The measure of Johan Cruyff’s influence on the sport he played better than anybody for a period in the 1970s and in which he coached to an admirable level is easy to put into a contemporary context.
Without Cruyff, the current leading, most coveted coach in the world would not be the strategist and thinker that he is.
Without Cruyff’s legacy, the planet’s best footballer for the past decade would probably be different, perhaps less daring, too.
Pep Guardiola, on his way to six league titles in seven years as a senior coach, learnt how to control matches from midfield from his early teens thanks to Cruyff’s interest in him, Cruyff’s sharp eye for a good player and Cruyff’s guidance.
When the great Dutchman, who on Thursday died aged 68, was coach at Barcelona, he saw the willowy Guardiola playing for Barca's youth team as a forward, and suggested he step back, operate in a position where he could use his tactical intelligence to see more of the pitch.
Photo gallery: Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff through the years
Soon enough, Guardiola was captaining Barcelona under Cruyff from central midfield, the fulcrum of their elegant passing game.
Each day at practice, Guardiola would be hanging on every word, every observation Cruyff made.
At La Masia, Barcelona’s academy, a “Cruyffista” set of principles have been shaping the way young footballers are taught to pass, move and associate with one another since Cruyff worked as coach at the club, from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s.
Plenty of others have looked to copy their educational template in the period since.
But footballers who pass through La Masia still talk of something unique.
Lionel Messi, recruited at 14 for enrolment in Barcelona’s talent hothouse, is one.
Messi was a beneficiary of a school that, true to Cruyff’s guiding principles, would never prejudice a player’s prospects because he lacked physical strength or height.
For Cruyff, skill was the key, and the imagination to think quicker than the opponent a priority.
Cruyff towers over the modern game. For that he was always entitled to hold the strong opinions and judgements for which he was known when he stepped back from direct involvement in executive decisions at Barcelona and Ajax, the two clubs who owe him so much.
In Dutch football, his name is a shorthand for transformation. Before 1970, when he was emerging as a talented young winger, no club from the Netherlands had won a European Cup.
By 1974, the Ajax team he had starred in had won three on the trot.
He moved to Barcelona. He turned that club great again, as important to Barca’s identity and renewed success as Alfredo di Stefano had been to Real Madrid in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Besides his brilliant football, the athleticism, the spectacular goals, he brought to Catalonia, and its figurehead football club, a spirit of independence appreciated at a time when Spain was moving out of dictatorship.
Cruyff, always the challenger of orthodox ideas about his sport, tuned in quickly to the Zeitgeist of the north-west corner of Iberia.
He christened his son, who was born in Barcelona, Jordi, after the region’s patron saint.
Cruyff the player was the emblem of a style that became known as “Total Football”, where traditional notions of static formations were revised and movement on the pitch was fluid.
The Netherlands team Cruyff led to the final of the 1974 World Cup were its epitome, “an orange fire flitting back and forth,” wrote the Uruguayan novelist and football writer Eduardo Galeano, “fanned by a confident breeze that sped it forward and pulled it back. Faced with a side in which each player was all 11, opponents lost their bearings.”
The world’s most popular sport has lost its Total Footballer, a revolutionary of the game, and a giant whose direct disciples are still defining the best ways to play, true to his lessons.
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