Johan Cruyff dies aged 68 after Holland and Barcelona legend loses cancer battle as tributes pour in for one of football's icons
- Dutch legend Johan Cruyff died peacefully in Barcelona on Thursday after losing his battle with lung cancer
- Former Ajax and Barcelona passed away surrounded by his family after he was initially diagnosed last October
- Cruyff is regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all time and went on to enjoy huge success as a coach
- The football world has been stunned by the death of one of the game's legends – read the tributes here
Dutch icon Johan Cruyff has died at the age of 68.
Cruyff, who represented Holland 48 times as well as starring for Ajax and Barcelona during a glittering career, passed away on Thursday after his battle with cancer.
A statement on his website read: 'On March 24 2016 Johan Cruyff (68) died peacefully in Barcelona, surrounded by his family after a hard fought battle with cancer.
Johan Cruyff, pictured earlier this month at the Circuit de Catalunya during Formula One testing, has died at the age of 68
'It's with great sadness that we ask you to respect the family's privacy during their time of grief.'
Cruyff, who won three European Cups and eight Dutch titles with Ajax, was diagnosed with lung cancer last October.
In February, he released a statement insisting that treatment was going well and that he believed he would make a full recovery.
It read: 'After several medical treatments I can say that the results have been very positive, thanks to the excellent work of the doctors, the affection of the people and my positive mentality.
'Right now, I have the feeling that I am 2-0 up in the first half of a match that has not finished yet. But I am sure that I will end up winning.'
Cruyff's son Jordi, who had a spell with Manchester United between 1996 and 2000, paid tribute to his father last Saturday – Father's Day in Spain – via Twitter.
'In Spain it's father's day! Thanks for being who you are & teaching me life's values, my role model @JohanCruyff.'
Cruyff is regarded as one of the greatest footballers in history and was the leading star of the Dutch team that introduced 'Total Football' to the world.
Under the strategy, players pass the ball frequently to seek advantage, and switch positions seamlessly to adjust to the flow of play. Latin American admirers referred to the orange-clad Dutch national team as 'The Clockwork Orange'.
Cruyff was the personification of a total footballer, playing deep or shallow as the moment required, as deadly from the wings as from his assigned position in the centre. He was among the first to see defenders as part of the attack.
Cruyff captained Holland at the 1974 World Cup, at the height of his playing career, and led the Dutch to the final.
Despite winning Holland an early penalty, which Johan Neeskens converted, Cruyff and Holland were left disappointed as they lost 2-1 to West Germany.
Cruyff's career at Ajax ran in parallel to manager Rinus Michels implementing the highly successful Total Football system. Michels went to Barcelona in 1971 and Cruyff followed two years later.
A prolific goalscorer, and a great creator for others, Cruyff even had his own trick, famous and still used to this day.
The 'Cruyff turn' was perfected by its inventor, who finished his playing career in Holland with spells at Ajax and Feyenoord.
A sought-after football thinker, he managed Ajax from 1985 to 1988, and then, just as in his playing career, Cruyff was lured away by Barcelona.
At the Nou Camp he won the European Cup, in 1992, and four league titles among a raft of trophies. During his time at the club he underwent major heart surgery in 1991, which prompted him to stop smoking.
He was sacked by Barcelona in 1995 but remained influential at the club for the rest of his life.
Cruyff was also a three-time winner of the Ballon d'Or award, taking the award in 1971, 1973 and 1974. At the time, the award recognised the best player in Europe, rather than being a worldwide award as it is today.
The death of Cruyff stunned football. The Dutch football association (KNVB) wrote on Twitter: 'With great sadness we have learned of the death of Johan Cruyff. Words are not enough.'
The former Liverpool striker Ian Rush wrote: 'Very saddened by the passing of Johan Cruyff - a dear friend, unbelievable player and a national hero!!'
Ossie Ardiles, the former Argentina and Tottenham midfielder, added: 'Johan Cruyff. Extraordinary player. One of the best ever. Had the privilege to play with him twice. RIP'
Clubs and players from across Europe paid their own tributes, and Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos made his own fond tribute.
While Barcelona and Real Madrid are fierce rivals on the pitch, Ramos said: 'Goodbye to one of the all-time legends of football. Player and coach ahead of his time. RIP Johan Cruyff.'
Manchester City's Yaya Toure wrote: 'Shocked by the sad news about Johan Cruyff. RIP'
Former United States international Alexi Lalas saluted the lasting impact made by Cruyff.
He wrote: 'RIP Johan Cruyff. He made the beautiful game more beautiful.'
Ajax issued a short statement that read: 'Johan Cruyff has died in Barcelona at the age of 68. The greatest Ajax player of all time had suffered with lung cancer since October last year.
'Ajax share in this great loss and wish the families much strength.'
The initial reaction from Barcelona was succinct. Before the grand tributes that will follow, the club tweeted simply: 'We will always love you, Johan. Rest in peace.'
SPORTSMAIL'S JEFF POWELL'S TRIBUTE TO JOHAN CRUYFF
The first time I had a beer with Johan Cruyff was in one of those brass-top bars in Amsterdam on one of those giddy nights when he inspired Ajax to one of those shimmering victories which transformed the world game.
He had a cigarette lolling from the corner of his mouth.
But then everything Cruyff did was deceptively languid. As Arsenal had discovered earlier that evening while being hung, drawn and quarter-finalled as he and Ajax began closing in on their first European Cup glory.
The talk was of Total Football.
Rudi Krol was standing with us and they were explaining the rudiments of the fluency of movement and fantasy of the intellect which was beginning to enchant us all.
'Look at this skinny young man,' said Krol. 'Who would have thought that when he turns up in defence he can do that job as good as me.'
'See him,' said Cruyff. 'When he materialises at outside left he does things no opponent would ever expect from a centre half.'
It was the spring of 1971 and they were re-imagining the game as we knew it.
What was their secret? I asked. 'Simple,' Cruyff retorted. 'We can all play anywhere.'
Suddenly going Dutch meant something other than buying our rounds, which we did throughout the night.
When the dawn came up it was glistening with rotation instead of set positions, players inter-changing rather than stagnating, intelligence confounding the belligerence which was intimidating football in England and elsewhere at the time.
Seeking a word for it, I came up with: 'Kaleidoscopic.'
'Not bad,' said Cruyff with a slight frown. 'But Total Football is better, don't you think?'
Krol grinned, a touch ironically: 'Johan always knows best.'
That he did.
Henrik Johannes Cruijff, as he was christened, had known best since he was a child of the street football which remains, unlike in England now, a vital foundation of the Dutch game.
The rest of the boys whirled about him as he span around the lamp-posts and danced over the kerbs.
His devoted father did not know it then but he was watching in embryo the mesmerising movement which would eventually enshrine Cruyff as the only footballer ever to have a manoeuvre named after him.
The Cruyff Turn, in which he shaped to cross only to drag the ball back behind his standing leg with the other foot while turning through 180 degrees and then shimmying past a defender, was to be immortalised on the world stage.
His dad did not live to see that happen. It fell to Vic Buckingham, the mild-mannered Englishman who was Cruyff's first manager at Ajax, to be not only a mentor to the boy he described as 'God's gift to football,' but his surrogate father.
Then came Rinus Michels, his professor.
A few weeks after those beers beside an Amsterdam canal Cruyff, Krol & Co brought their shiny new new game to Wembley and duly bewildered the Greeks of Panathinaikos in the European Cup Final.
One year later, in the 1972 Final, Cruyff scored the two goals which crushed Inter Milan.
The next time we shared a proper drink was the following May when Ajax completed their Euro hat-trick. With victory over Juventus they traumatised Italian football in all its defensive insularity.
This time it was not the beer bottles hissing but the champagne corks popping in a hotel on the banks of the Danube in Belgrade.
The toast was to Cruyff the best footballer on earth, to Ajax the team of the decade, to Total Football.
And to Michels, the manager who was the architect of this Dutch renaissance in which Cruyff was the supreme artist. The meeting of their genius minds was the catalyst for all that poetry in motion.
That telepathy, when called into harness for their national team, produced a World Cup campaign of even higher revelation, albeit one which ended in 2-1 defeat in the 1974 Final.
Holland were confounded not only by Germany's traditional never-beaten resilience but a mixture of old enmities and a certain arrogance which had grown up through their ascendancy.
Cruyff opening proceeding in Munich with a hypnotising run which ended in a foul and first-minute penalty. Johan Neeskens converted before the Germans had touched the ball. Remembering the war, the Dutch proceeded to play keep-ball as a process of humiliation, rather than killing off the game.
English referee Jack Taylor's penalty decision was correct. But it was one he was to counter-balance later, at the other end. Paul Breitner's equalising penalty was more controversial and Cruyff, recalling Geoff Hurst's over-the-line goal in the '66 Final, would voice his suspicion that the two tournaments had been rigged in favour of England and Germany winning at home.
Not that he was ever shy of expressing his opinion.
When someone in my hearing once had the temerity to question the great man's work-rate, he retorted: 'It's not how much you run, it's how and where you run. I say run less but more to the point. The intention is to arrive at the perfect moment. If you don't do that you can either be too late….or more often too early. Learn to play football with your brains.'
And with the brush-strokes of an artist.
It became something of a cliché during that era to describe Cruyff as The Dutch Master.
David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, painted the best word picture: 'Cruyff's vision of harmony and movement was rooted in the same sublime ordering of space that one sees in the canvasses of Vermeer.'
Cruyff took that concept with him when he left Ajax for Barcelona. First to carry on scoring championship and cup-winning goals in vast numbers. Then to become the creator of the tika-taka pass and move game which remains the fundamental of that club's phenomenal success to this day.
As he was managing his way back to Wembley, to win the 1992 European Cup by beating Sampdoria 1-0 after extra-time, I went to see him in Barcelona. 'They're beginning to get it,' he said of his players, the cigarette still between his lips. 'Not Totally, yet. But that will come in time.'
That it did, under Pep Guardiola who says of his predecessor: 'Cruyff built the cathedral. It is our job to maintain it.'
Cruyff and the family upon whom he doted to the end fell in love with Barcelona. He defied Madrid law to christen his third child and first son Jorgi, after Catalonia's patron saint. Apart from the occasional venture into US soccer and the now-and-again returns to help revive Ajax, they lived there in the sunshine to his very end.
The last time we clinked glasses was during the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
This time we sipped white wine. I asked again for the real explanation as to why the greatest player in the world of that time – Pele was finished, Maradona just starting – had withdrawn from the 1978 World Cup, an action which many of his countrymen blamed for Holland losing that Final to Argentina.
There had been talk of more injury, perhaps illness, and of a kidnap attempt in Spain. He replied: 'When your family receive death threats, their safety must be your priority.'
Johan knew best, again.
Too late, so sadly, he discovered what was best for his own well-being.
The cigarette was missing that day in Germany. The last of those had been inhaled 15 years earlier, following chest pains and a double heart by-pass.
After that scare he observed: 'Football gave me everything in this life, tobacco almost took it all away.'
Shortly after beginning the fight which followed last October's lung cancer diagnosis, he said: 'I feel like I'm 2-0 up in this match.'
This time, he could not keep the lead long enough to carry him beyond his premature death, at 68.
But if you want to see for yourself how great a footballer and noble a man he was, join me one clear night, look up and espy, shining in the dark sky, the minor planet named after Johan Cruyff.
In football, as in all things, there are stars. Then there are real stars.