Johan Cruijff went through Ajax’s youth academy and, as a selection player, he rapidly became of the world’s best. Cruijff the player scored magical goals, at times seemed to float over the field, and was the uncontested star of the Ajax team that dominated Europe and the world in the early seventies. Johan Cruijff belongs in the same class of player as Pelè, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi.
As a four year old child, Cruijff was already a familiar face at Ajax. The reason for this was simple: his Uncle Henk was a grounds keeper in the old de Meer stadium. Young Cruijff did all sorts of small jobs around the stadium. Two years later, he made an unofficial debut on the field. The cub team was missing a player; Cruijff, who had been watching, ended up playing his first minutes in an Ajax jersey. Cruijff was just ten years old in that 1956-1957 season, when he became an official Ajacied. In the six years that followed, the talented player from Betondorp, an Amsterdam neighbourhood, went through the Ajax academy with verve. In Cruijff’s last year as a junior, he won the Dutch championship with Ajax’s Under 19s team.
Vic Buckingham let Cruijjf debut in Ajax 1 during the 1964-1965 season. According to the GVAV program book, Cruijff made his official Ajax debut on November 15, 1964. Cruijff’s first professional football match ended on a sour note. Ajax lost 3-1 to the Groningen team, sending the Amsterdam team towards the degradation zone. The only positive for the Ajacieds was the performance of the uniquely talented Cruijff. The fragile-looking talent scored the only Ajax goal of the afternoon, on a rebound. The Amsterdam tradition of making a scoring debut was proudly continued.
In the time of rough tackles, black boots and uneven football fields, in other words the early days of professional football, Cruijff signed a full professional contract shortly after his 18th birthday, one of the first of its kind in the Netherlands. It was the start of a brilliant career for Cruijff, one that shifted into high gear under new Ajax coach Rinus Michels. The former gym teacher gave the Ajax super-talent an immediate starting spot. Michels polished Cruijff’s talent and began building the team that would conquer the world a few years later.
During the 1966-1967 season, 19 year-old Cruijff was introduced to the Europa Cup I, the forerunner of the Champions League, and the highest attainable football stage. With Cruijff in the ranks, the Olympic Stadium was the foggy stage for the game between Ajax and Liverpool. Partly thanks to a goal by Cruijff, coach Bill Shankly’s Reds were thoroughly outclassed that evening, 5-1. That win against the biggest powerhouse in Europe at the time was called ‘the beginning of Dutch football’ by Cruijff.
Ajax was on its way to becoming Europe’s best. In 1969, Rinus Michels’ team lost its first Europa Cup I final. In Madrid’s Bernabéu Stadium, AC Milan was stronger (and smarter) than the relatively inexperienced Ajax. Two years later (1970-1972), Ajax – and Cruijff – won its first big trophy. In Wembley Stadium, Panathinaikos was the final hurdle on the way to European success. The Greek team was defeated 2-0. Cruijff made his mark with, among other things, his cross-pass to Arie Haan, who secured the final with his goal. After that, Queen Juliana received ‘Golden Ajax’ to Soestdijk Palace to congratulate the team on this European victory. Ajax was the European champion, and Cruijff was the undisputed star.
In the following football year, Michels left for Barcelona. Under the new Romanian coach Stefan Kovács, Ajax reached the Europa Cup I finals again. Cruiff’s role this time was even more key; in De Kuip, the maestro took the lead in defeating the Italian champion Internazionale. The born-and-bred forward was too clever for the Italian defenders time and time again. Two high passes to Cruijff resulted in as many goals. The Amsterdam native’s two goals gave Ajax its second Europa Cup I victory.
Under Cruijff’s leadership, Ajax was unbeatable in those years. Ajax won the World Club Cup and the European Supercup. After two consecutive Europa Cup I wins, Ajax also won its third straight final. In the Red Star Stadium in Belgrade, Ajax defeated Juventus in 1973. Johnny Rep’s early goal was fatal for the opponents: 1-0. For the third consecutive year, the Amsterdam team brought the prestigious Europa Cup back to its trophy case.
In the 1973-1974 season, Cruijff left Ajax to follow his former coach Michels to Barcelona. The duo was also successful in Catalonia. Cruijff grew into the blue-and-red team’s ‘El Salvador’, the saviour; an icon who helped Barcelona to build its self-esteem. Partly due to the Dutch contribution of Michels and Cruijff, Barcelona won the Spanish championship for the first time in fourteen years.
Comeback to Ajax
After a failed farewell match against Bayern München in 1978, as well as a business failure, Cruijff picked himself up by his football boots. Via the Los Angeles Aztecs and Washington Diplomats in the North American football competition, Cruijff returned to Ajax, via Levante in Spain, in 1981. The maestro from Betondorp showed that he still possessed superior football skills. With a famous lob over Haarlem keeper Edward Metgod, Cruiff made history again. Surrounded by top talents such as Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, Cruijff hoisted Ajax to winning the Dutch national championships two years in a row (1982 and 1983).
Farewell as a player
After a difference of opinion with Ajax management, Cruijff signed an agreement with arch rival and title contender Feyenoord in 1983. 37 year-old Cruijff made his contribution by leading the Rotterdam team to win to national championship as well as the cup. In addition to this team achievement, Cruijff himself also won several prizes. The Amsterdam native was selected as Dutch Football Player of the Year for the fifth time.
On May 13, 1984, Cruijff played the last official match of his glorious football career in De Kuip. The Dutch competition had already been decided, so the duel against PEC Zwolle was all about bidding farewell to the greatest Dutch player ever. After his goal, Cruijff signalled to referee Severein that the time had come for him to publicly bid farewell to his career to his professional career as a player. The referee showed Cruijff the symbolic red card. His team mates hoisted the great footballer on their shoulders, and this is how Cruijff experienced the final minutes of his impressive football career as a player.
One of the final times that Cruijff wore the Ajax jersey was in 2006. For Dennis Bergkamp’s testimonial match, Cruijff took to the field with Marco van Basten fifteen minutes before time at Arsenal’s brand new Emirates Stadium. The Ajax legends showed the visitors that they hadn’t forgotten how to play. When Marco van Basten sprinkled subtle heel plays, Cruiff regularly made passes with the famous outside of his foot.