"In a certain way, I’m probably immortal," Johan Cruyff, who died this week at the age of 68, once said.
Of all the linguistically inventive declarations made by the Dutch maestro, this one is probably the most apt, especially in the context of the tragic mood that struck the Netherlands following the sad news of their legendary number 14’s passing. Among feelings of loss and grievance, there is an overwhelming sense that Johan Cruyff will never truly leave the people.
Just look at what’s happening in Betondorp, the Amsterdam neighbourhood where Cruyff was born in 1947. Immediately after the announcement of his passing, people from all over the city started gathering to lay flowers and pay tribute to the man who gave so many people so many moments of joy and pride.
Betondorp, a name which literally translates to "concrete village", is a fitting place to say farewell. Here, Cruyff learned to play the game together with his brother Henny, kicking a ball about in the streets, which had yet to be cluttered with cars and traffic. Here too, was where he was spotted by Ajax when he was only six years old. He was immediately asked to train with the club’s academy, even though he could only officially become a member on the day of his tenth birthday.
Picture by: Manu Fernandez / AP/Press Association Images
Betondorp was also where disaster struck for young ‘Jopie’ when was 12. In an event that would alter the course of his life, Cruyff’s father died of a heart attack, forcing his mother to leave the greengrocer shop the family ran behind and take on a job as a cleaner at the Ajax grounds, right around the corner from their house. Here, she met the man who later become 'Uncle Henk', who worked as the club’s groundsman. Uncle Henk soon became young Cruyff’s second father.
At the age of 17, Cruyff debuted for Ajax’s first team. The rest, as they say, is history. The little kid from Betondorp turned his neighbourhood club into one of the greatest teams in the history of the sport. Winning the European Cup three times in a row, from 1971 until 1973, he wrote himself and Ajax a special chapter in football’s history books. Later, he revolutionised Barcelona, who had only won two league titles in 28 years before the arrival of Cruyff. Today, they’re regarded as one of the greatest clubs of all times.
The zenith of Cruyff’s playing career came in 1974. Under the leadership of manager Rinus Michels and captain Cruyff, the Dutch national team reached the final of the World Cup that year. They lost the final to West Germany, but most importantly, they demonstrated to the world the definitive version of the ‘Total Football’ style that had been in the making at Ajax.
Total Football was beautiful, exhilarating and as close to art as football would ever come. It left the world in awe, and would inspire a generation of footballers and managers. Through the influence of Cruyff disciples like Pep Guardiola, who played for Barcelona when Cruyff was manager there in the early 1990s, its main tenants became the foundations of the football played by successful teams today, including reigning European champions and World Cup winners Spain.
Picture by: Peter Robinson / EMPICS Sport
Cruyff’s influence wasn’t confined to the world’s football pitches, however. In the late 1960s, the long haired rebel left his mark on Dutch culture as well. In a country where the streets were grey, with the older generation completely occupied with rediscovering their place in the world after the horrendous events of World War 2, he became the personalisation of the emerging youth culture. As they were cheering on the provocative antics of the rebellious and hippie-like Dutch ‘provos’, Beatles and Stones songs came blasting out of their LP players. Now, their very own champion had emerged from their own ranks.
The parents of these youngsters loved him too, of course. And they still do. Even in 2016, everyone in the Netherlands and beyond has their favourite goal, their favourite quote, their favourite anecdote. By now, the memory of the great Cruyff has become an inseparable part of the country’s very DNA. Never mind the football pitches, where every single thing that happens is still related to the principles he taught all those years ago. More than any politician, artist, king or queen, he is the Netherlands’ ultimate hero.
Cruyff achieved similar status in Barcelona and Catalonia. There, he is still lauded as a saviour in difficult times. And his genius is recognised in other countries too. To this day, it is impossible to go anywhere in the world as a Dutch person and not be asked about the Oranje and Cruyff. He was, and still is, a true people’s champion.
As usual, Cruyff was right. In a certain way, he really is immortal.
You can follow Elko on Twitter. He has written for the BBC, FourFourTwo, The Telegarph and ESPN FC among others.