Speechless is an overused expression that should be reserved for times such as this. Someone says that Johan Cruijff has died and you sit there. There is nothing to say.
For the modern-day FC Barcelona, he is responsible for so much of the soul-stirring joy that we have experienced. He is no less an essential figure to the way the club is than its founder, Joan Gamper. La Masia, the way the kids grow into adult sprites and caper about the pitch, passing moving and receiving, the pam pam pam that is the rhythmic life of a rondo, of Barça football, can be laid at his feet.
When word came out that Cruijff was battling cancer, many didn’t know what to think because cancer is a capricious beast. It spared Abidal, and took Vilanova. No rhyme, no reason, no logic. Cruijff said he would fight as hard as he could, and a man who has been fighting his whole life, fighting even for the right to be wrong, left no doubt that if anyone could kick cancer’s ass, he could. He was seen out and about, even had a bright quote about his progress against the disease as minds conjured a perfectly executed Cruijff turn around cancer. He said he was “two-nil up” on cancer, and we all hoped, even in the din of the recent silence about his condition.
A headline in the Guardian referred to him as “Dutch football legend,” which is correct. For culers, however, that headline would be “Football font, titan of Barça.”
As with the deaths of other people who we have never met in real life but who carry an important place in our lives for whatever reason, this one hits hard. He coached the team for 8 years, was part of the iconic Barça dream team, helped create what is now known as “total football.” When he came, success followed. Barça won its first European cup under his reign, as well as four consecutive Liga titles. He was opinionated, irascible and more often than not, right.
But the thing that struck most for many about Cruijff is that he was pure. His vision was as pure as his heart and mind. He strode into the FCB offices to return the honorary vice president honor that had been bestowed upon him by Joan Laporta, then reconsidered by new president Sandro Rosell. It was an act that delineated battle lines as clearly as anything in the still-brewing tempest that would roil the club. People didn’t take sides, because there was only one side: Cruijff should be able to have whatever he wants. Yes, Laporta should have followed procedure, yes a vote should have been held, etc, etc. But damn, yo! It’s Cruiff!
He was also a pain in the ass. In the valedictories that accompany the dead, making them like relationships where we only remember the good things, Cruijff will rarely be called the opinionated S.O.B that he was. And he almost certainly wouldn’t agree with those omissions. He did everything in full. As the late Hunter S. Thompson would say, Cruijff didn’t just live, he stomped the terra. Not only Barça, but Ajax owe him and his work a debt so massive that it can only be repaid with something priceless, but isn’t legal tender: love.
It must have pained him to not attend matches at the Camp Nou. Watching on television isn’t the same as watching it live, particularly for a football obsessive such as he. But a principled obsessive was left with no other option. He didn’t just speak of football, however, and this is part of the core of his incalculable value to the two clubs he shaped. He also spoke of values. Not just footballing values, but a wholistic approach to the game and how it is played. Football has always been mind and body, but in many ways Cruijff made honing both temples into an art. He understood that a big brain would always have a shot against a big body. When he saw Sergi Busquets play, he understood. He lauded Xavi as the essence of footballing values that he was.
To be sure, a lot of what Cruijff said sounded pretentious, highfalutin’, but it was never, ever lip service. Values. He proposed La Masia to then Barça club president Nunez, the idea being that young footballers would learn to play the game properly, with the correct values. The Barça team that has dominated world club football for the last decade is almost a direct result of that system, and those values. Always Cruijff. You watch Busquets play? Cruijff. Iniesta? Cruijff. That Xavi highlight reel? Guess who. We marvel at how Messi sees the pitch, how he figured out those otherworldly passes, but guess where Messi learned to play the game?
Legends don’t die. Not really. They leave the corporeal plane, but everything that they have done affects us for countless generations. So Cruijff has left this plane of existence. But every time you watch a match, every time you YouTube a Barça rondo or marvel at how Guardiola’s teams play, every Messi pass and Iniesta ghost-like run, the spirit of a bona-fide legend lives on. Rest in peace, Mister. Cancer might have gotten your body, but your spirit and what your life embodied will be forever present.