ADE JOHNSON/EPA

Johan Cruyff's Complicated Legacy

Johan Cryuff died at age 68 on Thursday after a long bout with lung cancer. Cruff was one of soccer's greatest innovators, but also one of the sports' biggest antagonizers.

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Mar 25 2016, 5:39pm

ADE JOHNSON/EPA

To Johan Cruyff, there was only one way of doing things. Only one correct method. And that was the way Johan Cruyff thought they should be done.

There is no questioning, or understating, the Dutch forward's impact on football as a player or indeed a coach. As the brain of the Total Football played by Ajax and the Netherlands in the 1970s, he revolutionised the game. He wasn't just the best player of the decade, but he dragged his sport stubbornly into the future.

Football, Cruyff believed until the end, was to be played beautifully. He proved that the rough and tumble game that had prevailed prior his arrival was dated. And he thought that his way was the only right way to win. "Quality without results is pointless," he declared once. "Results without quality is boring."

After bringing previously unremarkable Ajax and Dutch sides to the top of the world — European Cup titles for the former in 1971, '72 and '73 and a paradigm-shifting run to the 1974 World Cup final with the latter — he decamped for Barcelona in 1973. As a player, he would pull the then perpetual choke artists — who lived in the shadow of Real Madrid, who were famously favored by the murderous dictator Francisco Franco — from the mire. He restored pride in an oppressed Catalonia by leading the team — managed by his father-in-football Rinus Michels, like those Ajax and Dutch sides — to its first league title in 14 years after it had slumped to fourth-from-bottom prior to his debut in late October.

When he returned to Barcelona as manager in 1988, following a spell in charge of Ajax, he once again changed Barca's fortunes. A woeful and broken team soon won four Spanish championships in a row and its first European title ever. More importantly still, he set up a youth academy in his visionary model and philosophy, laying the foundation of today's ongoing dynasty. Pep Guardiola was its first graduate and Lionel Messi its most famous.

This is all well-established.

There is another side to Cruyff though, one that remained largely unknown to those outside the Netherlands and the most deeply informed in Barcelona.

Cruyff the antagonist.

The man of singular hubris and stubbornness and ruthlessness. Cruyff the control freak.

All genius has a dark side to it. His ugly side showed itself in an incorrigible taste for confrontation.

Many of Cruyff's departures from clubs — and there were many, during his playing days and afterwards — were due to debilitating conflicts, likely the upshot of some petty tiffs started by the great man himself. That was Cruyff, too.

You aren't supposed to speak ill of the dead. But to whitewash aspects of the character that tainted but also enabled and informed his accomplishments would be revising history. Here's the truth of it: Cruyff's colossal gifts on the field were exceeded only by his talent for shit-stirring.

He saw himself as the sport's moral compass, as the protector of its essence — as defined by him. He put himself at the center of football's culture wars between the aesthetes and the pragmatists. Cruyff was forever perched on the ragged edge of the battle for game's stylistic soul. To him, playing unambitious, unimaginative and unsightly football was unthinkable. It was heresy to a football demigod, who spent his days proselytizing about width, possession and interchanges.

But all his talent on the field and in the coach's dugout made him just about impossible to get along with over the long term. Cruyff began hanging around Ajax's dressing room when he was 4, when Johan was simply Jopie (YO-pee). His father was the club's greengrocer and his mother cleaned the locker rooms after his father passed away when Cruyff was 12. He practiced with the first team at 15 and became a starter at 17. Soon enough, he was involved in everything and expected to be, making the lineups along with Michels.

Cruyff on April 13, 1969 in Ajax's Euro Cup semi-final matchup against Spartak Trnava in Amsterdam. Photo by EPA

At 26, he left for Barca in a huff after his teammates rebelled against his endless manipulations and stripped him of his captaincy. The reason he went to Barca was partly because Ajax had sold him to Real, which didn't sit well with him, and partly because Michels was already in Barcelona and he had agreed to rejoin him there. Throughout his life, he insisted that he would be the first one to profit from his name, once leading the national team on a strike over bonuses. So he simply told Ajax that if it didn't sell him to his Barcelona, he'd quit. To do such a thing, more than two decades before football players won their free agency and had any say in who they played for, was unheard of. But for Cruyff, it would be a pattern.

He retired in 1978. But after losing most of his money in a series of ill-advised investments — including, to the merriment of the Dutch press, a pig farm — that were counseled by a scam artist who had possibly seduced his wife, Cruyff came to America. He appeared for the New York Cosmos — but only in friendlies — the Los Angeles Aztecs (again with Michels in charge) and the Washington Diplomats.

He then returned to Ajax, but after two seasons, and two league titles – his seventh and eighth with the club – he got in a quarrel over money with the club president and signed with mortal enemies Feyenoord out of spite. He led Feyenoord to both the league title and the cup trophy.

As a budding manager, he rejoined Ajax once again in 1985 and did well enough, but when his contract was up, he demanded a two-year extension. The club would only give him one. So he once again departed on bad terms and went back to Barcelona. He built one of the greatest club teams of all time there — in addition to the aforementioned academy — but fought so regularly with club president Josep Nunez that he was eventually fired in 1996.

Cruyff would never work as a manager again, scaring off potential employers with his endless demands.

But he remained vocal and visible. Cruyff was a talker — "If only I could do everything as well as talk," he once said. In the Netherlands, he produced endless (ghost-written) columns and became a prolific television analyst. Yet when he spoke in Dutch, which he mostly did, he was famously unintelligible. He would yammer on in his thick, working-class Amsterdam brogue, torturing the language and seldom making much sense, saying things like "The Italians can't beat you, but you can lose to them."

To this charge, he would counter that: "If I wanted you to understand, I would have explained it better."

He also remained influential, holding various honorary or informal positions at both clubs and serving as a consigliere for their presidents. Few recent managerial appointments at Barcelona were made without his blessing — he apparently threw his weight behind the successful Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola hirings. And he staged a coup of sorts at Ajax in 2011, clearing out most of the club's board and replacing them with cronies supposed to implement his vision to return the club to Europe's elite — with iffy results thus far.

He could be callous about others' employment, demanding that a raft of youth coaches he barely knew be fired at Ajax. When he felt improperly compensated for interviews — which were to be paid for through donations to his Cruyff Foundation — he would blackball the reporter and assassinate his character through his column in the leading Dutch tabloid and the nation's biggest football magazine, which was also friendly to him.

Cruyff's is a complicated legacy—that of a man who achieved enormously and had an outsized influence in shaping the sport as we know it at two storied clubs and a national team that altered everything. But he sometimes seemed to prefer a good power struggle to football itself.

But he could not overcome cancer. He'd been a chain-smoker all his life, going through as many as 80 cigarettes a day as a player, until he had a heart bypass surgery in 1991 and quit cold turkey. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in October. Last month, Cruyff wrote that he was optimistic. "I feel like I'm ahead 2-0 in the first half and that the game isn't over yet," he said in a statement. "I'm certain I'll win in the end."

Cruyff passed away in Barcelona on Thursday at age 68. He is survived by his wife of 47 years and their three children.