De waarheid is nooit precies zoals je denkt dat hij zou zijn. [The truth is never exactly like you think he would be.]--Johan Cruyff.
The first professional soccer (voetbal) match I ever saw in person was at old the Olympic Stadium 7 november 1978. It was a good 30 minute walk from my childhood home, and my mom's friend, Max, took me. Max was the son of a sailor; he and his dad introduced me to sambal--an Indonesian hot sauce that I continue to adore. Unfortunately, Max died rather young.
The match, an arranged exhibit, marked the first official 'retirement' of Johan Cruyff and, simultaneously, ended the first golden age of Dutch football: Ajax of Amsterdam got completely outplayed (0-8) by Beckenbauer's Bayern Munchen. I went home in tears. (I was seven years old.) These days my dad lives next to the (renovated) stadium, although it is now more modest in size and not used for football anymore.
It's hard to explain the role of Johan Cruyff during the 1970s in Amsterdam and Barcelona. One year, my own club (AFC) took all the youth teams to the movies to see a special showing of Nummer 14--a 1973 documentary about Cruyff (see here, too). The title of the film was a reference to his shirt number. It caused a major crisis among my friends: would we go in the Ajax club colors, to honor our idol, or go in (the more stylish) AFC club colors. (I believe I opted for a mixed outfit.)
The documentary is a homage to the greatest club squad ever (the 1972 Ajax team). The best scene in the film is the one in which the annoying musical sound track is halted to show how the squad of my heroes is forced to run up the 'mountain' in het Amsterdamse bos (the Amsterdam forest), which was the huge depression era, man-made forest behind my childhood home. I always think of the scene when I bike by the forest or fly over it when I land at Schiphol.
Cruyff eventually resumed his career as a player, including a successful stint at arch-enemy Feyenoord, and, eventually, a manager. In his 30s, when I saw him play regularly, he had lost speed, but he still combined a velvet touch with on-pitch insight. He could make many much fitter and faster professional players look amateurish.
Like many kids of my generation, I was born 'too late.' We mostly missed out on the 60s and 70s in which Amsterdam was the center of the world (or so we were told); and we certainly missed the golden age of Ajax in the late 60s and early 70s; we spent most of our childhood hearing about the great club and national squads from older friends and relatives. This changed when Cruyff returned to Ajax to coach in the mid 1980s. He inherited a very talented, youthful team including a whole new generation of fantastic players (e.g., Menzo, Rijkaard and Van Basten), but he manifestly improved them, and I loved watching them develop in person. The team was uneven, but on its best days it could dazzle (including a memorable goal by Van Basten). Cruyff took them back to the near-elite of European footbal (including the cup winners cup). Even so, his greatest European managing triumph took place in Barcelona when he managed them to their first European Championship (in 1992).
As the years went by Cruyff became known for his oracular aphorisms uttered during TV interviews or commentary. Cruyff, who spoke in a distinctive Amsterdam working class accent that has now largely disappeared from Amsterdam, could compete with any Ancient sage with his philosophical nuggets. My favorite one has always been, Als ik zou willen dat je het begreep, had ik het wel beter uitgelegd, that is, "If I had wanted you to understand it, I would have explained it better." (Another gem is Vaak moet er iets gebeuren voordat er iets gebeurt, "Often something has to happen before something happens.") In Holland, Elk nadeel heb z'n voordeel ("every disadvantage has its advantage") has entered the popular lexicon.
One final thought on the 1974 world cup final (recall also this post). During the last forty years, the Netherlands has fielded astoundingly talented national squads, including four others that had a legitimate shot at winning it all (and here I am leaving aside the most talented one that I saw self-destruct at San Siro in Milan in 1990). Cruyff has loomed so large in the national football imagination, that there has always been an underlying sense that, if Cruyff couldn't do it, it couldn't be done, until, of course, it will be done.