Johan Cruyff: A hero for all times
Friday 25th March 2016
There are many types of hero.
Of course there are. And the meaning of that term changes as we go through life.
When I was a kid growing up on Tyneside, I was football daft. It was the 1960s, and back then there were some terrific players to enjoy. Aside from domestic stars such as Bobby Charlton, Alan Ball, George Best, Colin Bell, Wyn Davies and Ian St John, there were dazzling talents from other nations for us to admire on our flickering TV screens. We savoured English and Scottish teams playing continental sides, pinging those fancy black and white balls round pitches in Munich or Zurich or Rome.
And then there were the major international tournaments – with brilliant teams from West Germany, Brazil and Italy, boasting stars like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Luigi Riva. All fabulous players, all dazzling teams – but it was another nation - Holland - whose style really reinvented the game and captured my youthful imagination. Total Football they called it. Modern, fast, slick – every player able to attack and defend, constantly moving, changing places and swapping roles, making opponents look leaden-footed and antique.
Holland also had a truly modern superstar – a lean, pacey, pale-faced genius called Johan Cruyff, whose astonishing career began in the 1960s with what was then an unfashionable club called Ajax of Amsterdam. Cruyff grabbed the sporting spotlight by leading Ajax to three successive European Cup titles in the early 1970s. And, on the international stage, he made Holland majestic.
What made him such a hero to me was how he seemed able to conjure up new ways to bamboozle even the toughest opponent at will. His signature move, which became known as the Cruyff Turn, left defenders staring in one direction as he sped off in the other. To this day, players strive to master this trick. He made it look easy. It isn’t. Judge for yourself here:
Like thousands of kids across the world, I saw that – and thought I’d have a go. So I tried. Again and again and again. Result? Less Total Football, more like total frustration. While I was still twisting myself in knots trying – and failing – to master that skill, Cruyff came up with another move to surprise us all. Having put both Ajax and Holland firmly on the football map, he suddenly skipped off to Spain. He ignited the passion of the Catalan people as he inspired his new club, Barcelona, to several Spanish league and cup honours – and, for a while, they eclipsed their great rivals, Real Madrid.
Eventually, age starts to catch up with sporting superstars. He moved across to America, where he won a new flock of admirers. It was assumed he would wind down his playing career, picking up hefty pay cheques in the less physically demanding environment of the US league. Not Johan Cruyff. Yet again, he fooled us all with a sudden change of direction. He returned to Europe. First to Spain, and then, at the age of 34, back to where it had all started – Ajax. He led them to another couple of league titles, before the club decided not to renew his contract.
He promptly signed to play for Ajax’s main rivals, Feyenoord. And of course, he then led them to win the Dutch league. Oh, and the Cup. The lesson? Don’t mess with Johan! He might have looked skinny and slight – but there was real steel within that rangy frame. Having made his point, he finally hung up his boots and moved into management – where his progress followed a familiar pattern: huge success with Ajax and Barcelona, whom he led to their first European Cup triumph and several league titles.
An impressive sporting career, certainly - but is that enough to be counted as a hero in our more cynical times? I believe the term ‘hero’ should be reserved for a person whose life or actions inspire others to get up and make a change: something, however seemingly small, to make the world a better place. And you know what? Johan Cruyff still fits the bill. He set up Universities and Colleges to combine sporting and academic excellence. He supported the work of several charities helping fight poverty and disease. Perhaps best of all, he set up the John Cruyff Foundation to give children of all ages, all backgrounds and physical abilities, the chance to play and to be active. As a father, that really resonates with me.
The heroes we make in our youth seem somehow indestructible, so it came as a massive shock when Johan Cruyff needed major heart surgery in 1991. He had always been a heavy smoker, right from his boyhood playing football in the tough streets of post-war Amsterdam. He had continued smoking throughout his career, against the best advice of coaches, team-mates and medics. And in 1991, he suffered a major heart attack. Afterwards, his surgeon told him he might return to coaching – but only if he gave up smoking, which he duly did. That takes guts too.
He replaced his trademark cigarettes with lollipops and even juggled a fag packet 16 times before booting it into touch for an awareness campaign sponsored by the Catalan Department of Health. Nice work. It was no great surprise that he made a full recovery and once again led from the front, with his charity work and his further involvement in football.
So, for me, it was an even bigger blow when it was announced last year that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Was it somehow his own fault? Did he ‘deserve’ cancer? Not one bit. No one ‘deserves’ ill health. He began smoking as a schoolboy, influenced by images in films and television, and the vast advertising and marketing spend of an enormously powerful global tobacco industry. Just like every other person diagnosed with lung cancer, Johan Cruyff was unlucky. Nothing more, nothing less. Want someone to blame? Look to the tobacco industry, look to the environmental pollution we have all helped foster. Look at how little we still spend on research into lung cancer. It’s a disgrace.
However his disease came about, Johan Cruyff faced the match of his life. Of course, he gave it his all, and I was delighted to hear him declare that his treatment appeared to be going well. In February, he told journalists: “The results have been very positive. Right now, I have the feeling that I am 2-0 up in the first half of a match that has not finished yet. But I am sure I will end up winning." I hoped he would be right. I had hoped he would carry on to beat this awful disease. In fact, I hoped he could thrash the damn thing 5-0.
As we know now, that wasn’t to be. Johan Cruyff was special. Always cool, always sharp, always stylish. He will always be a hero to me. He leaves us with terrific memories of a great man – on and off the field. Thank you maestro. Thank you and goodnight.
Simon Malia is Media Manager with the Marketing team at Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation. He started writing this article before news of Johan Cruyff’s passing had been announced.