winner likened to that of the Dutch masters in his book Brilliant Orange.
With his boyhood club Ajax and the Dutch national team, Cruyff and coach Rinus Michels developed and honed a style of swarming, hive-mind soccer that would come to be branded, brilliantly, “Total Football.”
The hallmark of this was position switching; fullbacks, midfielders, and forwards trading spots in vertical lines through the center or on either flank to minimize their own running. This positional flexibility worked in concert with a willingness to chase the ball and to attempt to win it back closer to the opponent’s goal than anyone else had dared, hunting in packs and using a high offside line and a proactive goalkeeper to clean up the open space they left behind their defense. Watch World Cup footage from before and after 1974 and the difference is clear. Before the mid-1970s, players had time to pick out passes or to build momentum when dribbling. The Dutch denied them that time, and every team since has tried to find its own balance between pressing and retreating into a solid defensive formation.
When groups achieve greatness, we tend to funnel the credit into the dominant personality, but it was undoubtedly Cruyff who drew a through line from those teams to the modern era during his time in charge of Barcelona. As the club’s manager, he honed the ideals of high pressing, fast transitions, and the use of possession as a weapon to tire the opponent and stretch his shape—the principles that form the basis of modern soccer.
Determining the extent of Cruyff’s impact on his sport is difficult because it forces you to define the upper limit of how much influence a single person can have. Imagine if Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson were the same person, plus every basketball team in the world played the triangle offense. The changes Cruyff wrought are as influential as the introduction of the forward pass to football.
Cruyff, by rough consensus and with Lionel Messi’s candidacy still pending, is the third-greatest soccer player in history. He was the conductor of Total Football, finding order in the chaos, a center forward who roamed all over the pitch in search of the ball. He splayed wide to hit crosses to his goal-scoring wingers or dropped deep to find space to begin his runs, as he did in the 1974 World Cup final, where he collected the ball in the center circle with six Dutch players ahead of him and dribbled through three West Germans before earning a penalty. His dribbling was elastic—he would hit challenges, and appeared to bend around them.
By comparison to Cruyff, the legacies of Nos. 1 and 2 are self-contained. Pelé is one part avatar of some idealized Brazilian jogo bonito that most agree never really existed outside of a couple of games in the summer of 1970 and one part well-compensated corporate shill; he is the Peyton Manning of the wider world. Diego Maradona is some combination of Lone Wolf McQuade and Scarface. He won a World Cup single-handedly, then plunged himself into the kind of excess and fatuity that only a national hero could feel he deserved. (It’s a real missed opportunity that no one has been filming a Boyhood-style biopic of Maradona using Benicio del Toro this whole time.) Neither is totemic of anything. What they stand for is their own greatness.
Cruyff stands for everything. He is the embodiment of the modern game, the intellectual wellspring of the world’s two best teams, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, and countless others. His disciples and their disciples have colonized the sport with the efficiency of a particularly nasty virus, infecting even those without direct links to the Netherlands or to Barcelona. If a team isn’t playing in some variant of the style he espoused, it’s playing in a manner designed to thwart the teams that are.
Cruyff’s legacy is that he was right. His vision of how soccer should be played has become the dominant mode. He achieved greatness not just by understanding the game but by changing the understanding of the game, which is the dream of countless slightly nerdy fans who want to believe that even at the highest levels of sports, brains can still beat out brawn. This ultimate victory is what makes Cruyff a favorite of the sporting-intellectual class, the kind of people who wrote paeans to Greg Maddux when he retired and who were really into Steph Curry even when he was at Davidson. Pythagoras in boots, the British sports writer David Miller called him, but it was after he took off the boots that he changed the game forever.
That’s why the iconic image of Cruyff isn’t of him scoring a goal—though this was a great and memorable one—or a trick, even if we named one after him. It’s him pointing, directing a teammate from one place on the field to another. He had a vision of how the game should be, and nothing was going to stop him from sharing it.