23 days ago

In my day job, I go into local primary schools as a football coach. From time to time one of the children will ask me who I think is the GOAT, the greatest of all time: Messi or Ronaldo. Depending on my mood I have a short answer or a long one to that question. The short answer is Messi (sorry, CR7 fans). Here’s the longer one.

For a start, it’s a matter of opinion. There is no ‘correct’ answer and you can certainly make a convincing case for the two men who have dominated the last 15 years or so of world football. When I was growing up, it was taken for granted that the answer to the question was Pele. Then Diago Maradona came along and for a while there was the Pele vs Maradona debate. Recency bias means that both of them seem to be forgotten, along with numerous others who probably deserve to be part of the conversation: Alfredo Di Stefano (prior to Maradona, he was often cited as Pele’s greatest rival for the title), the Brazilian Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane. Perhaps the fact that Messi and Ronaldo have come along at the same time, rather than having the stage to themselves like most of the aforementioned, adds to the sense that this is the golden age, the high point of the game's standards.

But if I’m honest, I want to give a different answer to any of the above, one that is rooted in a longer view on footballing history and which reflects not just the on-pitch achievements of the player concerned, but also the impact they have had on the game as a whole. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Johan Cruyff.

He was the on-pitch leader of the great Ajax and Netherlands teams of the 1970s who gave the world ‘Total football’. In the period between Pele’s retirement and Maradona’s emergence, Cruyff was unrivalled as the greatest player of his day. He led Ajax to three back-to-back European Cups and took Netherlands to the first of two successive World Cup Finals, then moved to unfashionable Barcelona and enabled them to break Real Madrid’s dominance of the Spanish league. As a coach, he was just as groundbreaking, enjoying success back at Ajax before leading Barca to their first ever European title in 1992 and establishing much of the philosophy that led to their subsequent dominance.

Players like Pep Guardiola and, later, Messi thrived in the environment Cruyff created at Barcelona. There was a time when small, technical players were in danger of being squeezed out of the game, and Cruyff was a major factor in reversing that. Guardiola has described him as ‘the revolutionary who taught us how to do things.’ He has also said that Cruyff’s legacy is ‘infinite… he has enforced changes. Johan changed two clubs. But not only Ajax and Barcelona, he also changed the national teams of Netherlands and Spain. There is nothing that can compare to what Cruyff has done for football. The football of the last 25 years at Barcelona belongs to him and that is something indestructible”. It’s not overstating things to say that without Cruff, we wouldn’t have had Guardiola the player, and certainly we wouldn't have Guardiola the manager. We probably wouldn’t have had Messi either. Cruyff was a complex, sometimes controversial, figure but much of what we now take for granted in modern football is inextricably rooted in his legacy. One of the things we look for in great players is whether they were able to change the course of a game; Cruyff did more than that: he changed the course of the game.

Who’s the GOAT? It’s a subjective call and there’s room for lots of opinions, but when the history of football is written, I think that it’s Cruyff’s boots which leave the biggest footprint.


Photo credit: Stockcake


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