Football: Brazil greats, Netherlands pay tribute to 'best-ever' Cruyff, dead at 68

A man lays flowers near the statue of Johan Cruyff in front the Olympic Stadium, in Amsterdam, on March 24, 2016.
A man lays flowers near the statue of Johan Cruyff in front the Olympic Stadium, in Amsterdam, on March 24, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

AMSTERDAM (AFP) - Flags were flying half-mast across the Netherlands on Thursday as it mourned the loss of arguably its greatest sporting icon, Johan Cruyff, who died aged 68 of lung cancer.

"We've lost our best-ever footballer, our Number 14, our greatest football friend," Royal Dutch Football Federation chairman Michael van Praag said.

"Johan has taken Dutch football to new great heights, and we will forever be in his debt at the KNVB," Van Praag added in a statement, posted on the federation's website. "We are devastated, and personally I'm going to miss Johan, my friend, enormously."

"The Netherlands has lost a unique and big-hearted sportsman," Dutch King Willem-Alexander said on his Facebook page. "He enriched our football and gave it a new face. He truly was a Dutch icon."

Cruyff "died peacefully in Barcelona, surrounded by his family after a hard-fought battle with cancer", said a statement on Cruyff's official website. "It's with great sadness that we ask you to respect the family's privacy during their time of grief."

Cruyff is considered one of the best four players in history alongside Pele of Brazil, Diego Maradona of Argentina and France's Michel Platini.

He won three European Cups as a player with Ajax Amsterdam and Ballon d'Or titles in 1971 with Ajax and 1973 and 1974 with Barcelona, where he starred from 1973 to 1978.

Cruyff started his coaching career with Ajax in 1985 but moved again to Barcelona three years later, leading the Spanish side to four consecutive league titles and their first-ever European Cup in 1992.

Meanwhile, flags were flying half-mast at the Amsterdam ArenA with employees at the Ajax fan shop changing all jerseys on mannequins to the well-known "Cruyff Number 14".

"I don't know what to say. I'm devastated," Ajax fan Rodney Rijsdijk told popular daily tabloid De Telegraaf, telling the paper that he had met Cruyff twice.

Brazilian World Cup winner and star forward Romario joined the outpouring of tributes to Cruyff, his manager at Barcelona at the height of his career.

"We woke up to the sad news of the death of my Dutch friend Johan Cruyff," Romario, 50, wrote on Facebook. "He was, without a doubt, the best coach I ever had. His lessons will be eternal in my life."

Pele wrote on Twitter: "We have lost a great man. May we carry on his example of excellence. Johan Cruyff was a great player and coach. He leaves a very important legacy for our family of football."

Brazil's star striker Neymar said Thursday that Dutch master Johan Cruyff's death is a "great loss for football".

"Those of us who love football know how important he was to football. He was a great athlete. No one is happy when a person like that dies," Neymar told a press conference ahead of Brazil's World Cup qualifier against Uruguay Friday.