Dutch soccer great Johan Cruyff, who revolutionized the game with the concept of “Total Football,” died Thursday in Barcelona of lung cancer, Joaquin Munoz of the Cruyff Foundation in the Spanish city said. He was 68.
Obsessed by football to the end and ever the positive thinker, Mr. Cruyff said only last month that his recovery was going well.
“I have the feeling that I am 2-0 up in the first half,” he said. “The game is not over yet. Still, I know that in the end, I will win.”
Mr. Cruyff won European championships three times with Ajax, the great Dutch club, as a player and once with the renowned FC Barcelona as a coach. He was European player of the year three times and in 1999 was named Europe’s best player of the 20th century.
Though a World Cup title eluded him, he was the pivotal figure on The Netherlands’ 1974 national team that electrified the sport with its tactics, with players constantly interchanging roles. The strategy influenced the game worldwide, bringing fresh life to a sport that had become stuck in a defensive mindset.
He reached his sporting peak in the early 1970s and went on to successfully manage Barcelona. His talent was such that he is comfortably placed alongside Pele, Diego Maradona, Franz Beckenbauer and Lionel Messi as the best footballers of all time.
“Another legend has left us today,” said Messi, the Argentina and Barcelona forward.
The Netherlands-France friendly match on Friday in Amsterdam will be halted in the 14th minute for a minute’s silence in honor of Mr. Cruyff, who made the No. 14 shirt his own during his glittering career with The Netherlands’ national team.
Mr. Cruyff smoked cigarettes most of his life — even as a player. He finally quit after undergoing an emergency heart-bypass operation in 1991. After more heart trouble in 1997, he vowed never to coach again, though he remained a vocal football critic and analyst.
Mr. Cruyff’s wiry frame housed surprising athletic talent, unpredictable bursts of speed and agility and precise ball-control that allowed him to trick opponents, ghosting around them with ease. His genius lay in his eyes and mind, in his instinctive feel for how a move would develop.
His could pass the ball with uncanny accuracy and wind up time and again at the right spot at the climax of an attack.
“Speed and insight are often confused,” he once said. “When I start running before everybody else, I appear faster.”
He scored 392 times in 520 games over a 19-year playing career.
But his influence reached far beyond creating goals, thanks to his qualities as a leader, thinker and speaker. With a brash Amsterdam accent, he put across his views about soccer and everything surrounding the game with irresistible force.
His commentary became oft-quoted classics. Like: “Every disadvantage has its advantage.” And: “You can’t win without the ball.”
As a coach, he had 242 victories in 387 matches, with 75 draws and 70 losses.
Mr. Cruyff was heavily involved in tactics from the start of his career. Along with Rinus Michels, who was his manager at Ajax and Barcelona, he helped develop Total Football.
Under the strategy, players pass the ball frequently to seek advantage and switch positions seamlessly to adjust to the flow of play. Latin American admirers referred to the orange-clad Dutch national team as “The Clockwork Orange.”
Mr. Cruyff was the personification of a total footballer, playing deep or shallow as the moment required, as deadly from the wings as from his assigned position in the center. He was among the first to see defenders as part of the attack.
With Mr. Cruyff on the field, Ajax won the European Championship for three consecutive years, from 1971 to 1973, before he moved to FC Barcelona midseason in 1973 and led the middle-of-the-table team to its first national title in a decade.
That season was crowned with a 5-0 away win at Barcelona’s arch-rival Real Madrid so sweet that the Catalans still sometimes refer to Mr. Cruyff as “El Salvador,” the savior.
The transfer fee — 922,300 British pounds — that was paid by Barcelona was a world record and a milestone in the commercialization of sport. He was also one of the first soccer players to take on corporate sponsorships.
British sports writer Dave Miller, who once called Mr. Cruyff “Pythagorus in boots” for his ability to calculate the geometry of players in motion, wrote that “few have been able to exact, both physically and mentally, such mesmeric control on a match from one penalty area to another.”
Many fans who watched Mr. Cruyff play as children can still replicate some of his moves, including the “Cruyff turn” — a technique he used for passing defenders by faking toward them, then flicking the ball behind his own other leg in the opposite direction and darting after it. It’s still one of the basic moves taught to soccer-playing kids around the world.
Mr. Cruyff’s oracular pronouncements on the game skirted the line between Zen profundity and nonsense. One time, criticizing overly defensive play, he said: “Italians can’t beat you, though you can lose to them.”
Other much quoted lines were: “You can’t score if you don’t shoot,” and “Before I make a mistake, I don’t make it.”
Mr. Cruyff launched a tradition of great strikers coming out of the Netherlands that included Marco Van Basten, Patrick Kluivert, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Dennis Bergkamp. Yet defenders like Dutch national team player Ronald Koeman were just as much inspired by him.
“He meant almost everything to me,” Koeman said.
Mr. Cruyff is survived by his wife Danny, daughters Chantal and Susila and son Jordi Cruyff, who also played soccer professionally.
Tributes following the death of Johan Cruyff
Among the tributes to Dutch soccer great Johan Cruyff after his death Thursday:
“With his intelligent play, superb technique and leadership, he quickly became an icon for Barca” — FC Barcelona website tribute to its former player and manager.
“He was not only a very good friend; he was like a brother to me” — former West Germany and Bayern Munich player Franz Beckenbauer.
“It’s a very sad day for everyone, not just for the Barca family, but for all of world football” — current Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta.
“True football royalty. I don’t think anyone has ever influenced the game as much as he has done. We have all been touched and inspired by his vision and his beliefs. Football will miss him but we will never forget” — Belgium and Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany.
“You were too great to ever be forgotten” — former Netherlands and Barcelona striker Patrick Kluivert.
“We lost one of the best ever in world football. Johan Cruyff was simply an amazing player, coach, teacher and human” — former Bayern Munich and Germany player/manager Jurgen Klinsmann, now the U.S. men’s national team’s manager.
“He was one of those great, great footballers that made you excited whenever he got the ball and began to play” — former Manchester United and England midfielder Bobby Charlton.
“One of the greatest players the world has ever known. A symbol of elegant play. An inspiration. A source of admiration for fans. He has marked football history forever” — FIFA president Gianni Infantino.