In today's world, it's not often people are united. Religion, politics and wealth split viewpoints down the centre, ignite violence and create distance between us - even though we are far more similar than we like to admit.
Football, however, is something that can mitigate those differences, even if it's just for a small moment of time. I'm not saying it doesn't create violence or distance, because it does. Football is an undeniably tribal sport. But it's a tribal sport many adore. A brave tackle, a sublime piece of skill or a crucial goal can instantly be appreciated by the masses, but visionaries are treasured. Philosophies, remembered. Pioneers of the game, admired.
Yesterday we lost Johan Cruyff, a man who was all of the above, a true revolutionary of football. And a time has come again in which people of difference and diversity have joined together to celebrate the life and achievements of a figure who shaped the game we all love today, so dramatically.
"Someone who has juggled the ball in the air during a game, after which four defenders of the opponent get the time to run back, that’s the player people think is great. I say he has to go to a circus."
Unfortunately I wasn't fortunate to watch Cruyff play in the flesh, but I spent more hours than I should have last night scouring YouTube and other sources for anything I could on the man. Not many players have a swagger like he did, an aura like he did, let alone have the ability to make the other 21 players on the pitch seem peripheral.
A conductor, a finisher, a showman, he could do things on the pitch which no other player could dream of doing. The Cruyff turn. It's not often that you innovate a piece of skill which is still as effective as it was the first time you did it - decades later. His trademark swivel resulted in Swedish defender Jan Olsson nearly turning his neck around 360 degrees, a moment he still chuckles at 42 years later after it happened.
A fruitful playing career spanning 13 years saw him win nine Eredivisie titles, three European Cups, a Spanish league title, a World Cup runners-up medal and 48 international caps for his beloved Oranje. As a manager, too, his idealistic and philosophical mind saw him win a European Cup, two European Cup Winners’ Cups and four Spanish league titles. The insistence on playing his style, 'the right way', made him one of the most influential figures in the history of the game.
"Players today can only shoot with their laces. I could shoot with the inside, laces, and outside of both feet. In other words, I was six times better than today’s players."
Along with his turn, the phrase most associated with Cruyff is totaalvoetball, or 'total football' to you and I. A tactical approach in which no player occupies a fixed outfield role. Total football's success depends largely on the adaptability of each footballer within the team, in particular the ability to quickly switch positions depending on the on-field situation. The theory requires players to be comfortable in multiple positions; hence, it places high technical and physical demands on them.
Despite Real Madrid, Santos and even Burnley testing out similar theories during the 1950s, it was announced to the world during the 1974 World Cup finals in West Germany. Holland were dramatically beaten in the final by the host nation but, with Cruyff at the forefront of it all, they were arguably the most exciting, memorable national side of their era. When Cruyff retired from playing and eventually moved to manage Barcelona, his revolutionary new style became the envy of the footballing world and has been replicated by many, globally, in the modern game.
His life post-football led to the creation of the the Johan Cruyff Foundation, which has provided more than 200 pitches in 22 countries for children of all backgrounds to play together, his work earning him the Uefa Grassroots award in 2009. Simply put, he loved football. He lived it, he breathed it. He knew how he wanted to play it, he knew how we wanted others to play it, but most of all he just wanted to it to be played.
"Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is."
Ajax. Barcelona. Feyenoord The Netherlands. His fingerprint has been left on each of these clubs, both as a figure on and off the pitch. But not only will these clubs and national sides feel great loss at his passing, the world of football will feel great loss. But, we can take solace in the fact that his genius, his vision, his influence are immortalised in the game that we love. Now that's a legacy.