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A football fan wearing a jersey of FC Barcelona pays tribute to late Dutch football star Johan Cruyff in a special condolence area set up at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on March 26, 2016. (PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images)
A football fan wearing a jersey of FC Barcelona pays tribute to late Dutch football star Johan Cruyff in a special condolence area set up at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on March 26, 2016. (PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images)

Kelly: Soccer star Johan Cruyff brought his passion for flair to FC Barcelona Add to ...

Amid the tributes for Johan Cruyff last week, it was one of his former players – England’s Gary Lineker – who got closest to the core of his legacy.

Cruyff “did more to make the beautiful game beautiful than anyone in history,” Lineker said.

The Dutchman, who died of cancer on Thursday at age 68, was a once-in-a-generation talent, but his legend was grounded in his outlook. Cruyff valued aesthetics over glory. As such, while all great athletes possess a species of genius, Cruyff may have been the most complete artist.

He never bothered to seem embarrassed by the 1974 World Cup – when his superior Netherlands side slipped badly in the final against West Germany.

“Maybe we were the real winners in the end,” he told an interviewer decades later. “I think the world remembers our team more.”

It is difficult to imagine another man saying it and not being jeered at as a poor sport. Cruyff’s shield was consistency. Despite all he’d won – multiple European Cups and league titles – he’d never conceded that a scoreboard was the final arbiter of quality. The thing he hated most in soccer was tactical cynicism dressed up as efficiency, regardless of the results.

He spent a good deal of his later years raging at the Dutch set-up’s drift into galumphing, smash-mouth soccer. He was shrugged off as the team was advancing to a World Cup final in 2010. His ideas were catching rather more traction in recent months as much of the same roster crashed out of Euro 2016 qualifying.

As a coach, Cruyff hard-coded that passion for flair into the most accomplished professional sports franchise of this century – FC Barcelona.

Cruyff was the driving force behind Barcelona’s La Masia (The Farmhouse) youth academy. Like the Ajax system that weaned Cruyff, they don’t keep score at La Masia. Because improving and winning are often incompatible goals for a developing athlete.

The results of that aren’t trophies, though there have been plenty of those. They are a way of conceptualizing the world’s most popular sport that is unique to the capital of Catalonia.

Whenever you are watching a Barcelona game and someone does something – a no-look flick in traffic or a midfield roulette under pressure – that has no measurable effect on the outcome, but draws you a few inches out of your seat, that is Cruyff. He freed every Barcelona player, even the ones who did not know him, from the dreary pragmatist that lives inside us all. Better yet, he found a way to make this philosophy into soccer’s cold fusion – the system is self-supporting.

“Cruyff painted the chapel,” his greatest heir, Pep Guardiola, said. “Barcelona coaches since either restore or improve it.”

With Cruyff suddenly gone, you instinctively begin looking around for his philosophic heirs, in any sport.

Where are the players who care most about mastering the game, rather than wringing what they can from it? Where are the coaches who have an overarching sense of how the sport might be played, instead of how it is currently done?

They’re nowhere.

There are plenty of characters left (though few who could straight-facedly deploy such marvellous Cruyffisms as “Every disadvantage has its advantage” and “Before I make a mistake, I don’t make that mistake.”). There are lots of guys who care about history and want things “done the right way” (though that’s almost always synonymous with ‘the old way’). And the athletes are getting better.

You can’t help but look back now at the Cruyff Turn (faking a shot, dragging the ball, swivelling and heading off in the opposite direction) and think, ‘That was revolutionary?’ But in a simpler world, it was.

That simplicity also created space for Cruyff to be a one-off. Where he’s gone, no one can follow.

Part of it must have been being Dutch – there is a broad sympathy in that culture for people who don’t care for convention. Part of it was being great.

But the largest part was that no one was ready for Cruyff’s peculiar brand of confidence. In anyone less talented, you’d have called it self-absorption or selfishness. He certainly spent too much of his life fighting with people who wouldn’t bend for him. He was forever leaving places.

But he was usually right. More than any other figure, his vision redefined the modern game.

We’re ready for that sort of personality now. Ready to destroy it. Just imagine a Cruyff emerging again in today’s breathless media market. All his stumbles and moods would be relentlessly tracked. Every little flare-up would provide proof that he was more trouble than he was worth. His ideas would be shredded up in the spin cycle of talk radio and thinkpieces and backlashes to backlashes.

We believe we value visionaries, but we don’t. What we like are cheerful conformists. Cruyff was the antithesis of that.

Too fascinating for his own good, we’d all have conspired to undo his real work before it could be properly started. Because what Cruyff needed most of all was time.

Time for the world to absorb the wisdom of Total Football. Time for his program at Barcelona to produce its Messis, Iniestas and Xavis. Time for people to appreciate that you needn’t win a World Cup to prove yourself the best in the world. And time for the rest of us to catch up.

Cruyff once said that he had two passions in life – playing soccer and smoking. The latter habit eventually killed him.

One suspects that had he been born 30 years later, the frustrations of ‘win right now and at any cost’ might’ve done the job sooner.

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Follow on Twitter: @cathalkelly

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