Johan Cruyff, Football Genius, Dies at 68

By Peter Alegi | March 24th, 2016 7 Comments

Johan Cruyff, the Dutch football genius, has died of cancer at the age of 68.

When I was 7 or 8 years old, growing up in Rome, my older brother Danny dragged me to a run-down movie theater to watch “Il Profeta del Gol”—a mesmerizing documentary film about Cruyff narrated by the legendary Sandro Ciotti, whose raspy voice (along with that of Enrico Ameri), provided the soundtrack of our every Sunday afternoon.

Watching Cruyff ignited my lifelong love and passion for football. After moving to the United States in the mid-1980s, I wore his number 14 on my high school, club, and college teams.

He seemed both extraordinary and ordinary. His creative use of space, technical excellence, and speed were inseparable from his scrawny physique, tempestuous nature, non-comformist cigarette smoking, and consistent dislike for fitness training. I will go to my grave with Cruyff’s “Impossible Goal” against Atletico Madrid.

Cruyff’s interpretation of football as a competitive art taught me to see alternative ways to play, move, think, and be. Ajax’s “Total Football,” which Cruyff exported to Barcelona, first as a player then as a coach, was so radically different from the way Serie A teams played in the 1970s and early 1980s. “Everyone attacked and everyone defended,” Eduardo Galeano wrote, “deploying and retreating in a vertiginous fan.”

His stunning decision to boycott the Generals’ World Cup in Argentina in 1978, the first I followed religiously on television, endeared the Dutchman to me even more. An anti-fascist superstar who practiced what he preached!

Frits Barend, the Dutch tv commentator whom I met in South Africa in 1998, referred to Cruyff as an “obstinate maestro.”

David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange, arguably the best book written in English about Dutch football and society, described him as “essentially Dutch.” A poem by Toon Hermans, Winner writes, “captures the feeling that there was something sublime about Cruyff”:

En Vincent zag het koren
En EInstein het getal
En Zeppelin de Zeppelin
En Johan zag de bal

(And Vincent saw the corn
And Einstein the number
And Zeppelin the Zeppelin
And Johan saw the ball)


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Filed under: Players


danny alegi

March 25th, 2016 | 12:18 pm    

Dear Peter,
every time you remember our early days in Italy, I feel it. Yesterday I cried for Johan Cruyff, our first hero on the pitch. We were too young for Pelé, and later too cynical and expert to to put Maradona’s show-off magic above his lack of character and leadership. But in the years when I took you to see “Il Profeta del Gol” with me in Rome, I was freshly mesmerized by the Ajax period (71-73) and #14’s performance for the Orange before and during the 1974 World Cup. I loved the way football came natural to him, as did strategy. And his tactics made him a coach with cleats capable of enacting a true revolution in how teams attack and defend freely, beyond formal roles and positions. He played the simplest, least intentionally spectacular style of football, always a step ahead. As you mention,he was also stubborn and coherent, which made his moves a political as well as sporting example. I hope young players will look back at him as we did, the different one who changed the game forever.

Vaarwel Johan.

danny alegi



March 25th, 2016 | 12:41 pm    

Beautifully said, my brother.


March 25th, 2016 | 2:49 pm    

Amsterdam Arena to be renamed after Cruyff:


March 26th, 2016 | 5:16 am    

Speaking of David Winner, here is his obit of Cruyff in today’s Guardian:

“as the Dutch writer Arthur van den Boogaard said, Cruyff solved the “metaphysical problem” of football. What he meant was that if you play a Cruyffian style well enough with sufficiently talented players it is hard to lose.”

Nancy Abbott

March 27th, 2016 | 2:11 pm    

How Johan Cruyff revolutionised Dutch football, the good and the bad
Simon Kuper makes interesting criticism of Cruyff.

Thabo Dladla

April 6th, 2016 | 2:05 am    

Cruyff was indeed a giant. Football is played by human beings and it is not everyday that you will get guys like him in football. I hope future footballers can learn to be independent and unique instead of being copies of others. Football is also crying for men in shorts instead of those in suits. The sooner former footballers take back the game from business men and politicians the better for the future of football in the African continent.


December 12th, 2016 | 6:52 am    

As horrible 2016 ends, here’s a gentle and funny remembrance of Cruyff by someone who played against him and hung out at the beach with him (and Eusebio!):

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