Dutch soccer great Johan Cruyff, who revolutionized the game as the personification of "Total Football," has died. He was 68.
Family spokeswoman Carole Thate confirmed to The Associated Press that Cruyff had died in the Spanish city of Barcelona after a five-month battle with lung cancer.
Obsessed by football to the end and ever the positive thinker, Cruyff only last month said his recovery was going well. He said "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." On Thursday, he died.
In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that "through him, the world knew the Netherlands."
And through Cruyff, football was given a new level of magical skill.
"He was a genius and now we are missing this genius," former FIFA president Sepp Blatter said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press.
Soccer great Ronaldinho was among many athletes and admirers to react to the news on Twitter:
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.
Here is a look at how Cruyff achieved his huge status within the game:
Cruyff was credited with helping to create "Total Football," a seamless concept featuring a mesmerizing combination of both exerting pressure by harrying the opposition and leaving opponents chasing shadows once in possession. To achieve it, players had to be technically superb, tactically astute, and quick-thinking enough to swap positions before startled opponents reacted. These footballing principles would form the core of the famed Ajax academy. Scores of players coming through the ranks at the Amsterdam-based club next to where Cruyff grew up - Marco van Basten, Patrick Kluivert, Dennis Bergkamp included - benefited from the legacy. But his ideas reached so far that even goalkeepers, such as Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer and Paris Saint-Germain's Kevin Trapp, are valued for their excellent passing ability as ball-playing sweepers. You can imagine how Cruyff would relish telling them to launch attacks from the back.
Johan Cruyff did not invent outrageous skill: Others did mercurial tricks before him. But one magical moment from the fleet-footed Dutchman at the 1974 World Cup empowered European footballers to believe that signature moves were not a Brazilian copyright. It was triggered by the "Cruyff Turn" - a delicious move for wingers to leave fullbacks flapping in the wind, one just as much about using space as the ball. Cruyff, collecting the ball on the left touchline with a defender breathing down his neck, flicked it behind his other leg and span around to collect it in one motion. The beauty lay in its originality and practicality. When Dennis Bergkamp bamboozled Newcastle's defenders playing for Arsenal with an inside-out turn and body swerve in 2002, you could picture Cruyff nodding his approval. Bergkamp also shared another Cruyff trait: an aggressive streak allied to his breathtaking skills.
Barcelona dominates European football having won four Champions League titles in 10 years. The Catalan greats, however, can say a huge "gracias" to Cruyff, who, after blessing Barca with his playing skills. transformed the club as coach. The football scientist brilliantly blended local players - such as defensive midfielder Pep Guardiola - with foreign stars like cunning Danish midfielder Michael Laudrup. The formula still works to this day. Cruyff's wonderful football brand helped Barca win its first European Cup in 1992. More than that, however, his influence on Guardiola was enormous. So much so that, when Guardiola led Barca to its best-ever period of success with the much-vaunted "tiki-taka" football - a descendant of Cruyff's "Total Football" - he praised his mentor. "Cruyff built the cathedral, our job is to maintain and renovate it," said Guardiola, who never had Cruyff's ability but shared his vision. The day Cruyff plucked Guardiola straight from the youth team, he hand-picked his own successor.
Cruyff had an unquenchable thirst for reinventing football and an unstoppable will for it to be played the way he saw it. It was about breaking down old pre-conceptions. He did not believe in maintaining football tradition, but shaking its foundations. "The Brazilians loved dribbling, but for Cruyff it was just one aspect of the game," football author Simon Kuper told The Associated Press by telephone. "He was always trying to be new and original. 'Why are you doing it like this? Why are you doing it this way?' He was an iconoclast." Cruyff was also avant-garde, and even before becoming a coach he was making managerial decisions. Before the 1974 World Cup he told midfielder Arie Haan "you're playing as sweeper, that's your position" explains Kuper, author of "Football Against the Enemy" and "Ajax, The Dutch, the War," adding that Cruyff "also decided who would come on at halftime during the final."
Cruyff's legacy has one small question mark, however: penalty kicks. The Dutch national team is notoriously bad at those, having won only two of seven penalty shootouts in major tournaments. Some of this spot-kick phobia can be traced back to Cruyff's lofty indifference to penalty-taking, with one highly original exception. He took only one penalty in his entire career for Ajax: exchanging passes from the spot with team-mate Jesper Olsen in a brilliantly smart move recently recreated by Barcelona stars Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in another nod to Cruyff. But usually, penalty taking was not aesthetic enough for Cruyff the artist. "The idea of standing still and waiting to kick the ball after the referee's whistle was anathema to him," writes author Ben Lyttleton in "Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty."