Hendrik Johannes Cruyff is one of the most important footballers in history.
Born in Amsterdam, Netherlands, April 25, 1947, on a street five minutes away from the country’s most famous soccer stadium, Johan was the younger of Hermanus and Petronella’s two boys. The family was from a humble, working-class background and, after Hermanus Cruyff died of a heart attack in 1959, Petronella could not keep up the family’s grocery store and went to work as a cleaner at AFC Ajax, the top Dutch professional football club. Johan had joined the Ajax youth team at ten, dividing his time between soccer and baseball, where he was a promising pitcher and catcher. By 15, he had given up baseball to focus on soccer and made his first team debut in November 1964, playing in the Eredivisie, the highest echelon professional league in the Netherlands. In the 1965-66 season, the 19-year-old Cruyff scored 25 goals in 23 games to lead Ajax to the league championship. Ajax repeated as league champion the following season and also won the Dutch Cup—the country’s national tournament—for Cruyff’s first “double.” In 1966-67, Cruyff was named Dutch “Footballer of the Year” after leading the league in goals. After returning from injury in 1970, he wore number 14, which was very uncommon in those days, as starters wore numbers 1 to 11, and scored six goals in one game. Ajax won the European Cup for the first time in 1971, then repeated as champs the following two years.
In mid-1973, Cruyff was sold to FC Barcelona for a world record transfer fee of six million Dutch guilders [two million dollars]. In Spain, he helped Barcelona to their first La Liga title since 1960. They beat Real Madrid—their deadliest rivals—and won the Copa Del Rey, the championship of Spain. After six seasons in Barcelona, Cruyff came to the U.S., joining the Los Angeles Aztecs and then the Washington Diplomats of the North American Soccer League. He returned to Holland to play in Eredivise for four seasons before retiring as a player and turning to coaching in 1985.
Johan Cruyff is the greatest Dutch footballer of all time and one of the world’s best ever. A Holland icon, he was true soccer royalty, as no one has ever influenced the game more. In the 1970s, Dutch football rose from near obscurity to international power. The “Flying Dutchman” led Ajax to eight Eredivisie titles, three European Cups and one International Cup. He led Holland to the 1974 World Cup final, where he was named player of the tournament. Cruyff was the first Dutch player to earn the Ballon d’Or as European Footballer of the Year, an award he won three times. He was the father of Total Football, the Dutch style of play that involved players seamlessly rotating positions on the field. “El Flaco” pioneered the Cruyff Turn—pure soccer ballet—where the player drags the ball behind his planted foot with the inside of his crossing foot, turn 180 degrees, and accelerate away from the defender. After retiring as a player, Mr. Cruyff managed Ajax to two Dutch Cups and a UEFA Cup Winners Cup in three years. He then returned to Barcelona, where he led the “Dream Team” to four league titles between 1989 and 1994. His style of play and philosophy has left a lasting impact on contemporary football. In 1999, Johan Cruyff was voted European Player of the Century by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics and came in second behind Pele in their World Player of the Century poll. Mr. Cruyff died of lung cancer in Barcelona on March 24, 2015. He was 68.