A Long Wait for Another Cruyff – the End of a Saga

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It is often noted that players with extraordinary technical ability do not go on to become good coaches. The game comes so naturally to these type of footballers that they struggle to convey their message when they make the transition from pitch to bench. But there is an exception to every rule and, in this case, it is Johan Cruyff.

The Dutchman was a brilliant forward and symbol of ‘total football’ as the finest footballer in the great Netherlands side which won countless admirers but lost out to West Germany in the final of the 1974 World Cup. He was the remarkable reference in the astonishing Ajax team which claimed three consecutive European Cups in 1971, 1972 and 1973; and he was the man who made Barcelona believe they could beat Real Madrid after a long period in the wilderness, inspiring the Catalan club to a title triumph in 1974 following a 14-year drought – as well as a famous 5-0 win over their fiercest rivals.  

Indeed, after Pele, Diego Maradona and, latterly, Lionel Messi, Cruyff is among a group of players considered to be the finest to ever grace the game – yet his influence off the pitch may have been even greater.

That meant there was no chance of claiming the European Cup he had won thrice as a player, either, yet the formation he himself introduced (which comprised of a three-man defence, a deep-lying defensive midfielder, two more mobile middle men, two wingers, a support striker and a versatile centre-forward) was long-lasting. Years later, with the same system, Ajax would win the Champions League under Louis van Gaal, in 1995.

A similar system was used at Camp Nou and after the Quinta del Buitre had led Real Madrid to five league titles in a row between 1986 and 1990, Cruyff took Barcelona back to the very top with four straight successes of their own from 1991 to 1994.

There were 11 titles in all, an unprecedented total at the time and which also included a European Cup Winners’ Cup, a Uefa Super Cup, three Spanish Supercopas and a Copa del Rey. The biggest one of all, however, was the maiden European Cup claimed in 1992, when Ronaldo Koeman’s famous free kick edged out Sampdoria at Wembley.

That was a watershed moment in Barcelona’s history and, unbeknown to many at the time, there had been another in 1978 when Cruyff the player departed the Camp Nou with one wise wish for president Josep Lluis Nunez: “Set up an academy.”

When he left, Barcelona had one European Cup to their name. Now they have four and, indirectly, Cruyff also played his part in the other three Champions League crowns. He had recommended Frank Rijkaard to the Catalan club and later endorsed the promotion of Guardiola to first team coach at Camp Nou. He had seen how both men had organised their teams from deep in midfield at Ajax and Barca, respectively, in the sides he had coached. He believed they could achieve something similar from the dugout. And he was right.

Rijkaard led Barca to Champions League success in 2006, while Guardiola’s side claimed continental crowns in 2009 and 2011, among a host of other titles which saw the pupil surpass his master and claim 14 trophies for the Catalan club. But without Cruyff, there may have been no Pep at Camp Nou in the first place. Asked if he felt envy at the younger man’s superior success rate, the 65-year-old said: “I haven’t worked for 15 years and he is making me even more famous. So, how am I supposed to be jealous of someone who is maintaining my prestige? What more could I ask for?”

So that is that – the end of the road for Cruyff in the dugout. Having vowed never to return in a full-time capacity and keen to avoid possible repercussions of previous health concerns, he will now revert to consultancy roles removed from the stress of the training pitch and the tension of big games.

And given his influence both as a player and as a coach, football is likely to have to wait a long time for another Johan Cruyff.

Read Ben Hayward’s entire article here on Goal.com

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