The late, great Johan Cruyff: Soccer's transformative figure of the 1970s

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Leander Schaerlaeckens
The late, great Johan Cruyff: Soccer's transformative figure of the 1970s
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Johan Cruyff, widely considered one of the greatest soccer players ever along with Pele and Diego Maradona, passed away at the age of 68 on Thursday. Cruyff, a forward, scored a towering 405 goals in 711 competitive appearances over his entire career, dominating the 1970s.

[ Slideshow: Remembering soccer legend Johan Cruyff ]

His father was the greengrocer for his local club, Ajax, where Cruyff began hanging around as a small child and would remain for most of his life. He was, before all else, a transformative figure in the sport. His swashbuckling Ajax sides won the European Cup – the predecessor of the Champions League – three years in a row in the early '70s with a novel playing style dubbed "Total Football" that fetishized possession and prescribed the rapid interchange of players in their positions.

That same style would drive the Dutch national team to the World Cup final in 1974 – with Cruyff – and in 1978 – without Cruyff, whose wife apparently wouldn't let him travel to Argentina. (Some say because they feared the brutal new Videla Regime; others that she was still upset about a skinnydipping scandal four years prior.)

In that Total Football system, devised by Cruyff's longtime coach and mentor Rinus Michels, the lithe attacker was both the lynchpin and the on-field orchestrator. They would replicate the same formula at Barcelona in 1973, ending the club's league title drought in Cruyff's first season there. Together, they brought back glory to a proud club that had withered and been humiliated under the Franco Regime, forever making Cruyff a hero to the people of Catalonia.

In all, Cruyff won 10 league titles for his various clubs – including stints with the Los Angeles Aztecs and the Washington Diplomats of the old North American Soccer League – in addition to seven domestic cups and his three European titles.

He would return to Barca as manager in 1988, after a highly successful stint in charge of Ajax, and he would win La Liga four years consecutively and claim the club's first European title in 1992. But it was the groundwork that he laid at the academy, La Masia, that would become his legacy.

Having already cemented the club's ideology, a blend of Total Football and Spain's penchant for short passing, Cruyff devised a youth development system that would generate the talent for decades more of dominance.

Cruyff, with Michels, reconsidered what soccer was and how it could be played. His dazzling array of dribbles and tricks and preternatural understanding of spacing and tactics changed the game. In that sense, he was the Lionel Messi of his age. Except that whereas the little Argentine is practically mute off the field, Cruyff never did stop talking.

He was famous in his native Netherlands for his strange and inexplicable sayings, mangling metaphors and language in a way that mostly doesn't translate well into English. It made him a more profound Yogi Berra, musing on the intricacies of the game in ways that seemed revealing yet never quite made sense.

"Football is simple," he said, "but the hardest thing is to play football simply."

He also said, "You must shoot, or else you can't score."

It never became apparent if he did this on purpose, only furthering the mystique surrounding him. "If I wanted you to understand," he once declared to a reporter, "I would have explained it better."

After his managerial career ended, Cruyff continued to wield enormous influence over his two great loves, Ajax and Barcelona, installing and removing board members and giving his blessing to managerial hires or declaring his condemnation. He sometimes got it wrong, but to his legion of fans in Amsterdam and Catalonia, he was infallible.

Cruyff had been a chain smoker throughout his career, like many of his peers in the 1970s. In October, it was announced that he had lung cancer. A round of heavy treatment had no effect.

He will be remembered for transforming two of Europe's most historic and influential clubs. And for his signature turn.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.