In the end Johan Cruyff couldn’t defeat lung cancer. After facing down many a foe on and off the soccer pitch, the Dutch genius died Thursday, aged 68.
A footballer for the purist, Cruyff brought a smile to the face of anyone who ever watched his silky skills for The Netherlands, Ajax Amsterdam or Barcelona.
Cruyff reached his sporting peak in the early 1970s and went on to successfully manage Barcelona. His talent was such that he is comfortably placed alongside Pele, Diego Maradona, Franz Beckenbauer and Lionel Messi as the best footballers of all time.
Family spokeswoman Carole Thate told The Associated Press that Cruyff died in the Spanish city of Barcelona after a five-month battle with lung cancer.
"Another legend has left us today," said Messi, the Argentina and Barcelona forward .
The Netherlands-France friendly on Friday in Amsterdam will be halted in the 14th minute for a minute’s silence in honor of Cruyff, who made the No. 14 shirt his own during his glittering career in the Netherlands team.
Obsessed by football to the end and ever the positive thinker, Cruyff said his recovery was going well. "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."
Football lost a revolutionary, who embodiment of the Dutch brand of "Total Football," a man who stood up for the cold commercial rights of players and one who proved positive attacking football was a winning combination in Europe after years of defensive domination.
In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that "through him, the world knew the Netherlands."
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 an outspoken football critic and analyst.
On the field, 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 instinctive feel for seeing how a move would develop before it actually began.
"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 for The Netherlands.
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 comments 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 center. 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 savior.
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 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 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.