Pele was a World Cup winner at 17, three times in total, and scorer of well over 1,000 goals. Diego Maradona was so incredibly gifted that he inspired average teams to unexpected glory at both club and international level. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have set ridiculous new heights in the 21st century and have become legends while still playing.

But for all their marvellous achievements, none of them can match the late, great Johan Cruyff and everything he did for world football during his lifetime, ended by cancer at the age of 68 on Thursday.

Professional Dutch football was still in its infancy when Cruyff first joined Ajax as a youngster in the late 1950s. Yet over the next 20 years, he was the talisman for a revolution that put the Amsterdam club and the national team on the world map forever.

Dutch midfielder Johann Cruyff dribbles

A central figure in the birth of the Total Football model that has been influencing players and coaches at the highest level ever since, Cruyff didn't just have wonderful technical ability that made him the best of his generation by far - the acceleration, the turns, the passing - but he could see things that others could not. A true visionary, he was the absolute perfect individual for that system which made Ajax, and subsequently the Netherlands, great.

He was, quite clearly, the best of his generation, but what puts Cruyff ahead as the best of all time, no easy feat considering the other greats who are held in similar esteem, is the lasting legacy that his career both as a player and coach had and will continue to have on the way that football is played.


What Pele and Maradona did was exceptional. When Messi and Ronaldo hang up their boots, their unprecedented achievements will be lauded too. Yet, trophies aside, none have affected the sport as a whole anything like as much as Cruyff.

When he was a player at Barcelona in the 1970s, Cruyff proposed the club use the La Masia farmhouse building as a live-in school for young players. He'd witnessed such a youth setup first-hand at Ajax and saw the vast potential. Barça adopted the idea and when he returned as head coach nearly a decade later, it was taken on further, with players at every level of the club learning to play in the same way.

Messi himself was a product of exactly that. Total Football became tiki-taka in Spain because of Cruyff's influence at Barcelona, responsible for the club's dominance in Europe and the country's dominance on the international stage. Pep Guardiola, as a player and coach, represents that spirit and will be taking it to Manchester City in the summer after his successes at Bayern Munich.


There are visible characteristics of the Total Football/tiki-taka model in so many teams and clubs the world over, with countless coaches and players, many of whom have never even been directly exposed to it, working tirelessly to perfect it and take it on to another level. It's the legacy left behind by one genius of a man.

Johan Cruyff once said, "In a way, I'm probably immortal."

There's no doubt about it, he was correct.

To continue the discussion on Twitter follow @jamiespencer155

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