Johan Cryuff is gone, but his legacy continues unabated.
It lives on every day through a new generation of stars—players such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo—who display a Cruyff-esque audacity to invent on the pitch and stretch the boundaries of the game.
That was Cruyff’s greatest gift he gave to the soccer world: His willingness to try new things. The great Dutchman played with an absolute fearlessness, his genius born out of a rebellious nature that allowed him to do things that others from his era didn’t have the courage or the inclination to even attempt.
The one moment that has come to (unfairly) define and symbolize his career came against Sweden during the group stage of the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. It was in that 0-0 draw that the incomparable Cruyff, after receiving the ball just outside the Swedish penalty area, produced a bit of magic.
With his back towards the net, he looked as if he was about to pass Sweden’s Jan Olsson on his left and move back towards the centre of the field. Instead, with the same right foot that appeared to knock the ball backwards, Cruyff shifted the ball in the opposite direction while simultaneously swivelling his entire body in the same direction and took off past the Swedish defender—making him look utterly silly in the process—on the right towards the goal-line.
He didn’t score, but the “Cruyff Turn” became an instant part of soccer lore.
This was 1974. There was no internet. The vast number of live games from leagues around the world weren’t televised like they are today. While magical moments such as this one from Cruyff were considered no big deal back in Holland—they had been watching him for many years, after all—the rest of the world only really had a chance to see him play during the World Cup.
In that one move, with the “Cruyff Turn,” the great Dutchman captured the imagination of all soccer fans, and inspired generations of children for decades to try to duplicate his ballet-like move in school playgrounds across the globe.
Ultimately, Cruyff dared to be different. That’s how he’ll be remembered.