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The Exhilarating, Confounding Genius of Johan Cruyff

Even though he never won a World Cup, Cruyff introduced a playing style that said more, and spoke to people more directly, than soccer ever had before

Daniel Zalkus

The Ringer’s 22 Goals: The Story of the World Cup, a podcast by Brian Phillips, tells the story of some of the most iconic goals and players in the history of the men’s FIFA World Cup. Every Wednesday, until the end of Qatar 2022, we’ll publish an adapted version of each 22 Goals episode. Today’s story involves Johan Cruyff and the greatest team to not win a World Cup.

1. Can Bob Dylan Drive? An Inquiry

OK, before we get started today, I have an announcement. I have an urgent announcement.

Do you already know what I’m about to say? Can you guess? I bet you have a pretty good idea of where this is going. Let’s see if you’re right.

So. Here’s the announcement. It has come to my attention that Bob Dylan starred in a Cadillac commercial in 2007.

I know. Huge news, right? At least it’s huge news to me. And I’ll tell you why.

For some time now, I have been preoccupied—haunted, really—by one question. That question is: Does Bob Dylan know how to drive?

Do you believe, in your heart, that Bob Dylan—legendary singer-songwriter, American musical icon, Nobel Prize winner; why am I ID’ing Bob Dylan; you know who Bob Dylan is—do you believe in your heart that Bob Dylan possesses a working knowledge of how to operate an automobile?

Don’t answer right away. Think about it for a minute.

In the Cadillac commercial, we see Dylan sitting behind the wheel of a black Cadillac Escalade, the SUV, as it zooms down the highway in a bleak, washed-out-looking version of the American Southwest.

Dylan is wearing a little black cowboy hat and aviator sunglasses. He hasn’t shaved in a few days. We see his craggy face in profile as he looks out at the long, narrow road and the desert.

We’ve got plumes of dust blowing in the wind. We’ve got barbed-wire fences. We’ve got rusted-out freight trains. We’ve got power lines. We’ve got hawks turning their heads quickly to one side as if they’re in awe at the sheer power of Dylan’s premium sport utility vehicle.

We do not actually have tumbleweeds, but it feels like we’re about to have a tumbleweed. We’re in a tumbleweed-proximate space.

We’ve got a moment where Dylan gets out of the Escalade at, like, a crossroads-type locale and stands there with the wind whipping his black Western sport coat and says the Cadillac slogan in a super Bob Dylan–y voice. I guess this is the Cadillac slogan? I have no memory of this from 2007.

He goes, “What’s life without the occasional detour?”

Also the philosophy of this series. However, the commercial does nothing to clear up my longstanding confusion over the question of whether Bob Dylan can drive.

Can he drive? I don’t know. If you took a road trip with Bob Dylan right now, if you were like, “Hey, let’s hop in the old Caddy and revisit Highway 61,” are you gonna split this thing up in shifts, or are you doing all the driving yourself? That’s what I want to know.

In the commercial, he’s holding the steering wheel. He’s doing driver-ish things. But there’s something off about it.

For one thing, he’s wearing perforated black leather driving gloves. Nothing screams “I do not know how to drive a car” more loudly than wearing perforated leather driving gloves.

But it’s more than just the gloves. I assume people in car commercials aren’t really driving in those commercials, usually. But they project a basic air of familiarity with the context of driving. It seems like they’ve done it before. Not so much in the Bob Dylan commercial. There’s a real sort of ginger strangeness to the way he interacts with the vehicle. It’s like watching someone have a conversation with a moose. Realities are just not quite lining up.

This question of whether Bob Dylan can drive is a longstanding interest of mine. A hobby, you might say. I find it compelling because it’s one of those questions where, on the surface, both answers feel correct.

Like, obviously Bob Dylan must know how to drive a car … and obviously there’s no way Bob Dylan knows how to drive a car. It’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t have the basic skill set necessary to pilot an automobile, and it’s hard to imagine him parallel parking.

Where would he drive, if he did drive somewhere? Do counterculture icons go to the grocery store? He’d have to drive on, like, Uncanny Route 9 through the Uncanny Valley en route to the forgotten city of Uncannysburgh. Which probably doesn’t exist.

“We drove that car as far as we could,” he sang in “Tangled Up in Blue,” “abandoned it out west.” Does that mean we drove it like three blocks, crashed it into a fire hydrant, and abandoned it three blocks to the west of where we started?

Just a fascinating question. I can’t accept that he doesn’t know, and I can’t accept that he does know.

Sometimes you take a look at a person. Sometimes you are confronted with a conundrum. And yes and no seem to be true at the same time.

2. Yes and No

OK. Urgent announcement concluded. I can drive a car. I once bought an old Corvette on a whim from a friend of my dad because I was moving to L.A. and I thought it would make me seem like Joan Didion. And I’m happy to report that it did make me seem like Joan Didion.

It 100 percent worked.

We are not here today to talk about Bob Dylan, if you can believe it. But we are here to talk about another star of the 1960s and ’70s. Another counterculture icon who sometimes had to go to the grocery store.

We’re here to talk about Johan Cruyff. One of the greatest and most exhilarating soccer players ever. Also one of the most completely confounding soccer players ever.

A player for whom yes and no almost always seem to be true at the same time.

Johan Cruyff. Weird, willowy, arrogant Johan Cruyff. Born in Amsterdam in 1947. Died in Barcelona in 2016. A player who was not born with really elite athletic talent. Not the quickest, not the strongest, not the highest jumper, not someone you’d pick out on a practice field as an obvious star.

But because he was brilliant, because he was strong-willed, and because he was blessed and cursed with one of the most creative and tirelessly calculating minds in the history of organized sports, he found a way to turn his limitations into a whole new way of playing soccer. If you can’t excel within the game, reinvent the game. Transform the game into a game you’re the best at.

Cruyff did that, and he did it in a way that lifted him onto a tier with Pelé and Maradona, and that brought a thousand contradictions to life.

He knew how to drive, too. Johan Cruyff may be the most intriguing puzzle of a person we talk about in this whole series. He may be the most influential person. He may be the most annoying person. It’s a rich tapestry.

We are going back to 1974. To a world of simple cotton kits. To a world of floppy haircuts. To a world of impossibly thin, slow, and balletic players looking cool as hell on grainy color TVs. This is not a soccer essay, this is an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in the world’s orangest shirt.

Let’s hit the gas.

3. The Concrete Village

Hendrik Johannes Cruyff. Born 1947. Grew up in a part of Amsterdam that was nicknamed the Concrete Village. A working-class neighborhood. This is right after the end of the Second World War. After the German occupation of the Netherlands. The country’s trying to pick itself up.

It’s also a very conservative era for Dutch culture. You’re expected to dress a certain way. Act a certain way. Be more or less like everybody else.

Little Johan’s parents owned a grocery shop. The grocery was located just a stone’s throw from the soccer stadium belonging to Ajax, the most storied soccer club in the country. In the Netherlands, Ajax is the Yankees, the Lakers, and the Celtics rolled into one, with a little Patriots mixed in for good measure.

Johan’s dad was a passionate Ajax fan. Went to every game. He regaled Johan with stories about players like Alfredo di Stéfano, the Real Madrid star, and the famous Dutch dribbler Faas Wilkes.

Johan didn’t have much of a chance to watch these players. His family didn’t have a TV. So instead he imagined them. He imagined how they moved, how they used space, how they outsmarted their defenders. He learned to play with those pictures in his head.

All the kids in the Concrete Village played soccer all the time. They played in the street. In his autobiography, Johan says that it was in those games that he learned how to turn problems into opportunities. He used to say, “Every disadvantage has its advantage.” So when you’re playing in the street, you can look at the curb as an obstacle. Or you can look at it as a teammate, and use it to pass the ball to yourself in a little 1-2.

Cruyff says he learned balance because—surprisingly for a neighborhood called the Concrete Village—this was not a nice place to fall down.

So. Is it a problem or is it an opportunity? Is it a weakness or is it a strength?

It’s both. Yes and no are true at the same time.

Yes and no. In his memoir, Cruyff treats the question of where his talent for soccer came from as this big unexplainable mystery. He’s like, My mom wasn’t good at sports, my dad wasn’t good at sports, I’m just one of a kind, I guess. And then he casually lets slip that he had an uncle who played professional soccer for Ajax. But then he’s like, But that can’t explain my talent, because Ajax wasn’t an elite club until I got there, basically. Who can say—who can know from whence my gift derives?

And so again: He’s a self-created hero with no identifiable lineage, and he’s a dynastic descendent of professional athletes. Those answers are incompatible. Those answers are both true.

Cruyff’s father, the grocer, was called Manus. Manus had a glass eye. He used to go up to people and bet them five cents that he could stare into the sun longer than they could. He’d cover up his good eye. Bam. Easy money.

Cruyff says he got his cunning, if not his athletic talent, from his father. Because, he says, “I’m definitely cunning.”

The family wasn’t religious, but they sent Johan to a Christian school. Dad, he said one day, why do I have to go to the school that makes me bring a Bible in my bag?

And his dad said, Because they have good stories there. I want you to go to the school with the best stories.

Manus Cruyff had a friend called Henk Angel, who worked as a groundsman at Ajax. Took care of the pitch and the stadium. The Cruyffs and Henk were really close. Johan called him Uncle Henk. So through Uncle Henk, Johan, from the time he was about 5, was able to spend a lot of time just kind of hanging around the Ajax stadium.

He started doing odd jobs for the team. He’d run errands. He’d bring baskets of fruit from his dad’s grocery to injured players. The grounds staff would give him a little pitchfork and tell him to aerate the grass around the goal just before the opening whistle at home games. This was his first experience of appearing before a large soccer crowd.

He used to carry his football boots with him everywhere he went, because you never knew when you might get a chance to kick the ball around with the team. And the Ajax players did let him play with them. Mostly because they felt sorry for him, because he was so scrawny. He says he looked like a shrimp.

Looking too small and frail for soccer means you get to train with professional soccer players. A weakness is now a strength.

The turning point of young Johan’s life: When he was 12, his dad died. Heart attack. Forty-five years old. Devastating. Manus was buried in a cemetery basically adjacent to the Ajax stadium. This is the old Ajax stadium, by the way—they moved it to a different part of town in the ’90s. So if you go to Amsterdam, you can’t really retrace Johan’s footsteps. But for years, when Johan would make his way to the Ajax ground, he’d talk to Manus as he passed by the graveyard.

One day—this is another story he tells in his book—he said, Dad, if you can hear me, stop my watch to show me you’re listening.

The next morning, his watch had stopped. He took it to a watchmaker. They couldn’t find anything wrong with it. They got it ticking again. Next morning, same thing. Watch stopped for no reason. Johan told his dad, OK, you’ve convinced me, and his watch never stopped again.

I don’t know if any of that is true. But I know who went to school at a place where they tell good stories.

After Manus died, Johan’s mom started working as a cleaner at the stadium. After a while, she remarried. She married Uncle Henk! Now Johan’s mom and stepdad both work for Ajax. Johan himself was in the Ajax youth program. And the team sort of adopted him, I think?

Ajax became his school, his after-school job, his church, and his extracurricular activity.

4. Raised by Wolves

He had lots of relatives, lots of aunts and uncles, but it was really Ajax that became his family. Ajax players looked out for him. An Ajax player taught him to drive. Did Bob Dylan know any Ajax players?

Later on, when he started dating, it wasn’t his mom and stepdad whose curfew he had to worry about. It was the manager of Ajax. The manager would check to make sure his car was parked outside his house before midnight. And Cruyff would figure out ways of tricking him.

Keep this in mind, because I think it’s one of the keys to understanding Johan Cruyff. It’s one of the things that makes him different from other soccer stars. You hear a lot about stars who, you know, maybe come from rough backgrounds, or who dreamed of being soccer players their whole lives. And for players like that, their favorite club was this near-impossible goal. It was the shining thing on the horizon. It was what they worked toward, what they aspired to reach.

Cruyff’s story is not like that. He was in the club from the beginning.

When we talk about Cruyff, we are talking about a boy who was essentially raised by a soccer club.

Some heroes are raised by wolves. Some heroes are raised by Wolverhampton Wanderers. Thanks to your dad, by the way, for texting me that joke. He says hi.

This distinction matters, I think, because—well. Think about how you behave when you’re a guest in someone else’s house and compare it to how you behave in your own house.

When you’re in someone else’s house, you’re on your best behavior. You follow the rules. You try to please your host. You fundamentally feel that you might not belong where you are, and you want to prove that you can.

When you’re in your own house, though? You know you belong. You’re not trying to prove anything. You’re just looking to take your shoes off, pour a tall glass of red wine, and put on your favorite World Cup history podcast, perhaps in a bubble-bath-type environment.

Thank you for that, by the way. We appreciate your loyalty. Though I will ask you to add some more bubbles—good grief, Oliver.

Cruyff is in his own house when he’s at Ajax. So he’s a scrawny kid, but he doesn’t really do anything to get bigger or stronger, because that would be work, and doing work at home is boring. He doesn’t especially like exercise. Hates running for the sake of running, for instance. So he’s constantly inventing ways to get out of cross-country drills, and really any cardio whatsoever. He doesn’t skip them, he just tricks the coaches into thinking he’s done more than he has.

As he said: “I’m definitely cunning.”

He says in his autobiography that he wants to enjoy soccer, not work at it.

He takes up smoking—classic move for a rebellious teen trying to shock their parents. Only Cruyff’s parents are a soccer club. Makes for an awkward Thanksgiving. He smokes heavily for most of his playing career.

That’s not how you succeed as a soccer player! But when you belong somewhere, you also feel free to experiment. You feel self-assured. And you take in the mindset of the place, the knowledge of the place, and the values of the place whether you intend to or not.

There is a question hanging over this essay like a cloud of cigarette smoke over an unplugged treadmill.

The question is, What makes a great athlete? What qualities are we looking for in a superstar?

Is it a feeling? Is it a set of numbers? How do we decide that a player is one of the best we’ve ever seen?

Is it pure talent? See: Ronaldo.

Is it a cultural significance that transcends the game? See: Zinedine Zidane.

Or maybe we’re looking for the ability to sow panic and chaos on the soccer pitch? See: Diego Maradona—though he also sowed panic in airports, and in, like, pet stores, and on waterslides, and at any sort of outdoor frozen-yogurt type of scenario. And basically everywhere else.

Is that what we’re looking for? Or are we looking for something else?

5. A Brief, and Entirely Tulip-Free, Discussion of Dutch Culture

OK. I’ve been looking into this Bob Dylan driving situation, and I have a couple of updates.

First of all, yes, Bob Dylan did, famously, drive a motorcycle in the ’60s in upstate New York. I’m sure many of you, if you’re up on your Bob Dylan lore, thought of that right away. I don’t consider it valid evidence.

Why? Because it’s equally well known that he crashed that motorcycle. Inconclusive data!

Second, I had better tell you that the answer to this question—can Bob Dylan drive?—can be found. The answer is Googleable. But I’m going to ask you, for the moment, not to Google it. Let’s dwell in possibility.

Third, I should acknowledge that the point of that Cadillac commercial was never to serve as forensic evidence in my mystery podcast, Only Questions About Whether or Not Bob Dylan Can Drive in the Building. The point is to establish Cadillac as a symbol of individualism. Of rebellion. Of rock ’n’ roll.

Great … work on that.

And this is relevant to us because the tensions surrounding individualism, rebellion, and rock ’n’ roll are also at the heart of Johan Cruyff’s story.

So we gotta talk about Dutch culture for a second. I’m going to make this quick. I’m also going to deal in sweeping generalizations. Which I acknowledge is not ideal. But if I say the words “tulip bubble” in this essay, the CEO of Spotify is going to come to my house. So we’ve got to be efficient.

The best book about the influence the culture of the Netherlands has had on the evolution of Dutch soccer was written by a soccer journalist called David Winner. Good name for a soccer journalist. I’d call myself Brian Winner, but I assume it’s implied. Anyway, the book is Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer. Really good book. Check it out.

So broad strokes here. Dutch culture at around this time, in the early 1960s, is in a period of profound transformation. When we think of Dutch culture, broad strokes, we tend to think of toleration, marijuana bars in Amsterdam, egalitarianism—we think of a culture full of dissent and debate and a sort of prickly democratic spirit.

But through the end of the 1950s, the country is still in the state of postwar conservatism into which Cruyff was born. Social divisions based on religion. Women not welcome in the workforce. That kind of thing.

It’s seen as backward even by many people who live there. In Brilliant Orange, a Dutch political commentator tells David Winner, “We were the most backward country in all of Europe, except for Ireland.”

Sorry, Ireland.

Then, on January 1, 1960, someone in Amsterdam turns on a radio, and a pop song plays, and rainbows literally pour out of the speakers and squiggle through the streets. And within about 18 months, the city is full of avant-garde art movements, and political protest, and surprising hair, and everyone is interested in shaking up the old conservative order and finding totally new ways of doing things.

It’s the classic ’60s liberation free-love narrative, but with a lot more rain and canals. Why shouldn’t free love coexist with a canal-based shipping economy? They seem like opposites. Footnote one, see colonialism.

Anyway, the point is that Dutch society is throwing off the past and reinventing itself. And at Ajax, we have a skinny teen called Johan Cruyff, who is also looking at the old ways and thinking it would be nice if the old ways didn’t require so many wind sprints.

6. My G-G-G-Generation

It is just hard to imagine what anyone made of Johan Cruyff at this early point in his career. Not a promising player, in so many ways. But he has two things going for him.

First, he possesses a legitimately arresting grace. He may not be big or strong or especially fast, but he has an ethereal sense of balance. He moves like a dancer, and with the ball at his feet, he does things that make you go, “Wait, is soccer art? Is this kid an artist?”

The writer Hubert Smeets actually says, “Johan Cruyff was the first player who understood he was an artist.”

That’s starting to come through. He doesn’t want to do hard work for the sake of hard work. But to create something unique and beautiful?

Second, he has this brain for soccer.

The American president James A. Garfield—you know, the guy who was assassinated four months after taking office in 1881—reportedly could write in Latin with his right hand and in Greek with his left hand, simultaneously. Cool party trick, if you like that sort of party. The Dutch writer Auke Kok, who wrote a great book about Cruyff, called Always on the Attack, describes watching Cruyff post-retirement in a TV studio. He’s doing halftime commentary. And he’s watching four games at once. He’s carrying on multiple conversations about these games with people in the room. He has a perfect understanding of what’s happening in each one of them, what each team is doing well, which players are doing badly. He steps out into the hall to shoot a commercial at one point. Takes no notes during any of this, and then goes on TV and proceeds to break down the games in fine detail.

Some people just have rare mental gifts. I have a gift of knowing how to buy cars that drive home my essential similarity to iconic American essayists. Johan Cruyff has this otherworldly sense of space and time and movement. In the early 1960s, that, too, is starting to come through.

He makes his first start in 1964, at the age of 17, against GVAV, the club that’s now FC Groningen. He becomes a regular. In the winter of 1965, he scores eight goals in seven games. In March 1966, he scores seven goals in two games. He has a gift for slipping by people, but more than anything he has a Dennis Rodman–like talent for turning up in the right place before anyone else realizes it’s the right place. People who watch him play feel that there’s something fascinating and mysterious about this kid.

Ajax wins the title in 1966, and Johan Cruyff, at the age of 19, becomes essentially the first Dutch rock star. He is the spirit of the ’60s. He’s iconoclastic. He’s romantic. He’s got long-ish hair. He plays by his own rules, man.

A Dutch youth soccer coach whom David Winner interviews for his book says, “Cruyff was a kind of model for us, like John Lennon maybe was in England. He talked with a logic our whole generation had.”

Cruyff and Ajax start beating up top European sides. Soon the whole continent is paying attention, even if not everyone knows how to pronounce their names.

Ajax hires a coach named Rinus Michels. Remember this moment, because in soccer history, this is a big one. This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Rinus Michels. Former Ajax striker himself. Picture a large, bluff, stern-faced man in a sober suit. His nicknames include the General, the Bull, and the Sphinx. A tactical genius. Also just a master of pushing people’s buttons, psychologically manipulating his players, and wringing maximum performance out of frail and vulnerable humanity. He used to do stuff like provoke fights in the locker room on purpose to get the team to play with more spirit.

Michels wants Ajax to play in a new way. He and Cruyff are a match made in guys-who-make-you-cry-just-to-prove-they-can heaven. It’s hard to say where Cruyff’s innovations stop and Michel’s start. But between the two of them, they work out this new style. Later on, people start calling it Total Football, but that name isn’t invented until the ’70s.

The idea is roughly: Instead of a rigid tactical scheme where everyone has a clearly defined role, what if everyone on the pitch did everything on the pitch? What if attackers could defend? What if defenders could attack? What if, instead of laboriously working the ball forward through an inflexible system, you could take advantage of open space anywhere it appeared, and the whole team would instantly reconfigure itself?

Wouldn’t that be amazing for a player who was never the most physically gifted guy on the pitch, but who had a brain capable of playing in five games at the same time?

Yes. Totally. Soccer commentators all around Europe found themselves struggling to explain Ajax’s new-look game, and still struggling to pronounce the name of their marquee star. There are some pretty rough clips from the ’60s where English commentators get into a wrestling match with his name and lose badly. Craufffayeh. It’s not pretty.

But this new style of play, this nascent Total Football, this fast-paced, free-flowing, creative, revolutionary approach to the game, seems to capture the imagination of the whole Netherlands. It captures imaginations in part because it seems to reflect the social changes that are sweeping through the country in the ’60s.

In that sense, Cruyff actually could be considered an artist. He’s doing something that gives a whole country, a whole culture—maybe a whole era—a new way to see itself.

7. Cruyff As a Comedian

What makes a great athlete? I have a weird notion about this question bouncing around in my head. It’s not exactly an answer, because I don’t exactly understand what it means. But I’ve noticed that when I watch great athletes, I laugh a lot more than I would expect.

I crack up a lot. I giggle, even, at times?

I don’t know if you’ve experienced this. It feels a little odd to say it, because—well, sports is supposed to be this very dramatic enterprise. Very serious. Or at least as serious as something can be in which adults in shiny uniforms are vying for the honor of a team called Go Ahead Eagles.

That’s a real Dutch team, by the way. They write it in English. Go Ahead Eagles. It sounds like the Philadelphia offensive line just collectively asked if they could use your phone, and you’re like, Go ahead, Eagles.

But we talk about sports as if it were war, a lot of the time. As if it were life and death. A lot of eviscerated hippopotami, to revert to a concept from earlier in the series. But for me—and maybe you’re the same way?—when I see someone who’s obviously an all-time great athlete, it just tickles me to no end.

I mean when I watch Katie Ledecky lap the entire field. Or when I watch Steph Curry sink an off-balance jump shot from half court. More often than not, what I find myself doing is laughing with sheer surprise and delight.

You could express this in Bob Dylan terms, I think. Bob Dylan, who—with all respect to Johan Cruyff—I personally consider the John Lennon of his generation? Obviously Dylan is a great songwriter. But most of his best songs are really funny! The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken. Sure, the poetry rewires your brain and makes you see the world in a new way. But a lot of the time that poetry comes to you through a barrage of pretty excellent quips.

You’ve read through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books. The pumps don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles!

Even the really moving lines are often couched in extreme contrasts that are extremely funny if you look at them the right way. The fish truck that loads while my conscience explodes. Devastating, but also this close to being a joke?

The hard thing about describing Johan Cruyff’s game, about telling you what it’s like to watch him play, is capturing that sense of runaway giddiness juxtaposed with something utterly lovely and moving.

Describing Cruyff in terms of typical sports qualities doesn’t get across at all what it’s actually like to watch him. I can say, on the pitch at Ajax, he acts as a second coach out there. I can say he often alters the team’s tactics without consulting the bench first. I can say he’s a merciless scorer who seems to be manipulating space-time in order to break down defenses. I can even say he’s pale and flowy and poetic, and he’s doing it all between cigarette breaks.

But listen to a Dutch commentator commentating about him.

Listen to the surprise and pleasure. Picture the sheer lightness of his game. The comedy of it.

If you’ve watched a lot of 1950s and ’60s soccer—which I love doing, though it does sometimes look as if the players are playing in wet cement—imagine watching that, then switching over to a bit of Total Football, and seeing the ball pinging around on the pitch like it’s being passed around by 11 pinball paddles, and watching the team’s formation dissolving and reconfiguring itself on the fly. There’s a feeling of helpless exhilaration to it. It’s the shock of seeing a new possibility.

If the comic paradox of modern Dutch culture is that it’s so egalitarian that it becomes fiercely individualistic by accident—that is, it treats everyone as equal, which means everyone ends up stubbornly doing their own thing—then Cruyff and Total Football are the great embodiment of that paradox.

Because Total Football is not about how Cruyff plays, it’s about how everyone plays. But the way everyone plays revolves around how Cruyff plays, always. It’s egalitarian, but it’s also wildly individualistic and romantic. It’s everyone, but it’s him.

It’s yes and it’s no. And it’s beautifully funny.

And all these things are true at the same time.

8. My Turn

Ajax wins a bunch of titles. Six in eight years from 1966 to 1973. The Netherlands, at this time, has historically been a minor soccer country, not a real rival of the big European powers. Under Cruyff, they win three straight European Cups. 1971, 1972, and 1973. That’s pretty good. They’re playing a game so much more advanced than everyone else, and Cruyff is operating on a plane so far beyond everyone else, that they’re basically playing a different sport.

Johan Cruyff, the scrawny kid who grew up bringing fruit baskets to injured players from his dad’s grocery, wins the Ballon d’Or three times. 1971, ’73, and ’74. Also pretty good. Michels leaves to become the manager of FC Barcelona in ’71 and Cruyff is … not the manager of Ajax, officially. But he’s kind of the manager of Ajax.

And here we run into a problem, because the cultural contradiction that Ajax embodies—an egalitarian democracy that revolves around one brilliant star—is starting to rub some players the wrong way.

Cruyff’s autobiography, by the way, is called My Turn. It’s a good book. I recommend it. But … the title. If you really want a glimpse of Cruyff’s personality, look at that title.

My Turn. It’s really doing a lot of work.

Calling a book My Turn suggests the existence of an earlier time when it was not your turn. A harder time, a more challenging time, to which this current book is meant to act as a corrective.

Nancy Reagan called her memoir My Turn.

I think one of the main themes of Johan Cruyff’s life was that it was really never not his turn. It was his turn way before he wrote a book called My Turn. His whole deal was that it was his turn. He was raised by a soccer club.

You know how there’s always someone at a family gathering who makes someone else cry when you play Trivial Pursuit, because they know all the answers, and they’re hyper-competitive about board games, and they’re just intense, and they never help with the dishes?

Let’s say it’s your cousin Jeremy. Not a bad guy. Not really. Just a little much?

Now imagine Jeremy writing a book called My Turn. Give Jeremy a haunted wristwatch and a pack of Marlboros and say hello to the essence of Johan Cruyff.

It can get a little abrasive.

Before the 1973-74 season, there’s a mini-coup at Ajax, and the other players vote to strip the team captaincy from Cruyff and give it to Piet Keizer. Piet Keizer, a magnificent player. But come on. Cruyff is incensed. He immediately engineers a transfer to join Michels in Barcelona. Where he immediately leads FC Barcelona to its first La Liga title in 14 years.

And if you’re aware of Barcelona’s influence on the evolution of soccer tactics, if you’re interested in tiki-taka and its variants, if you enjoyed watching Messi and Xavi play under Pep Guardiola, or if you enjoyed watching the Spain team that beat the Netherlands in the 2010 Men’s World Cup final—this is the moment when all that starts. Total Football takes root in Spain. And European football, as they say, is never the—

—sorry, I can’t finish that sentence. I had an open fullback and had to pass him the period.

Cruyff at Barcelona. Uncompromising. Iconoclastic. Sometimes controversial.

In the Netherlands, you’re supposed to play for the national team for free, because it’s an honor. Cruyff demands payment. He says—I love this—”When my career ends, I cannot go to the baker and say, I’m Johan Cruyff, give me some bread.”

I’m sorry, but Cruyff 100 percent would have gone to the baker and said, “I’m Johan Cruyff, give me some bread.” Baked goods? It’s my turn!

Not the point. He also demands to play in a special shirt. He’s not going to wear the same shirt as all his teammates in the profoundly egalitarian system he’s devised and championed.

The Netherlands, with its famous orange shirts, is sponsored by Adidas. Cruyff is sponsored by Puma. He doesn’t want his sleeves to be sullied by the iconic three stripes that denote an Adidas shirt.

He demands a shirt with two stripes on the sleeves.

He gets his way. He gets his way because the Dutch national soccer team has never lost a match in which he scored. In his entire career, they never lose a match in which he scores.

Can you guess how many matches that is? Well, let’s see. He played 48 international matches. He scored 33 goals. But he scored multiple goals in a lot of those games. So how many games did he score in? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

It’s 22!

Twenty-two. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but that number is in the title of this series. Content loves an echo.

The Netherlands never loses when Cruyff scores. But his perceived aloofness, his “my turn” demand for special treatment, alienates some of his teammates.

Is it a strength? Is it a weakness? Is it an opportunity? Is it an obstacle? It’s everything all at once.

9. 1974

1974 World Cup. Johan Cruyff is arguably the biggest star in the game. Certainly the biggest star in Europe. The Netherlands is in an absolutely wild position. They are playing in their first World Cup in 36 years, having failed to qualify for a bunch of previous tournaments. They also might be the best team in the tournament.

Are they underdogs, or are they favorites? It’s yes and it’s no.

Rinus Michels is their coach. They’re playing Total Football.

Important question: Where is Total Football, at this point, in its evolution? Well, this is around the time that the term is coined. It starts as a Dutch term, appropriately enough, but since Dutch and English usually sound like they’re about one bad head cold from being the same language, it’s basically the same term: totaalvoetbal. Bless you.

Total Football at this point has risen to dominate the Eredivisie, the Dutch league, and because of Cruyff and Michels’s exploits in Barcelona, it’s put down roots in Spain.

But for the rest of the world, it’s still something new. And what’s at stake in the 1974 World Cup is therefore whether Total Football can prevail over all the other tactical systems. Will it influence other countries? Will Cruyff’s vision of a free-flowing game based on positional fluidity and spatial awareness be a short-lived fad, or will it take over the world?

Cruyff and the Oranje cruise through the group stage with wins over Uruguay and Bulgaria and a draw against Sweden.

The game against Sweden finishes scoreless, but it’s still one of the most notable games from this tournament. It’s notable because at one point in the match Cruyff pulled off this incredible feint against the Swedish right back, Jan Olsson.

Here’s how Cruyff describes the move:

In a forward motion, I drag the ball behind my supporting leg, turn my body away immediately and sprint toward the ball.

Oh, OK. Simple, right?

This is the birth of the Cruyff Turn, one of the most famous and loveliest moves in all of soccer. The Cruyff Turn … wait, is that why he called his book My Turn? Does that make it better or worse?

I’m gonna say worse, but in a way I appreciate, horribly.

The commentator can’t really describe the Cruyff Turn as it’s happening, because it lasts only about half a second, but the sheer astonishment of the moment comes through.

Cruyff said he’d never done the move in practice and never thought of it until that moment.

So OK. Let’s pretend that you are Swedish defender Jan Olsson.

You’re out on the side of the pitch, at the edge of your own penalty area. Your right side, the attacker’s left side. And you are marking Johan Cruyff. He’s got his back to you. He’s got the ball at his feet. You’re right up on him. Your chest is bumping up against his back. You’re close enough to whisper in his ear.

Now, what’s your job here? It’s the same as it’s been since your first day of youth soccer: stay between the person you’re defending and the goal.

So that’s what you do. You make yourself an impassable obstacle, so Cruyff can’t get by you, and he also can’t turn and cross the ball. And you do a pretty good job. It works. Cruyff seems to give up on the play. He turns to his left, almost hits you in the face with his elbow, and drags back his right leg to pass the ball to someone behind him.

Great. You want to pressure the pass, maybe steal the ball from him, so you slide a short distance to Cruyff’s right to keep pressure on the ball.

And then the ball disappears.

You’re looking down at where it’s supposed to be. It’s not there. There’s something happening here, and you don’t know what it is. It turns out that instead of kicking the ball backward after cocking his right leg, Cruyff has instead continued spinning around, so that he’s able to tap the ball forward with the inside of his right foot, and cut to his left.

He has spun around, he’s now facing the goal, and he’s left you two feet clear of him without seeming to move much at all.

The Cruyff Turn doesn’t lead to a goal. Who cares? It’s instantly legendary, and he made it up on the spot.

To quote Cruyff again, from My Turn, ha, “There are impulses that arise because your technical and tactical knowledge has become so great that your legs are able to respond immediately to what your head wants them to do.”

That’s what I said in 2020 when I finally got an Xbox to go in my shopping cart.

In 1974 we are deep in FIFA’s multiple-group-stage years.

FIFA absolutely loves to wreck a tournament by adding multiple group stages. It’s as if FIFA watched Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and went, “Two men enter, one man leaves. Hm. But what if instead, like, 16 men enter, and then about eight of them leave, but then the other eight enter a totally different Thunderdome, and four of them still get to leave …”

It’s the worst.

So Cruyff and the Oranje move on to the second group stage, where they’ll face East Germany, Argentina, and Brazil.

First match. Netherlands versus Argentina. Here we go.

This is not a must-win match, technically, but only one team from this group is making the World Cup final, and Brazil is still Brazil. So it’s kind of a must-win match.

And it is … a bloodbath. People still argue that the Netherlands’s 4-0 win over the Argentines is the most perfect team performance in World Cup history.

The match is played in Gelsenkirchen in front of 55,000 people. Here’s what an annihilation this game was. The Dutch goalkeeper is named Jan Jongbloed. In the entire game, he touched the ball one time. Once! Probably looked at it like Bob Dylan contemplating a steering wheel.

And the first of the Netherlands’ four goals came in the 11th minute of the match.

In the 11th minute of the match. Cruyff is lurking at the edge of the area. There’s a defender behind him and a defender in front of him. Defenders sort of loosely double-teaming him. Cruyff does not have the ball. The ball is with the Dutch midfielder Wim van Hanegem.

Cruyff can sense that the defenders are each giving him a little too much space, relying a little too much on their numerical superiority, which is something he can exploit. So he breaks between the two defenders. A split second later, Van Hanegam spots the move and kind of delicately lofts the ball into the same gap Cruyff just ran through.

And just like that, Cruyff and the ball are both in behind the defense and the ball is sailing past Cruyff at about shoulder height.

The Argentine goalkeeper, Daniel Carnevali, who is going to touch the ball considerably more than once in this match, is already running out at Cruyff. So to control the ball as it flies past his shoulder, Cruyff has to sort of flick his right leg very high into the air—a really odd move when you focus on it; he looks like a high-stepping spider—but it works. He gets the ball down. Carnevali is sliding to block it and they almost collide. Cruyff just barely manages to flick the ball past the large, diving form of Carnevali.

But he can’t stop himself from tripping over Carnevali. He almost falls. But when you grow up playing in the Concrete Village, you learn how to keep your balance. So he just barely stays on his feet. And when he recovers, he’s out wide on the left of the goal with an open shot.

Easy five cents. I can stare into the sun longer than you can. Goal.

It’s a wonderful goal. What I love about it, though—the thing that makes it feel so deeply Cruyffian to me—is that it’s sort of wonderful in a matter-of-fact way.

You heard that in the announcer’s voice just now—that strange and phenomenally Cruyffian combination of holy shit and no surprise. Like, who does this? Him, all the time.

This is not a goal people talk about all that much. It’s completely overshadowed by the Cruyff Turn and other stuff that happened in this tournament.

Cruyff doesn’t even mention it in his book. The team doesn’t celebrate it that wildly at the time. The vibe is like, eh, we can do this whenever we want. So in a small way, it’s another enigma.

Is it a moment of profound artistic beauty? Is it a moment of efficient routine?

Is it the moment Total Football officially became the future of the game? Or is it just another goal?

Yes. No. It’s both.

10. Imperially Second

What makes a great athlete? That’s our “treadmill under a cigarette smoke cloud” question today. How do we know when we’re watching someone who’s not just talented, but historically important to a sport?

I think the answer is not that complicated. I think the answer—usually—is not just high achievement or elite skill. But it’s some combination of those things with an ability to show us something new. To make us see the game in a way we didn’t see it before.

And in that way, to make us see the world in a way we didn’t see it before.

It’s that feeling of delighted shock and recognition: Oh, life can be like this. You laugh almost in the way a baby laughs at peek-a-boo. It’s as if the world is winking at you. You didn’t see it, and now you do. And this is all out here for you.

I don’t think sport is art, exactly. But I also don’t think the boundaries between experiences that move people are especially rigid most of the time. And sport can feel a lot like art when the ball is at the feet of a visionary like Johan Cruyff.

There is so much more to talk about with Cruyff that we’re just not gonna get to because this essay would be twelve thousand pages long, and I would start ranting about the nineteenth-century tulip economy. And neither of us wants that, except me.

So we’re not going to talk about tulips. We’re not going to talk about the other goal Cruyff scored against Argentina, or the goal he scored in the Netherlands’ win over Brazil in a terrific, nasty, high-stakes game. We’re not gonna talk about the final, which opened with Cruyff winning a penalty after a 15-pass Dutch move before West Germany had even touched the ball—a moment that may have been the true peak of Total Football—and then ended with a 2-1 loss to the Germans. And with the Dutch side going down in history as maybe the best team not to win the World Cup.

But you know, winning is obvious. Winning is basic. The irresistible beauty and power of the win over Argentina, the win over Brazil, and that first passing move against the Germans made a definitive case for Total Football. So … transforming an entire sport before mysteriously failing to win?

That is interesting. That’s artistic.

The Dutch striker Jan Mulder later described the team as “second but imperial! Unforgettable seconds! Better seconds!”

And I mean, that’s obviously kind of nonsense. Win the game. But it’s a kind of nonsense that speaks deeply to me personally. I’d say Jan Mulder is the John Lennon of my generation, but he was born in 1945.

Cruyff helped the Dutch qualify for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, then enigmatically retired from international soccer and refused to play in the tournament. No obvious reason. And everyone was like, Ha! That’s so Cruyff.

He later revealed that a kidnapping attempt had been made against his family in Barcelona. He said that was why he didn’t want to play.

He played for a while in the U.S., for the Los Angeles Aztecs and the Washington Diplomats. Diplomat, as in, riding on your chrome horse with your. Really the only time you could ever use the word “diplomat” to describe Cruyff?

It’s as if Michael Jordan spent his sunset years on a team called the Wilkes-Barre Noncompetitive Individuals.

Cruyff went back to Ajax, won two more titles. Then he got mad at Ajax and went to their ferocious rival Feyenoord. He won a title with Feyenoord. Take that, wolves who raised me.

He became a manager. He became one of the most influential managers of all time, at Ajax and then at Barcelona. Total Football spread and evolved and became the basis of modern soccer.

Cruyff had heart surgery in the ’90s. He had a heart attack in 1991, at about the same age his father died, and he retired from coaching a few years later. He became an analyst who could watch four games at the same time.

In October 2015 he was diagnosed with lung cancer. And in March 2016 he died in Barcelona surrounded by his family. Massive public mourning in the Netherlands and in Catalonia. Huge memorials at the Camp Nou and Amsterdam Arena. But there wasn’t a big funeral. He was cremated privately, a little mysterious to the end.

Go to the school with the good stories. I don’t know of any athlete who turned the style of an entire sport into a story as forcefully or as beautifully as Johan Cruyff.

He said, You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you.

He made the way soccer is played say more, speak to people more directly, than it ever had before.

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