Johan Cruyff won just about every accolade available during his time as a player, and it would take far too much time to list them all here. He won 10 league titles as a player, and a further 4 as a manager, adding to 4 European Cups. He played in a World Cup final, and won three Balon D’Ors during a career that saw him play over 500 league games for six clubs in three countries and two continents. He remains one of the greatest to ever have played the game, but to my mind, very rarely has a player been shrouded in as much mysticism despite being as accessible as Cruyff.
Put it down to a relative lack of footage, but when I think of the name “Cruyff”, there are very few definitive images of him that immediately come to mind, apart from the glorious Cruyff turn against Sweden in the 1974 World Cup, and his mazey, penetrating penalty-winning dribble in the first minute of the final of the same tournament, against West Germany. All I can associate Cruyff with is the rather vague and entirely intellectual notions of control and philosophy. He didn’t conform to existing norms of how to play the game. He chose to take matters into his own hands, instructing his team-mates throughout games, and revolutionized both the way Ajax — and later Barcelona — operated, and created a style of football based entirely on his philosophies of possession, positional flexibility, and free-flowing attacking football. To him, nothing was more sacred than the pursuit of this philosophy. Cruyff was less a footballer, and more of a philosopher. Not an athlete, but an intellectual. Not a foot-soldier, but a revolutionary genius.
While conducting research for this compilation of quotes about Cruyff, I couldn’t help but notice that any permutations and combinations of the words “quotes”, “about”, and “Cruyff” led me to dozens of links of articles with explanations of quotes by Cruyff, and almost none with quotes about him. This made me even more aware than I already was of the never-ending flow of ideas he has had to offer over the decades about the way he feels the game should be played. Also, it highlighted an inescapable fact, which is that no words can do justice to the importance of his contributions to the game, and to attempt to encapsulate the size of his legacy in a few words is all but futile. Even so, given the cerebral and intellectual genius that he was both on the pitch and on the touchline, many of his team-mates and players have voiced their admiration for his talent and footballing brain, and the impact he has had on Ajax, Barcelona, and the Dutch national side.
Now, for those of you who are familiar with his story, you will know that there is no telling which he was better at, playing football or instructing others on how to do so (in fact, those who watched him play will remember him controlling games even while on the pitch himself, shouting instructions to team-mates and single-handedly orchestrating the entire team’s performance), and it shall come as no surprise that a significant amount of the praise he has received over the decades has been directed at his achievements as a manager, not least at Barcelona, the club he revolutionized. Thus, it is only fitting that this article is divided into two main sections, the first devoted to quotes about Cruyff the player, and the second to his legacy as a manager.
Cruyff the player
“I played 18 years in top football and seventeen times for Sweden but that moment against Cruyff was the proudest moment of my career. I thought I’d win the ball for sure, but he tricked me. I was not humiliated. I had no chance. Cruyff was a genius.” — Jan Olsson, Swedish defender and victim of the famous Cruyff turn during the 1974 FIFA World Cup finals
“I do not understand how he did it. It was a fantastic sequence. I thought I was going to take the ball. I still cannot understand. Now when I see the video, every time I think I have got the ball. When he is about to kick the ball I am sure I am going to take it, but every time he surprises me. I loved everything about this moment. I have the memory. It is a moment I remember every day. Every day I think about football, I think about Johan Cruyff.” — Jan Olsson
“He was so mature. He was such a skinny little kid but he had such immense stamina. He could run all over the field and he could do everything: set movements up, fly down the wing, run into the penalty area, head the ball in. Left foot, right foot, anything – and such speed.” — Vic Buckingham, Cruyff’s first coach at Ajax
“He was certainly the best footballer Europe has produced.” — Franz Beckenbauer
“When you saw Cruyff off the pitch he was like a thin boy. But on the pitch he was from another planet.” — Rinus Michels
“He was a great player at a time when Dutch football was going through a great period and deserves to be considered as one of the all-time greats.” — Ossie Ardiles
“I loved the Dutch in the ’70s, they excited me and Cruyff was the best. [ . . . ] He was at the heart of a revolution with his football. Ajax changed football and he was the leader of it all. If he wanted he could be the best player in any position on the pitch.” — Eric Cantona
“He had it all – vision, attitude, presence. He was also very flexible, so when opponents tried to kick him he would always anticipate what was about to happen and move just in time. Defenders couldn’t touch him. He would be the provider for the main striker but was a prolific goalscorer himself too.” — Ruud Gullit
“He is like the Godfather of Dutch football.” — Frank Rijkaard
“A real football brain. He had superb control, he was inventive and he could perform magic with a ball to get himself out of trouble instinctively. He got a lot of goals, and although he was so skilful, he didn’t show off – he played to the strengths of the players around him.” — Sir Bobby Charlton
“I was proud to have known Johan. He was one of those great, great footballers that made you excited whenever he got the ball and began to play. There was always expectation in the crowd when Johan was on the pitch. There wasn’t a negative thought in his head. He loved the game, he loved sport and he loved life.” — Sir Bobby Charlton
“For me he is the best of all time.” — Michel Platini
“One of the greatest players ever, a true giant in our game.” — Peter Schmeichel
“He introduced things we hadn’t seen before. I was young, but I could see he was an outstanding player. In football, where everything seems to have been done before, he created new things.” — Andoni Zubizarreta
“If you talk about the likes of Lionel Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo these days, I think he is up there but even more influential on the pitch. He was such a good talker and his understanding of the game was amazing. [ . . . ] He knew the advantages to be gained from holding possession, finding the right passes and in the right areas at the right time and if you look at Barcelona today he started that in the old days with guys like [Hristo] Stoichkov. He was an amazing player. Amazing.” — Jesper Olsen
“Cruyff in his prime, especially in that World Cup (1974) was up there with the best of them.” — Alan Hansen
“He was an absolute genius. He just played the game at his own pace, which I think at that level is fantastic.” — Mark Lawrenson
“[ . . . ] there were matches when he did with a ball what no one else would dare to try.” — Terry Venables
“Was he the greatest European player of all time? On form, it’s difficult to imagine who was better. It does not matter how and where you remember Johan playing, he was the best; in midfield he was the best; deep, the best; as an attacker, the best.” — Terry Venables
“In terms of his physique and power he would be Cristiano Ronaldo. In terms of his ability, creativity and artistry he would be Messi. Cruyff combined both aspects of the game. Power, speed, he had an amazing change of rhythm, it looked like he was ambling along in fourth gear and suddenly he would go up to fifth and then sixth. At that time he was a one-off. He was unique. A unique figure and without a doubt a unique character.” — Miguel Reina
“He was one of the greatest football players I ever met. He had technique, fantasy, intelligence, and pace. He had everything, he was a complete player. [ . . . ] When you talk about a player like Cruyff, you envy everything about him, because he was smart. He had everything you needed to succeed, and he’s shown this also as a coach.” — Franco Causio (former Juventus player)
“He was the conductor of the Dutch team. They were magnificent. He is one of the greatest players I was lucky enough to ever see.” — Sir Trevor Brooking
“He was, is and remains the greatest. If Cruyff had played at this time, he would have still been the best.” — Ronald Koeman
“His intelligence was plain to see and as a player he was already a manager on the pitch. He was a very technically skilful player and he was strong tactically. He was clever, he organised the team, opponents could not anticipate his attacking movements and he also scored goals. Normally attackers are selfish, focused on scoring goals, but he was looking after everything, deciding things on the pitch and giving instructions to the rest of the players.
“He played for Barcelona and then went to America. When he finally came back to Holland and Ajax at the age of 34, his first game was against Haarlem and he scored a great goal, chipping the keeper from 20 metres. What a fantastic memory that is. All the expectation on him coming home and he rises to it and scores a wonderful goal.
“We can celebrate his skill and cleverness but the most significant quality all the best players have is the ability to win big titles.” — Ronald Koeman
“As a player he turned football into an art form. Johan came along and revolutionised everything. The modern-day Barca started with him, he is the expression of our identity, he brought us a style of football we love.” — Joan Laporta, former Barcelona president
“Johan was innovative and a breath of fresh air. It was an extraordinary feeling, and he touched a lot of people.” — Joan Laporta
“Cruyff was the first player who understood that he was an artist, and the first who was able and willing to collectivise the art of sports.” — Hubert Smeets, journalist
“Few have been able to exact, both physically and mentally, such mesmeric control on a match from one penalty area to another.” — David Miller, sports writer
“We are talking, in my eyes, about a genius. It is a word I hardly use, but he deserves it. He is, for me, perhaps the most important person in the history of football – as a player and as a manager.” — Guillem Balague
“Johan Cruyff, Maradona, Pele, Eusebio, they were all fantastic players. But Johan was the greatest.” — Sjaak Swart, Cruyff’s team-mate at Ajax and the Dutch national team
“When I came to the first team I was 17 years old. Johan was eight or nine. His father – his second dad – worked in the Ajax stadium. So after school Johan would shoot back all the balls ending up behind the goal.
“And on Saturday I always watched Johan playing at the youth team. It was great to see him dribbling past five or six players. You could already see that he was a great football player.
“When Johan was 17 he started playing for the first team. We played together for about seven years. And we are true friends. And that’ll be forever. He is a great person as well.
“Sometimes people think that Johan is a little arrogant but that’s simply not true. He always wants to help other people. We got along very well.” — Sjaak Swart
“I think he’s one of those legends whose name is always going to be spoken about with the Peles and Maradonas. The rest of us, we’re just mortals, we come and we go.” — Jordi Cruyff
Testament to the manner in which Cruyff’s genius transcended even the most heated rivalry in European football, consider what Emilio Butragueno, the legendary Real Madrid striker, has had to say about the Dutchman:
“I always told everyone that Cruyff was my idol. I’m not being disloyal to Madrid by saying that. You’d have to benarrow-minded and short on insight to think like that.” — Emilio Butragueno
“Cruyff was a magnificent player, one of greatest, a symbol of elegant play. He has marked football history for ever.” — Gianni Infantino
Cruyff the manager
“It is about creating one philosophy, one mentality, from the bottom of the club to the top. Cruyff is the one who started it all. He has been the club’s most influential figure. We all have the ability to do certain things, but I would not have been able to build something from scratch like Cruyff did. I learned a lot of things from him. I cannot imagine the current Barcelona without Cruyff’s work.” — Pep Segura, former technical director of Barcelona’s La Masia
“Cruyff’s arrival changed many things. He was a visionary.” — Jose Maria Bakero
“Under him, Barcelona were the best team in Europe and I think the game is still waiting for another team to achieve success playing the way we played. It’s no secret that he and I were often at loggerheads, but the fact is I owe him so much. He knows that I know what he did for my game. He was a great player himself and I can’t think of any other player who has been an influence on so many footballers down the years.” — Hristo Stoichkov
“Playing for Barca, winning the Golden Ball… without him none of it would have been possible. He gave me the chance to play with the ‘Dream Team’, to enjoy playing football and win titles. [ . . . ] Johan was unique. He was the man that changed the destiny of Barcelona.” — Hristo Stoichkov
“I played under great coaches like Guus Hiddink and Rinus Michels, but Cruyff shades it for me. An inspirational figure, he always wanted something more from his teams – for him, it wasn’t enough just to win; success had to be achieved in a manner that would be remembered and discussed for years.” — Ronald Koeman
“He was always a winner – a winning football player and a winning coach.” — Ronald Koeman
“He laid the foundations for what you see now (at Barcelona). He was responsible for the major turnaround of the club, for stopping the domination of Real Madrid.” — Ronald Koeman
“His influence is alive at Ajax, throughout Dutch football and at Barcelona. He was the man who started Barcelona’s great football, that style they still have. Later on other coaches did the job even better than him but he was the man who started it all.” — Ronald Koeman
“Tactically he was brilliant, one of the best.” — Michael Laudrup
“He was, without a doubt, the best coach I ever had. His lessons will be eternal in my life.” — Romario
“I think the person I learnt the most from as a coach was Cruyff because he was always talking about tactics – how to play, where to play and when to play. I think that helps a lot of young players, which is good. He was the most important trainer for me.” — Marco van Basten
“Johan is so technically perfect that even as a boy he stopped being interested in that aspect of the game. That’s why he’s been very interested in tactics since he was young. He sees football situations so clearly that he was always the one to decide how the game would be played.” — Marco van Basten
“Johan has always been an idol of me. I was always watching that great Ajax team’s European games in the 1970s with players like Ruud Krol, Johan Neeskens, Sjaak Swart and of course Cruyff when I was young. They won three European Cups in a row, they were great to watch. Cruyff always drew my attention. That team was obviously very good, but Johan was a beautifully elegant player.” — Marco van Basten
“He must be one of the most creative coaches in football history, because I always loved his ideas and he was always talking about something new. I learned a lot from him and I feel happy and grateful that I had the chance to work with him at Barcelona.” — Gheorghe Hagi
“He was a real visionary and you can see that nowadays, almost 15 years later, he’s still ahead of most of people in football. I’ve learned a lot with him.” — Luis Figo
“To speak of Cruyff is to speak of football. He made the sport about entertainment and titles.” — Luis Enrique
“It was an honour to play for Cruyff and I learned so much with him. He taught us that if you want to win you need to keep the ball for as long as possible. His methods for getting it back were special too and so was his vision of the game. A revolutionary who could get the very best out of you.” — Albert Ferrer
“Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it.” — Pep Guardiola
“He has had the biggest influence on football out of anyone in the world, first as a player and then as a coach.” — Pep Guardiola
“All the coaches I had in my career were important but Cruyff was the most important of all. He was without equal on training and tactics and he helped me to understand the million details that decide why some matches are lost and some matches are won.” — Pep Guardiola
“Forget about the titles, I won more titles than him. Our gratitude is infinite and his legacy is also. And this legacy is not measured in trophies. It is rather the fact that he has enforced changes. Johan changed two clubs. But not only Ajax and Barcelona, he also changed the national teams of Netherlands and Spain. There is nothing that can compare to what Cruyff has done for football. The football of the last 25 years at Barcelona belongs to him and that is something indestructible.” — Pep Guardiola
“Johan gave us information but also the grammar of the game. I knew nothing about football and Johan gave me everything. He opened up a fascinating world to us. If you came in at half-time and were poor, you expected a thunderstorm because you had to fight more. However, Johan told you that you were bad because you ran too much – that you had to send the ball where you want and not run there. You had previously heard certain things but Cruyff told you the exact opposite. [Barcelona] is more than Johan, obviously, but he was the revolutionary that taught us how to do things. It is no accident that he has given rise to many coaches because he helped us to understand this game.” — Pep Guardiola