Pele was easy on the eye. His exoticism was the embodiment of Brazilian football in the new TV age and still casts a long shadow through the years. Maradona was the ultimate football outlaw – a maverick talent synonymous with great feats of will on the field and great feats of self destruction off it.
But where does that leave Johan Cruyff?
Cruyff’s lesser rating, relatively speaking, is a function of being too early, too Dutch and not quite malleable enough as a heroic figure. The other big names in football’s modern hall of fame: Maradona, Pele, Zidane, Messi, both Ronaldos all stand for earthier values. Cruyff stands for something more cerebral, more aloof and harder to place.
Added to this, there are probably more TV clips and more recent memories of Maradona than Cruyff at least for a UK audience. It is doubtless different in the Netherlands and in Catalonia. But prior to the rightful reappraisal that occurred in the aftermath of his death in 2016, outside his ‘homelands’ the great no. 14 has always suffered in comparison to football’s ‘big two’.
Perhaps it would have been different had Cruyff’s 1974 side won the World Cup Final – or at least set out not to humiliate their German opponents.
Cruyff’s black mark is that he didn’t win a World Cup medal and that he played before the real global TV era. Like Lionel Messi and Ronaldo, Cruyff would have been a dominant force in the Champions League (rather than the in the devalued old pre-Bosman European Cup). Of that I have no doubt.
From player to coach
But when all this is said, you’d have to say Cruyff has a series of massive trump cards to play as a manager, coach and administrator that literally are second to none – including Pele and Maradona.
If you add in Cruyff’s second career then he is more influential than either Pele or Maradona and anyone on that rarefied list of superstars who have beguiled without fundamentally changing the way the game is played – for all their impact in their own time.
It is only when you start looking at Cruyff as part of a continuum of ideas and of players such as Di Stefano, Puskas, Beckenbauer, Xavi and Messi that Cruyff really begins to fit in.
He is head of that most exclusive club of players who have changed the way we appreciate the game and how it is played. You can argue about Cruyff’s claims to be amongst the greats as a player – because he lacks a World Cup winner’s medal – but what you can’t do is understate his influence on the modern game of football that we know and love.