Football: Cancer claims Cruyff - brilliant player and manager for the purist

By Raf Casert

Dutch genius Johan Cruyff died of lung cancer aged 68. Photo / AP
Dutch genius Johan Cruyff died of lung cancer aged 68. Photo / AP

In the end, Johan Cruyff couldn't defeat lung cancer. After facing down many a foe on and off the pitch, the Dutch genius died yesterday, aged 68.

A footballer for the purist, Cruyff brought a smile to the face of anyone who watched his silky skills for Holland, Ajax Amsterdam or Barcelona.

Cruyff reached his sporting peak in the early 1970s and went on to successfully manage Barcelona.

His talent was such that he is comfortably placed alongside Pele, Diego Maradona, Franz Beckenbauer and Lionel Messi as the best footballers of all time.

Family spokeswoman Carole Thate said Cruyff died in Barcelona after a five-month battle with lung cancer.

"Another legend has left us today," said Messi, the Argentina and Barcelona forward .

The Netherlands-France friendly today in Amsterdam will be halted in the 14th minute for a minute's silence in honour of Cruyff, who made the No14 shirt his own during his glittering career in the Netherlands team.

Obsessed by football to the end and ever the positive thinker, Cruyff said his recovery was going well.

"I have the feeling that I am 2-0 up in the first half. The game is not over yet. Still I know that in the end, I will win."

Football lost a revolutionary, who embodied the Dutch brand of Total Football, a man who stood up for the cold commercial rights of players and one who proved positive attacking football was a winning combination in Europe after years of defensive domination.

In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that "through him, the world knew the Netherlands".

Former France international Michel Platini said football had lost one of its best players. "Johan was my childhood hero, my idol and my friend," said Platini, the former head of European football.

Cruyff won three European Cups with Ajax as a player and one with Barcelona as a coach. He was European Player of the Year three times and, in 1999, was named Europe's best player of the 20th century.

Though a World Cup title eluded him, he was the pivotal figure on the 1974 Netherlands team that electrified the sport with its Total Football tactics, with players constantly interchanging roles. The tactics influenced the game worldwide, bringing fresh life to a sport that had become stuck in a defensive mindset.

"Football has lost a man who did more to make the beautiful game beautiful than anyone in history," said former England striker Gary Lineker, who played under Cruyff at Barcelona.

Cruyff smoked cigarettes most of his life and finally quit after undergoing an emergency heart bypass operation in 1991.

After more heart trouble in 1997, he vowed never to coach again, though he remained an outspoken football critic and analyst.

On the field, Cruyff's wiry frame housed surprising athletic talent, unpredictable bursts of speed and agility and precise ball control that allowed him to trick opponents, ghosting around them with ease. His genius lay in his instinctive feel for seeing how a move would develop before it even began.

"Speed and insight are often confused," he said. "When I start running before everybody else, I appear faster."

Speed gave him grace under fire.

He scored 392 times in 520 games over a 19-year playing career, playing 48 times for his country and scoring 33 goals for the Netherlands.

As a coach, he had 242 victories in 387 matches, with 75 draws and 70 losses. AP

- NZ Herald

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