In Good Conscience

Muhammad Ali, Johan Cruyff, Arnold Palmer leave lasting legacies

In sport, as in life, there can be no immortality. In 2016, we lost three men who came as close as it gets, and whose effect will outlast them by generations.

Johan Cruyff was the incarnation of Total Football.

Muhammad Ali was as iconic as any boxer could be.

And Arnold Palmer moved golf from the preserve of the wealthy to a game beyond privilege.

Twelve months seems longer in sport than other walks of life, perhaps because its seasons often overlap the calendar year. And, of course, more than three influential figures left us - from the beauty of the former Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska, to the centurion football overlord Joao Havelange, to the horrifying plane crash at the end of November that wiped out virtually the whole of the Brazilian football team Chapecoense.

No, sir. Neither sport, nor fame, bestow immunity from life's inevitable end.

But we will remember them. When players transcend sports the way that Cruyff, Ali and Palmer did, they reshape their chosen fields from what went before.

Hendrik Johannes Cruijff (known as Cruyff) was the first to go, on March 24. He was 68. He died of lung cancer, the result of the cigarette habit he gave up 25 years previously, after it caused him a heart attack.

PGA Champions Tour players (from left) Rocco Mediate, Peter Jacobsen, Joe Durant, John Cook, Fred Funk, Loren Roberts and Tom Lehman paid tribute to the late Arnold Palmer in October.  PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Cruyff was the embodiment of "Total Football". He saw it in his idol, the Argentinian Alfredo di Stefano who played for Real Madrid, and who inspired him to go anywhere, move to the point of maximum effect.

At Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium in April, fans held up posters that formed a mosaic reading "Thank you Johan" in tribute of Johan Cruyff.  PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Sinewy and slender, Cruyff was described by the great ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev as a marvel of balance and artistic movement. The Dutchman was in the middle of collaborating on his autobiography with journalist Jaap de Groot when, both knew, the cancer was winning the last game.

A hearse with the remains of boxing legend Muhammad Ali passed a mural depicting his 1965 victory over Sonny Liston on the way to Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

"Everything started in the street," Cruyff told de Groot. "That was where I began to think of turning disadvantages into advantages. The pavement, rather than an obstacle, could be a teammate in a one-two. When you fall on concrete, it hurts, so you play football trying not to fall down."

We cannot, should not, reduce a great player and great mind on the global game to one moment. Cruyff changed Ajax Amsterdam, FC Barcelona, and the Dutch Oranje, to his way of thinking, and pupils such as Pep Guardiola ensure that it will go on.

Yet it remains captured in a signature manoeuvre that epitomised him. It was the inside- out twist and turn, the snake-like dance during the 1974 World Cup Finals when he tricked Swedish defender Jan Olsson, sending him left before Cruyff stopped abruptly, dragged the ball with the sole of his foot, and turned right.

"I was a player for 18 years," recalls Olsson. "I never experienced anything like that before."

Or since. Olsson accepts that he will go to his own grave known for being the dummy duped by the Cruyff Turn. "Every time I see it on video," he chuckles, "I still don't know which way to turn."

Neither sport, nor fame, bestow immunity from life's inevitable end.

But we will remember them. When players transcend sports the way that Cruyff, Ali and Palmer did, they reshape their chosen fields from what went before.

Guardiola moved on from Barca to Bayern Munich to Manchester City, paying the ultimate tribute: "Cruyff built the cathedral, we tried to maintain it."

Cruyff shared his era with the likes of Carlos Alberto Torres, the extraordinary right-back who captained arguably the greatest team of them all - the 1970 Brazil national team - and who also died this year.

Another Brazilian, Havelange, never played the game, but ruled it as Fifa president from 1974 to 1998.

He expanded football into a multi-billion dollar business. Alas, he was also the Godfather of corruption, and when he ended his innings, at 100 years of age during the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, he was discredited by both Fifa and the International Olympic Committee for having helped himself to millions from the pot.

Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, died on June 3. He was 74 and had suffered from Parkinson's Disease for 32 of his years.

As brilliant as the Cruyff Turn was, the Ali Shuffle equalled it. Fast of hand and foot, faster still of wit, Ali denounced Cassius Clay as his "slave" name. At the height of his fame, the "Louisville Lip" was also faster with the hype than any box-office king.

He did have a glint in the eyes when he was in front of the cameras. He did almost "Float Like a Butterfly and Sting Like a Bee". He was pretty much - and darned close to being - "The Greatest".

There are still books being written by television show hosts and celebrity hangers-on who fleetingly shared his limelight, but none of his pain. US President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump have few things in common; praising Ali is one of them.

There will always be defenders of pugilism who put Ali on the pedestal of what a black kid in Kentucky achieved with his fists. They sidestep the implications that the degeneration through the second half of his adult years was due to trading blows to the head.

As light on his feet as the proverbial butterfly, but with a heavyweight's punch that KO'ed 37 of his 61 professional opponents, he lost only five times in the ring, but divided America by refusing to be conscripted to fight in Vietnam.

Arnold Palmer died on Sept 25. Born on the blue collar side of the tracks (his father was a golf professional among other things), "Arnie" had the most enduring career of any of our three greats. He won 62 tournaments on the PGA Tour, with seven Majors - four Masters, one US Open and two British Opens.

All-time, Palmer ranked fifth in tournament wins behind Sam Snead, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan. In popularity, he was second to none. "Arnie's Army" would follow him anywhere and everywhere, even in the skies if they could fly a twin-prop private jet the way Palmer did into his 80s.

A multi-millionaire, with drinks and all manner of things bearing his name sold around the globe, Palmer met a lawyer, Mark McCormack in Cleveland, Ohio, who was to transform golf into a television sport through Palmer's on-screen charisma.

He exuded the fun of playing and striving - and played on until, at 77, he cried: "I tried everything, but it's impossible. My whole body hurts and I do not have the strength."

"Arnie popularised the game," Nicklaus succinctly summed him up.

Three men acclaimed like kings. But, to finish on Caslavska: She died in August, aged 74, having won 22 titles as a gymnast, including seven Olympic golds in Tokyo (1964) and Mexico City (1968).

Her career ended abruptly because she signed a petition denouncing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968.

In our world today, it is politically incorrect to say this, but Caslavska personified feminine beauty as much as Jackie Kennedy or Marilyn Monroe.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2016, with the headline 'Ali, Cruyff and Palmer leave lasting legacies'. Print Edition | Subscribe