September 10, 2014

The Natural

A long time ago, in East Amsterdam, there was a boy who lived by the soccer stadium.  His father died when he was 12, and the stadium became his second home.  He joined the youth team of Ajax, the local club.  He built up his game year by year, until one day, they promoted him to the first team.  And then he started scoring goals, and didn't stop until Ajax had won three European Cups, and Barcelona FC was knocking on his door, one hand extended in friendship, and the other holding the largest transfer fee in the history of the world.

Billy Martin once said "money doesn't talk, it screams."  So maybe it's that simple.  Except in Barcelona - avatars of the Catalan people, club motto: "more than a club" - it can't be all about the money.  Johan Cruyff joins a team of underachievers...plenty of talent, but they don't quite know what to do with it.  Without him, they are ok, losing two of their first seven in 1973.  Once he joins up, they go on a 24 match unbeaten streak.  In Franco's Spain, the Catalonians deliver an epic 5-0 beatdown of Madrid that they still talk about today.  Cruyff leaves no doubt about whose side he's on, saying he could never play for a team associated with Franco.

They remember that sort of thing in Catalonia

(This 90-minute documentary, En Un Momento Dado - In the Given Moment - explores his Barcelona career in detail.)

The oddest thing about watching Cruyff on film is that he seems to be playing somewhat normally, but everyone around him is constantly falling down.  You have a quick, agile fellow, light on his feet...

...(that move is now known as the Cruyff Turn), always starting and stopping, accelerating and decelerating, constantly reversing field.  But is it really that hard to check him?  Well, yes.  This run from his stint with the L.A. Aztecs (1979) is representative:

Another famous run, which I like to call Hello Deutschland! (starts at 0:15) came one minute into the 1974 World Cup Final.  Cruyff hesitates, then has a Rex Grossman "fuck it, I'm going deep" moment, dashing straight into the German defense.  They foul him, Neeskens converts...and now it's one-nil, and the first German to touch the ball is their goalie.  (The Dutch, overconfident perhaps, possibly a bit hung-over, went on to lose to a very disciplined German squad.  But still.)
    • 11 years old, Emilio Butragueño is watching.  Later he would say "it was so magical...he slows and speeds up twice within 45 meters, enough to completely disorient his opponent...  This play is permanently etched in my mind.  It's not that it changed my life, but with this Cruyff gave me insight into what soccer really was...  Football is an expression of what you have in you.  You go out onto the field to show who you are, to display your personality.  And in some way or is able to uplift the viewer's soul."
A compilation of Cruyff's dribbling - hypnotic in its way - is here.

But, while Cruyff is trying to beat his man, he is also looking for his teammates.  Like Bird, like Gretzky, he sees things other people can't see.  Where teams will normally line three up at the front, Cruyff, playing center forward, might drop back as second striker, setting up a triangle.  Or, he might jump out to the wing.  This ability to move forward or back, to set up other players as well as himself, becomes a trademark not only of Cruyff's game, but of the Ajax team, and the Dutch Total Football system (these are out of stock, but I really want one).  Cruyff continues this approach during his successful tenure as manager of the Barcelona side from 1988-1996.  In 2004 he was asked to explain it on Dutch television:

All clear?

Cruyff is also insanely dangerous anywhere near the goal.  Amongst others you have:
  • Hello Argentina (Dutch National Team, 1974), in which he runs down the middle of the field, collects the ball in the box, runs around the goalie, and kicks it in the net.  Sometimes soccer is an easy game.
  • The Impossible Goal (Barcelona, 1974?) - In which Cruyff, noticing the ball traveling away from him at shoulder height, leaps in the air and deflects it with his foot, Kung-Fu style, into the goal.  
  • The Not-Offsides Penalty Assist (Ajax, 1982) in which Cruyff sets up the goal by the simple expedient of kicking it to a teammate.  (Not offsides, but harder than it looks.)
Cruyff was not just the best footballer of his generation, he was, I think, clearly one of the greatest athletes who ever lived:
  • Like Bird, he immediately improved the records of the teams he joined and assumed a leadership role.
  • Like Montana, he was the avatar of a revolutionary new style of play (Rinus Michels is Bill Walsh here).
  • Like Gretzky, he was a dominant offensive force without a power game, thanks to dexterity and vision.  Cruyff:  “What is speed? The sports press often confuses speed with insight. See, if I start running slightly earlier than someone else, I seem faster.”
  • Like Bird and Gretzky, he was not only a feared scorer, but was equally adept at setting up his teammates.
  • Like Jordan, he was the most feared one-on-one player of his generation.
  • Like Ali, he was not humble about his skills, and had no reason to be.
  • And, like Erving, he was beloved for his playground style, despite losing the biggest game of his life (Netherlands-Germany World Cup Final 1974, Sixers-Blazers 1977).
Unlike any of these men (well, partial credit for Bird), Cruyff went on to be a highly effective coach/manager/trainer, helping to create the dynasty that is Barcelona.  

Dude was awesome. Still is, frankly.  This documentary is good:


Blogger JAB said...

Quite Interesting! The name Cruyff alone demands a novel.

September 12, 2014 at 9:08 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home