AMSTERDAM – Johan Cruyff, one of soccer’s greatest players and most influential and visionary coaches, died aged 68 on Thursday after a five-month battle with lung cancer.
His death was announced on his website and soon after by the De Telegraaf newspaper, for whom he wrote a weekly column that was often controversial but always eagerly anticipated.
An ex-smoker who had heart surgery in 1991, Cruyff joined Ajax Amsterdam as a long-haired teenager before emerging as one of the world’s greats in the early 1970s.
He helped Ajax Amsterdam win three European Cups in a row from 1971-73 and also named European Footballer of the Year in 1971, 1973 and 1974.
Born Hendrik Johannes Cruyff, he joined Barcelona for a then world record transfer fee of $2.0 million, and it was Barcelona that would later define his coaching career, helping the Catalan club to win their first La Liga title in nearly 15 years in 1974.
He was also a key player in the great Netherlands team that reached the 1974 World Cup final when, for the first time, during the tournament a global audience saw him perform the now-famous “Cruyff turn” the movement in which the player with the ball plays it behind their own leg before swerving away in the direction of the ball.
The Dutch also got to the World Cup final but lost again in 1978, this time without Cruyff who had quit the national side, saying years later he walked away after an armed kidnap attempt.
Following stints at Los Angeles Aztecs and Washington Diplomats in the old NASL, then Levante in Spain, Cruyff returned to Ajax before ending his playing career at their bitter rivals Feyenoord in 1984.
In 1999, he was voted European Player of the Century while he is often bracketed alongside Brazil’s Pele and Argentina’s Diego Maradona as the three best players ever to grace the sport.
The Barca ‘Dream Team’ Cruyff coached won four straight La Liga titles between 1991 and 1994 and beat Sampdoria 1-0 for the club’s maiden European Cup triumph in 1992.
The possession-based playing style Cruyff promoted, with an emphasis on relentless attack, has been widely copied and is credited with underpinning Barca’s subsequent successes, as well as those of the Spanish national team.
Former England captain Gary Lineker, who played under Cruyff at Barcelona, summed up the Dutchman’s contribution by saying on Twitter: “Football has lost a man who did more to make the beautiful game beautiful than anyone in history.”
Cruyff had announced last October that he was suffering from lung cancer but continued to write his newspaper column and earlier this month traveled to Israel to visit his son Jordi, who is technical director at Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Only last month he said he was “2-0 up in the first half” of his battle against lung cancer. Poignantly that turned out to be one of the last public statements made by the man whose footballing pronouncements were eagerly sought after by soccer fans around the globe.
He died surrounded by friends and family at home in Barcelona, his website added.
His death prompted Dutch radio and television stations to suspend regular programming, with Ronald de Boer, another Dutch international who played at Barcelona, declaring: “He was the best footballer we ever had.”
Former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola said: “RIP @JohanCruyff, a genius, a legend and the man who changed the mentality of the @FCBarcelona.”