Today, Laureus remembers the great Johan Cruyff

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March 24, 2017

Laureus football legends Bobby Charlton, Marcel Desailly and Ruud Gullit have paid heartfelt tributes to Johan Cruyff, who died a year ago today. 

Cruyff was the genius behind Total Football. A colossus of the game, he dominated European and world football in the 1970s and was seen by many as the natural successor to Pele. 

Laureus Academy Member Bobby Charlton said: “I was proud to have known Johan. He was one of those great, great footballers that made you excited whenever he got the ball and began to play. There was always expectation in the crowd when Johan was on the pitch.  There wasn’t a negative thought in his head. He loved the game, he loved sport and he loved life. 

“He was one of the greatest footballers I have ever seen, you would put him in the same class as Pele, Di Stefano and Maradona.  The kind of football he played changed the game and still has an impact today.”

And France World Cup winner and Laureus Academy Member Marcel Desailly added: “The word ‘great’ is often overused, but not when you talk about Johan Cruyff.  When I and my friends were young footballers growing up and looking at how we wanted to play the game, you would always look at him and say – he’s the best.

“The Total Football that he played with Ajax, Barcelona and Holland was revolutionary and excited a generation of players and fans. As a coach with Barcelona, he laid the foundations for the greatness of that club today.”

Laureus Academy Member Ruud Gullit, one of Holland’s greatest footballers, said: “I want to thank Johan for being an inspiration and putting Holland on the map.  He made me the football player that I became. Thank you, Johan, for everything that you did for Holland and for me. As a player he was 20 years ahead in the things he did.  I want to thank him for making me a Total Football player.”

In an era of cautious tactics, Cruyff’s Holland broke the mould. Later, as coach at FC Barcelona in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, his vision and energy laid the foundations that were to make the club pre-eminent in world football. In 2006 he was presented with the Laureus Lifetime Achievement Award and last year, shortly after his passing, he was presented with the Laureus Spirit of Sport Award.

“It was typical of the man that when he retired from football he decided to create the Johan Cruyff Foundation to help underprivileged children. We pass our sympathy on to his family and to all the millions of football fans around the world who will feel a sense of loss. We are at least left with so many great memories of what he achieved.”

In total in his career, Cruyff played in three winning European Cup teams with Ajax and was three times European Footballer of the Year.  At its peak, the Holland side, of which he was captain, was the most exciting and talented team in international football, with its Total Football winning admirers around the world. In 1973 Cruyff left Ajax and took Total Football to FC Barcelona. When he arrived, Barcelona were struggling, but the effect of his influence was extraordinary and they finished as Spanish Champions.  

When his playing career was over, he became coach of Ajax and continued to develop his Total Football philosophy, eventually returning to Barcelona in 1988 where he brought them the greatest club prize of all, the European Cup. However Cruyff brought much more to Barcelona than trophies. 

Thanks to his vision, he laid down many of the guiding principles that revolutionized Barcelona and created a structure and a style of play that permeated the club, from the youth teams at La Masia, the Barcelona nursery, through the A-team and into the senior sides. This allowed players to move from one team to another and to provide a constant flow of outstanding junior players who continually revitalize the first team. 

By 1994 Barcelona had won four successive Spanish Championships under Cruyff, but the strain was beginning to tell. He had undergone surgery after suffering a heart attack and in 1996 he left Barcelona. But his legacy lives on, and was further built upon by managers such as Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique. In 1999, Cruyff was named European Footballer of the Century.

In recent years, Cruyff has spent considerable time helping to develop sports-based projects for underprivileged children around the world.  Cruyff sees many similarities between sport and society as a whole.  In 1997 he founded the Johan Cruyff Foundation.  Projects funded by the Foundation must have as a primary objective the enhancement of the mental and physical well-being of children by means of sports, physical exercise, games and recreational activities.  Preference is given to projects for underprivileged and handicapped children.