The all time greats in football – in any sport, really – are mesmerizing to watch but tend to be completely inarticulate about the essence of their sport or annoyingly garrulous about it. That is why Johan Cruyff, the Dutch legend and football’s greatest thinker (in my opinion), stands apart. His economy of expression when expressing his philosophy of football defined him as a player and then a coach and administrator.
His signature move – the Cruyff turn – was not a parlour trick invented to amuse fans.
With Cruyff, there was nary a wasted movement or a squandered moment. Both on the pitch as a player and off it as a manager he understood the need for style (in his and his team’s play) and the importance of substance (in terms of results and trophies). To borrow from his words – ‘Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.’ I needed a 100 words to explain that; Cruyff needed exactly 10. This sensational economy of expression is not an accident.
Cruyff looked at the game and tried to distill it into its essence and no one in the history of football has done it better than him. Like a preternatural rock guitarist of the 1960s belting out unearthly solos with just four chords to work with, Cruyff’s artistry stemmed from a deep, almost zen like understanding of the game. “Everything in football is a function of distance” he writes in My Turn and reminisces of how an early lesson he learnt from his coach (Michels) was that “when you have possession of the ball you have to ensure you have as much space as possible and when you lose the ball you must minimise the space your opponent has.” This might seem obvious and simple but to distill it and incorporate it into your game is where Cruyff’s footballing mind was a marvel.
I never watched Cruyff play but I was introduced to him by a football mad uncle who adored the Dutch team of the 70s and 80s and I was struck by how, even when I heard second hand accounts or read about him, it was easy to admire his brilliance. The best insight I had into his thinking mind, always looking for perspective (safe to say he never missed the woods for the trees), was relatively recently though. I was reading his autobiography where he describes how he used to play baseball and the lesson he learnt in it – to take a total overview of the field and the game – came to his help when he was playing football professionally. Distilling ideas to an essence of simplicity that makes effortlessly transferable is hallmark of some of the greatest scientific minds on the planet throughout history.
And on this day as we remember A Beautiful Mind of this beautiful game, it feels unfair that football doesn’t have a Nobel Prize.