Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff, who helped revolutionize the sport with the concept of Total Football, died on Thursday at age 68 in Barcelona, his foundation said. He had been suffering from lung cancer.
“On March 24, 2016 Johan Cruyff died peacefully in Barcelona, surrounded by his family after a hard fought battle with cancer,” a statement said.
“It’s with great sadness that we ask you to respect the family’s privacy during their time of grief.”
The former Ajax, Barcelona and Netherlands star Cruyff was diagnosed with lung cancer in late October.
Last month he had made an upbeat statement, saying “Right now, I have the feeling that I am 2-0 up in the first half of a match that has not finished yet. But I am sure that I will end up winning.”
Cruyff, a former smoker who had heart surgery in 1991, is rated among the all-time greats in football and won the European Footballer of the Year award three times.
Silverware as a player included three European Cups 1971-1973 and eight Dutch league titles with Ajax, a league title in his final season 1983-84 with Feyenoord, plus a Spanish title in 1974 with Barca.
He later also coached Barca to the 1992 Champions League trophy and four straight Spanish league titles 1991-1994 during a vastly successful term between 1988 and 1996.
The 48-times capped playmaker led the Dutch team to the runners-up spot in the 1974 World Cup – the first for the Dutch since 1938 – and to third place at Euro 1976.
That success, coupled with the remarkable run of Ajax Amsterdam, brought Dutch football onto the world stage, with the free-flowing attacking game of Total Football he helped create together with Rinus Michels who was his coach at Ajax, Barca and the 1974 national team.
“We have lost our best ever footballer, our number 14 and a great friend of football. We are devastated. Johan lifted Dutch football to greater heights. The KNVB will be forever grateful for this,” Dutch federation (KNVB) president Michael van Praag said in a statement.
Former England striker Gary Lineker, who played under Cruyff at Barca for one season, tweeted: “Football has lost a man who did more to make the beautiful game beautiful than anyone in history.”
Gianni Infantino, president of the ruling body FIFA, named Cruyff “one of the greatest players the world has ever known. A symbol of elegant play. An inspiration. A source of admiration for fans. He has marked football history for ever.”
Cruyff was loved and feared for his outspoken views on the state of the game and worked as an adviser for Ajax and Barca, and was also coach of a Catalan national team.
He was devoted to the region, lived in Barcelona for most of the time since 1973, and even named his son Jordi after Catalonia’s patron saint, a provocative gesture at the time because the then still ruling General Franco had outlawed all Catalan symbols.
“We’ll always love you, Johan. Rest in peace,” Barca tweeted, and playmaker Andres Iniesta spoke of “a very sad day for Barcelona and football in general.”
Barca said a minute’s silence will be observed ahead of Spain’s friendly against Italy later Thursday, and that a tribute is also planned ahead of the April 2 clasico at home against arch-rivals Real Madrid. Barca famously beat Real 5-0 away at the Bernabeu in the first season after Cruyff’s arrival as a player 43 years ago.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy also took to Twitter, saying: “My deepest condolences to the family, team-mates and friends of Johan Cruyff, a mythical player and a tireless fighter. Rest in peace.”
Ajax, where his career took off five decades ago, meanwhile said: “Our deepest sympathies go out to his family and loved ones.”
Cruyff was denied the World Cup title by the West Germany of Franz Beckenbauer, the other major European star of the 1970s and 2-1 winner with his team in the deciding match in Munich.
“I am shocked. Johan Cruyff is dead. He was not only a very good friend but also a brother to me,” Beckenbauer tweeted. – By John Bagratuni, DPA/ANA