Dutch soccer legend Johan Cruyff passes away

Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff. (Manu Fernandez/AP)

Dutch soccer great Johan Cruyff, who revolutionized the game as the personification of "Total Football," has died. He was 68.

Family spokeswoman Carole Thate confirmed to The Associated Press that Cruyff had died in the Spanish city of Barcelona after a five-month battle with lung cancer.

Obsessed by football to the end and ever the positive thinker, Cruyff only last month said his recovery was going well. He said "I have the feeling that I am 2-0 up in the first half. The game is not over yet. Still I know that in the end, I will win." On Thursday, he died.

In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that "through him, the world knew the Netherlands."

And through Cruyff, football was given a new level of magical skill.

"He was a genius and now we are missing this genius," former FIFA president Sepp Blatter said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press.

Former France international Michel Platini said football had lost one of its best ever players. "Johan was my childhood hero, my idol and my friend," said Platini, the former head of European soccer.

Cruyff won European Cups three times with Ajax as a player and once with Barcelona as a coach. He was European player of the year three times and, in 1999, was named Europe’s best player of the 20th century.

Though a World Cup title eluded him, he was the pivotal figure on the Netherlands’ 1974 national team that electrified the sport with its "Total Football" tactics, with players constantly interchanging roles. The tactics influenced the game worldwide, bringing fresh life to a sport that had become stuck in a defensive mindset.

"Football has lost a man who did more to make the beautiful game beautiful than anyone in history," said former England striker Gary Lineker , who played under Cruyff at Barcelona.

Cruyff smoked cigarettes most of his life and finally quit after undergoing an emergency heart bypass operation in 1991. After more heart trouble in 1997, he vowed never to coach again, though he remained a vocal football critic and analyst.

Cruyff’s wiry frame housed surprising athletic talent, unpredictable bursts of speed and agility and precise ball-control that allowed him to trick opponents, ghosting around them with ease. His genius lay in his eyes and mind, in his instinctive feel for how a move would develop.

His could pass the ball with uncanny accuracy and wind up time and again at the right spot at the climax of an attack.

"Speed and insight are often confused," he said. "When I start running before everybody else, I appear faster." That speed and anticipation also gave him an unmatched grace under duress.

"A symbol of elegant play. An inspiration," said FIFA President Gianni Infantino.

He scored 392 times in 520 games over a 19-year playing career, playing 48 times for his country and scoring 33 goals.

But his influence reached far beyond creating goals, thanks to his qualities as a leader, thinker and speaker. With a brash Amsterdam accent, he put across his views about soccer and everything surrounding the game with irresistible force.

His commentary became oft-quoted classics: "Every disadvantage has its advantage."

As a coach he had 242 victories in 387 matches, with 75 draws and 70 losses.

Cruyff was heavily involved in tactics from the start of his career. Along with Rinus Michels, his coach at Ajax and Barcelona, he helped develop Total Football.

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.

With Cruyff on the field, Ajax won the European Cup for three consecutive years from 1971-1973 before he moved to FC Barcelona midseason in 1973 and led the middle-of-the-table team to its first national title in a decade.

That season was crowned with a 5-0 away win at Barcelona’s arch-rival Real Madrid so sweet the Catalans still sometimes refer to Cruyff as "El Salvador," the saviour.

The transfer fee paid by Barcelona was a world record and is seen as a milestone in the commercialization of sport. He was also one of the first soccer players to take on corporate sponsorships.

Even if it is common now for major players to enjoy a golden twilight in the United States, Cruyff did so almost 40 years ago, when at 32, he joined the the Los Angeles Aztecs.

British sports writer Dave Miller, who once called Cruyff "Pythagorus in boots" for his ability to calculate the geometry of players in motion, wrote that "few have been able to exact, both physically and mentally, such mesmeric control on a match from one penalty area to another."

Many fans who watched Cruyff play as children can still replicate some of his moves, including the "Cruyff turn" — a technique he used for passing defenders by faking toward them, then flicking the ball behind his own other leg in the opposite direction and darting after it.

Cruyff’s pronouncements on the game skirted the line between profundity and nonsense.

Criticizing overly defensive play, he once said: "Italians can’t beat you, though you can lose to them."

Other much quoted lines were: "You can’t score if you don’t shoot," and "Before I make a mistake, I don’t make it."

Cruyff launched a tradition of great forwards coming out of the Netherlands that included Marco Van Basten, Patrick Kluivert, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Dennis Bergkamp. Yet defenders like Ajax, Barcelona and Dutch national team player Ronald Koeman were just as much inspired by him.

"He meant almost everything to me," Koeman said.

He had a wife Danny, daughters Chantal and Susila, and a son Jordi, who also played soccer professionally.

"He was our most famous Dutchman around the globe," said Prime Minister Rutte.