Football is self-expression. It may not seem that way on a Sunday morning when you're having the shit kicked out of you by a 16-stone lorry driver, or when you fall over trying to launch one forward, or when you watch Aston Villa; but it still involves imagining doing something and then trying to do it, it still involves bringing your own thoughts and feelings onto a patch of ground. Some of the time, what you express on the football pitch might trouble you. You might realise you are angrier than you thought you were. Or that you have a frustration about your capabilities that stretches beyond what you can and can't do with a ball.
But if you play football, you will, however bad you are, experience moments of artistic creation, when you pick a perfect pass, pull off an absurd trick or score a great goal. You will have done something that – to you, if no-one else – is beautiful. Most of the time, you'll fuck up, but even in fucking up you will be trying to express something. Behind every YouTube clip of a 40-year old middle manager who fancies himself as a five-a-side Messi, is a dream of pure on-pitch self-expression.No-one showed the world that football could be artistic self-expression like Johan Cruyff, the Dutch winger and later manager, who has died aged 68. In a 1970s gallery full of footballing Hogarths – players who spat, stamped and snarled – Cruyff was somewhere between Turner and Picasso, both a delicate craftsman and a wildly inventive revolutionary. There were other great players who did unimaginable things with the ball, but Cruyff married his sublime skill to a vision of how football should be played, a vision shared, albeit not always peacefully, by those around him.
The "Cruyff turn" – the once seemingly impossible and now much mimicked piece of skill the Dutchman invented – best distils these things. In a 1974 World Cup game against Sweden, Cruyff picks the ball up on the left, near the box. The defender Jan Olsson is on him, holding his shirt. He tries to take it off the Dutch winger. Cruyff fakes to pass, then drags the ball back with his right foot behind his planted left foot, turning 180 degrees and bursting beyond his Swedish opponent, who wanders forward and then, bewildered, stumbles backwards, unsure of what has happened to him.
If football is art, or if it has artistic elements, the Cruyff turn is surely something that demonstrates it. It is sport as dance, as ballet, a perfect marriage of physical control and invention. Not known for his humility, Cruyff once said that, "In a way, I am probably immortal". Even if he hadn't been one of the greatest players of all time, his turn would ensure that he would always be remembered. There are players who perfect the established skill of the game. And then there is someone like Cruyff, who imagines something, who dreams it, and then brings it to life.
As a player and manager, he won a whole slew of medals, most notably with Ajax and Barcelona – teams he joined in spite of the fact that Real Madrid, a far greater power at the time, wanted him. Cruyff had strong beliefs, which he stuck to. He said at the time that he could never join Real because they were "associated with Franco". His footballing beliefs were better known: he exemplifies Total Football (totaalvoetbal), the fluid, eye-catching and exciting style of play still treasured in Amsterdam and Catalonia. "Quality without results is pointless," Cruyff said. "Results without quality is boring."
There was poetry, though, in the fact that a winner like Cruyff never won the World Cup with the revolutionary Dutch team he spearheaded in the 1970s. Every story needs a tragic element. All art needs sadness, anger, turmoil and this was a Dutch team that provided all those things. Today, that is part of what we remember in Cruyff, the innovative Dutch master, the ballet dancer in boots, the artist as footballer.
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