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Vale Johan

The 1974 World Cup was the first one I ever saw. By virtue of it being the first one Australia had qualified for, it was beamed live to our shores. I can't remember if I watched any of it live, as it would have been at odd hours here and I was just a kid, but I do remember watching the Socceroos eking out a credible 2-0 loss to East Germany in the rain – Ray Richards skidding across the puddles in what seemed like a 20 yard slide tackle – and I do recall the final. And Cruyff.

We lost the great Dutchman last week and it was a sad moment for me, as it must have been for many. In that final, Cruyff with his two-striped kit – he famously refused to wear the tri-stripe Adidas kit – the magical number 14 and the the arrogant, cool of one of the greats in his prime was the undoubted star in the firmament.

I didn't know much about football then, but I was Holland all the way. Why? I reckon it was the pop star swagger of the likes of Rep, Neeskens, Haan, Krol, Rijsbergen, Rensenbrink and of course, the best of all, Cruyff, that attracted this burgeoning football soul.

Of course, Cruyff's daring run in the box from the kick off, Vogts foul, and Neeskens' penalty, before any German had touched the ball, confirmed my belief in these new Orange Gods.

But, the Heavens betrayed me and much of the non-German speaking world. Gerd Muller's swivel to win the game, and Vogts aggressive man- marking of Cruyff, meant the new cup never left German soil.

What strikes me now about Cruyff was his willingness to take responsibility, to get involved and be engaged, and to see the bigger picture of the game. As a player he made a stand against Franco's Real Madrid by signing for its fierce political rivals, Barcelona. As the world's best player, he refused to be talked into participating in the Argentina World Cup in 1978, partly at least in protest at the military dictatorship there.

As the general of coach Rinus Michels' total football revolution, he shaped the game on the field for both Ajax and Holland, even as a relative new comer. As the still-influential former coach of Barcelona and – lesser known - of the Catalan “international team” he enacted a belief in the purity of the game, not in winning – although he did that – but in the manner of playing.

With Cruyff winning was less significant than leading. And he led. Always. He just happened to win as well.

His game was intellectual, a form of football literature, a narrative of soulful brilliance, a tale of beauty on grass. He was political too, covertly through the game's power corridors rather than overtly in the public eye, but, for me at least, he looked to be usually on the right side of history.

In an age when professional players are faceless mercenaries in search of the most stupendous salary package and the most exalted elitism, and when loyalty is something expressed in the stands but rarely on the field, Cruyff's legacy still has power. While he too searched for a good living, and rightly found it (even though he lost his fortune on business deals gone wrong) he was first and foremost a servant of the game and to the bigger games it fed into.

This is how I will remember him; as one of my heroes, a man of conviction, talent and heart, driven to succeed, but never at the cost of his values. A winner and a leader. A patron saint, if you will, for The Kick Project.

Vale Johan.   



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