Very few players have earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Diego Maradona. Although he never won an international title with his country and played in only one FIFA World Cup™, Johan Cruyff is one of them. Such was his natural talent, the Dutch master enjoys an undisputed reputation as one of the game's all-time greats.

Cruyff was brought up in the shadow of Ajax Amsterdam's stadium and training ground, where his mother worked. His father died from a heart attack when he was 12. From a very early age, the young Cruyff set his sights on one thing alone: becoming a professional footballer. He began formal training when he was seven years old and, to his mother's horror, left school at 13 to concentrate exclusively on sport.

Coaching legend Rinus Michels spotted the slightly-built youth's talent, and designed an exercise programme aimed at developing his frail physique to withstand the rigours of a professional career. Cruyff broke into Ajax's first team aged 17 and two years later, in 1966, picked up the first of nine Dutch league titles destined to come his way.

He soon rose to international prominence as a fleet-footed, elegant and technically gifted footballer, who never evaded a tackle. Cruyff was a playmaker, ammunitions provider and marksman rolled into one, with an ability to time a pass that has hardly been equalled before or since. He was a leading figure off the field as well, confident and opinionated, and never one to mince his words for fear of making enemies.

The epitome of total football
For one of the sport's greatest names, Cruyff's international career was relatively short. He made his debut for the Dutch national side against Hungary in September 1966 and went on to make 48 appearances for the Oranje before quitting in October 1977 aged 30. His last act on the international stage was to help the Netherlands qualify for the 1978 FIFA World Cup™ in Argentina, though by that stage he was only called up for the key fixtures.

Cruyff's finest hour with the Netherlands came at the 1974 FIFA World Cup finals in Germany. The Dutch went into the tournament with few expectations; they had only just qualified and the players had given little indication that they were comfortable with the tactics of coach Rinus Michels, brought in late in the day to replace Frantisek Fadrhonc. The pieces of the puzzle fell into place just in time, however, and by the end of the first round, the Oranje were considered the tournament favourites.

The Dutch dazzled with their total football, a style of play epitomised by Cruyff himself. Although he was fielded as centre-forward, he wandered all over the pitch, popping up wherever he could do most damage to opponents. His team-mates adapted themselves flexibly around his movements, regularly switching positions so that the tactical roles in the team were always filled but not always by the same person. This was a revolutionary concept, and it took the world by storm.

In the second round Cruyff got among the goals, netting twice in a 4-0 thrashing of Argentina, arguably the Netherlands' best performance of the tournament. The match against East Germany was a more subdued affair, won 2-0, before the Dutch faced Brazil in what was effectively a semi-final in the last of the second-round group games.

After a rough-and-tumble contest, Michels' side walked off 2-0 winners. Cruyff struck his team's second goal, a spectacular volley in the 65th minute. Meeting a centre from Ruud Krol, he wrongfooted goalkeeper Emerson Leao with his flying effort inside the near post.

Disappointments and disputes
Cruyff's brilliance was on view just seconds into the Final. From the kick-off, the Dutch passed the ball around, not allowing West Germany a touch. Orange shirt to orange shirt to orange shirt, and then the ball came to Cruyff who started a run, slipped past Berti Vogts, and was mowed down by Uli Hoeness inside the box. Johan Neeskens buried the resulting penalty before a single German had touched the ball.

The Dutch failed to press home their advantage, however, and allowed the hosts back into the game, Paul Breitner equalising from the penalty spot and Gerd Muller making it 2-1 two minutes before the break. In the second half the Oranje failed to overcome the barrier that was keeper Sepp Maier and the title was lost. Cruyff's player of the tournament award was scant consolation.

The afternoon of 7 July 1974 would be Cruyff's final appearance on the world stage. He had already announced that he would not play in the next FIFA World Cup in Argentina, mainly because he did not want to be away from his family for so long. Add a series of disagreements with the national federation and his international career soon reached a premature end.

At club level Cruyff enjoyed greater longevity. Between 1971 and 1973, he won the European Cup three times in a row with Ajax. In 1973 he moved to Spain with Barcelona, collecting the league title in his first season. After announcing his retirement in 1978, he resurfaced in May 1979 in the United States where he spent a couple of seasons before a short-lived spell with Spanish second division side Levante.

Then it was back home to Ajax in the summer of 1981 for the start of an Indian summer. After winning the league-and-cup double, in 1983 he moved to Ajax's arch-rivals Feyenoord where he inspired the Rotterdam club to do the same. In his mid-30s, Cruyff was playing some of the best football of his life. After two successive Footballer of the Year awards, the best Dutch player of all time hung up his boots once and for all in 1984.

Moving into the dugout
Although Cruyff had no formal coaching qualifications, a new career beckoned and he took over as technical director at Ajax at the beginning of the 1985/86 season. He brought silverware to the club - leading them to the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1987 - and by the time he quit the following year had also helped develop talented youngsters such as Dennis Bergkamp, Aaron Winter, Brian Roy and the Witschge brothers, Rob and Richard.

In 1988, in a repeat of the journey he had made as a player, Cruyff left Ajax for Barcelona where he set about reconstructing a struggling team, releasing a dozen players including German Bernd Schuster and bringing in new stars. Soon he had fashioned one of the most spectacular club sides of recent times, the so-called 'Dream Team' which won the 1992 European Cup and four domestic championships in a row.

After an eight-year relationship, Johan Cruyff and Barcelona parted company for a second time in 1996. Cruyff, who was forced to give up smoking after a bypass operation in 1991 and had recurring heart trouble in 1997, swore he would never coach again and he has kept his word.

Yet his legacy is assured. As he said himself of the Dutch team of his day: "We showed the world you could enjoy being a footballer, you could laugh and have a fantastic time. I represent the era which proved that attractive football was enjoyable and successful."