Johan Cruyff, 1947-2016: The Man Who Helped Make Football Borderless Leaves The Pitch

Johan Cruyff was one of those athletes who came around at just the right time. He was a proud Dutchman who helped bring his home country to prominence in European football.

I know you’re most likely American and you call football “soccer.” At least for this article, I’m going to call it “football” out of respect for Cruyff and the world football community. Bear with me.

If you aren’t familiar with Cruyff, you’ll be glad you got to know him and his game by the time I’m done. He was a world-class athlete who had a keen sense of the place his sport played in culture, and he respected that aspect of the game. He understood football existed as much in the head and heart as it did in the feet of his players. Because of that, Johan Cruyff developed and expanded on some of the most sophisticated philosophies of play. He was one of the people who helped bring football into the current state of being, a talking point of civic and national pride. At the same time, he ushered in the idea that fanatical love of the game could be borderless.


Johan Cruyff is one of the reasons many writers refer to football as “the beautiful game.” Moves that were all his became the stuff of legend.

He died today at the age of 68 after dealing with health problems for the last few years of his life that culminated in a cancer diagnosis last September. When he had open heart surgery in 1991, the first thing Cruyff did was stop smoking. Then he started speaking out about the dangers of tobacco and took up a lollipop habit. Such a thing might harken back to the question made famous by American television detective Kojak: “Who loves ya, baby?”

Almost everyone.

In an advertisement for the health department of the General Counsel of Catalunya, Cruyff declared, “Football has given me everything in life, tobacco almost took it all away.”

The knowledge that a man who was possessed of that rare ability to be phenomenal on the pitch in youth and a force who helped shape the game in maturity was also only too human, thus as fragile as the rest of us, a fact that was not lost on the football community. Support came from fans who watched him grow up in the FC Ajax system he’d been a part of from age 10. Followers of FC Barcelona let their “Jordi” (the Catalan name Cruyff adopted) know they were with him as he faced his most brutal challenger. Fans, players, and pundits from three continents who had embraced Cruyff as one of their own showed their alliance to him then, and they’re expressing their loss today.


Love or loathe Lionel Messi’s controversial penalty pass last month, it was without a doubt a tribute to Cruyff.

The takeaway for us is that it is never too soon to say thank you to the people who influence your life. Cruyff, who was in treatment for cancer when Messi made his move, expressed his pleasure in the tribute via a friend who posted his reaction on Twitter.


Cruyff is recognized as someone who presented the best side of his sport. As a coach and manager, he continued to employ the same intelligence and creativity he used as a player. Through the use of an approach to the game known as Total Football, in Cruyff’s hands, Jack Reynold’s theoretical model of play made football a game that was balletic in its elegance.

The stats speak to his success in numbers. The fact that a child anywhere in the world might express their love for Lionel Messi while dribbling a ball in their mum’s garden illustrates how Johan Cruyff’s influence made football beautiful and borderless.


[Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images]