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In Good Conscience

Thanks Cruyff, for the Total Football education

The Royal Dutch Football Association (KNVB) declared that last night's match in Amsterdam between the Netherlands and France be halted during the14th minute in memory of Johan Cruyff, "the greatest footballer we have perhaps ever produced".

There should be no "perhaps" about it. Cruyff, the No. 14 for club and country, was indubitably the greatest the Dutch ever produced.

As a player, he was up there with Pele, with perhaps George Best, and with three Argentinians of different eras - Alfredo di Stefano, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi.

But Cruyff was something else. As a player, he changed the style in which his nation played the game, and changed the ethos of Ajax and Barcelona, from their academies to their first teams who won several times over every trophy in the world. And won them in a style taking football as close to ballet as we have known it.

The KNVB got closer to his legacy when it called him "a phenomenon, legend, and inspiration".

If you haven't already viewed the video, simply Google "The Cruyff Turn", the moment during the 1974 World Cup when the genie in orange slips the ball through his own legs and sends the Swedish defender Jan Olsson moving in the completely wrong direction.

"Every time I see the video," Olsson says, "I think I have got the ball. Every time, he surprises me. Every time, I love that moment."


Johan Cruyff skipping past Fernando Morena during the Netherlands' 2-0 win over Uruguay in the 1974 World Cup in Hanover. The Dutch lost the final to hosts West Germany and again in the final four years later to hosts Argentina. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Olsson is not alone. I have had the privilege of knowing Johan Cruyff since we were both very young men. I first interviewed him for television in 1972, and two years later we worked on a 16-week series of articles "A Cruyff's Eye View of the 1974 World Cup".

Like I said, we were very young, but he was very savvy.

Cruyff had the first home video recorder I ever saw. He had his own library of every player who interested or inspired him. And,even then, an analytical mind to stop-start the actions of all these players and help me to define what made Gerd Mueller such an exceptional scorer, what made Kazimierz Deyna mastermind the Polish attacks, how Roberto Rivelino bent his free kicks, and how much fight Billy Bremner put into Scotland, or Johan Neeskens into the Dutch team.

It was more than a tutorial.There were insights beyond what a non-player, or even an average player, would see.

But Cruyff was something else. As a player, he changed the style in which his nation played the game, and changed the ethos of Ajax and Barcelona, from their academies to their first teams who won several times over every trophy in the world. And won them in a style taking football as close to ballet as we have known it.

There were moments in his own apartment in Barcelona when Cruyff's two infant girls would be moved around by him to illustrate a point. And moments when he would get out the salt and pepper, and the Camel cigarette packets, to lay out what Cruyff, still then a player and not ostensibly a coach, could see that others would not.

I asked, for example, when he might hit a 40-yard pass the way that Germany's Gunter Netzer imperiously struck such passes.

"I don't answer," he said, "unless you tell me who the pass is for."

By that, he meant which of his Dutch colleagues was in which position on the field.

This, remember, was the gestation of the Total Football period - the football attributed to the Dutch coach Rinus Michels which revolutionised tactics.

The essence of it was that players rotated within the team, so that a full-back might pop up down the wing, or in a central striking position. And a forward, like Cruyff, might appear anywhere.

His exhaustive answers to the apparently simple question of hitting a Netzer-like pass involved asking me to first name which player was in which position on the field. If it was a colleague Cruyff thought could read the pass and beat an opponent, he might make it. If it was another player, perhaps with less speed to beat his marker, Cruyff might instead run forward with the ball, take out an opponent with his quicksilver movement, and then pass for the colleague, who by then was in free space.

Total Football meant total engagement of the brain, for Cruyff, for his team-mates, for the spectators. The coach, Michels, allowed it, but the players had to initiate it.

Cruyff learnt it on the streets of Amsterdam. He was a child running free. His greengrocer father died of a heart attack when Johan was 12, and the son chose then to opt out of formal schooling. His mother cleaned the steps outside the old Ajax stadium, and he was on those streets, whirling around lamp posts, bemusing older kids, living his game and inventing his own moves.

Olsson needn't think he was the first, or the last to be flabbergasted.

Maradona always called Cruyff "the skinny one", even in his affectionate tribute this weekend. Can you imagine the courage that it takes to be over 1.8m tall, but under 67kg in a contact sport?

I once asked Cruyff about the physical element to being a genius on the field. Not all opponents would love to be tricked.

"I call this routine," he replied, rolling up his trouser leg to show five fresh bruises and scratches from the kicking he had taken the day before.

He laughed, drew on another cigarette and said something about not being afraid, physically or mentally. Cruyff said he wasn't quick, but if you think before others, if you move a second or two before them, they cannot catch you.

"I have an instinct to do the wrong things," he said, meaning things coaches tried to say didn't fit their tactics.

The most wrong thing he ever did was smoking. He kicked the habit after a heart attack in 1991, but his death was down to lung cancer.

The boy who quit school at 12 also became the patron of the Johan Cruyff University which started in Barcelona and now has academies worldwide, offering diplomas in sports administration and finance. The philosophy was his, but he told me he would never have passed the exams.

I am torn between deciding which of his many quotes best finish this article.

"I'm not religious," was one. "In Spain all 22 players make the sign of the cross before they enter the pitch. If it works, all matches must end in a draw."

Maybe his son, Jordi (born after the daughters) topped it all. Asked to compare himself to his father, he answered: "The rest of us are just mortals. We come and go."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2016, with the headline 'Thanks Cruyff, for the Total Football education'. Print Edition | Subscribe