Back in 1994, when Johan Cruyff was overseeing one of the most admired sides in world football, the then Barcelona coach was asked by ESPN whom he saw as the world’s best player. “The best player of the world does not exist,” Cruyff responded, in that way that at first seemed argumentative but soon simply revealed an alternative way of looking at an issue. “You can say, OK, a series existed, whether you take [Franz] Beckenbauer, [Alfredo] Di Stéfano, [Diego] Maradona or Pelé, you say ‘those ones had so many various qualities, they belong to the class ‘exclusive elite’. That is a possibility.”

There is no doubting, of course, that Cruyff belongs to that elite. His view on it, however, reflects the fact that he was so much more — if it doesn’t sound absurd — than one of the greatest players of all time. Cruyff essentially is to football what David Bowie is to modern music. If some of his counterparts are more celebrated, the innovative mindset that underscored his magnificent talent has made him arguably the most influential figure in the history of his field.

It was the approach Cruyff helped create at Ajax in the early 70s that transformed football, the structure he put in place at Barcelona that is now seen as an ideal to be replicated around the world, and all while he himself has evolved as a figurehead for one of the sport’s defining philosophies.

The way he thinks remains almost as fascinating as the way he played. When asked about specifics of his career, Cruyff provided answers that almost always developed into something conceptual, more lasting. His catalogue of quotes has become legendary in its own right and he seems to build to single-line mantras about how to approach the game, some of them elusively paradoxical.

On the day of this interview with the Blizzard, one of the greatest exponents of a team sport was enjoying — or, as he jokingly puts it, enduring — a round at an individual sport. Cruyff was at St Andrew’s in Scotland for the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, where he was in a group with Ruud Gullit. The 66 year old loves the area and the tournament, which he endeavours to make every year, using it to promote his charity: the Cruyff Foundation. Even a discussion of the organisation’s aims, which are to improve the lives of all through sport, evolve into something deeper. Cruyff’s description sounds markedly similar to Bill Shankly’s famous quotes about football being a form of socialism.

“What is sport, besides the physical education you do for yourself? It’s playing together, trying things out, getting better every day, winning together, losing together, helping somebody out. It’s life. It’s totally life, 100%.”

Can a team game like football take much from an individual sport like golf?

You can always learn from other people. A lot of times we stick in the things that we do. If we say the difference between football and golf, in a golf professional he’s got a coach for driving, a coach for putting. In football we’ve got one coach for 15 people, which is absurd.

And you say, “Yes, but in golf you need a drive, you need this.” Yes, but in football you need your left foot, your right foot, to pass it, to control it, to control it with your chest, you need to see 10 other people what they are doing so there are a lot of things involved. That’s why you should change a lot of things.

Do you think golf is more advanced, then?

No, a lot of individual sports are advanced, because, if you just take people in tennis, what kind of vitamins they need, everybody’s different. In Holland, in football, everybody has the same bottle of water but we’re all different.

That’s interesting, though, because one of the fundamentals of your Ajax team — the Total Football under Rinus Michels — was incorporating individual ability into a collective.

It was a conscious [decision], because the individual is the quality. You need the mentality to put it into the team. Everybody’s different, everybody has a different quality, but you should have the same mentality. It means you’ve got to put your quality into the value of the team itself because, in the end, the best player will never come out of a team that loses too much. It’s impossible.

That’s what I’m trying to explain... Read the paper and [a club] are looking at three different players for one position and you say, “How can you look at these three? You can look at these three, or these three, but you can never look at these three.” It’s impossible. What are you looking for? Somebody who’s called defender or a type of defender?

It’s a big difference, such a big difference. A lot of times people don’t see the quality of the individual, and this individual should function well in the team and the way the team plays.

There are too many different things in football. People who are buying, people who are selling or people accepting to go one place or another — it’s not like that. It’s what the team needs. It’s absurd.

What do you think the root of Ajax’s innovation was?

We had the typical mentality for that because the Dutch people have been everywhere: from Japan to Indonesia to New York — which was New Amsterdam — to Cape Town. It’s a country which is so [small] so it’s in their character to try new things and to have a look whatever happens wherever. That’s what they did. Maybe sometimes it’s sport, sometimes it’s business, but the same thing we see in skating, the same thing we see in hockey, the same thing we see in baseball. How can a team like Holland in baseball — against Japan and the United States — two years ago win the championship? I mean, it’s there. Try new things. Maybe 10 years you don’t hear anything because there are not that many people, but they are capable.

It’s a country where everybody talks, everybody thinks, everybody’s got their own mentality... and that’s why they’ve been everywhere. It’s a good quality, but at the same time it’s their worst quality.

Is it true Michels took the idea of pressing from basketball?

No, I don’t know. As far as I remember, it didn’t come from there because we started it in the 60s... We said, “OK, where are the best players?” “There.” Technically, yeah, in the positions very good but also with the ball — so attack them there. What’s the difference between a good player and bad player? It’s the speed of [control], so if you’ve got to speed them up, it’s to provoke mistakes. And the main thing is that the quicker you can change your mentality, offensive [to] defensive, the first defender is the centre-forward. He’s the nearest by, so the quickest he can put the pressure on, start defending.

And you run less. You don’t run more. You run less... of course, you’ve got to do possession. It’s a way of thinking and it’s the way you can re-organise the whole thing. Because, who’s got the ball, who scores the goal?

Barcelona took that Ajax approach to new levels, and it influenced Spain and now Bayern Munich. Do you think football has ever, or will ever, find a better approach?

Well, I don’t think so. I think the way Barcelona played, it’s a pleasure for everybody who likes football, because the technical quality is the highest standard and every little child can try to do the technical qualities. It’s not like somebody runs 100 yards in nine seconds [and] if you can’t do it, you don’t count. You always count because you always can get better. If you want to play basketball you’ve got to be two metres. Otherwise you can’t play. Here, everyone can play and everyone can develop. That’s the nicest thing about the game of football.

The main thing is, a lot of people think that making a mistake is a problem. No, I don’t think so. Making a mistake is to make you better, as long you learn from your mistake. So I think making a mistake for me is never a problem. It’s a perfect thing, as long as you learn from it and don’t make the same mistake again. The only way you can learn is from your mistakes. You can never learn from the things you did well. It’s impossible.

That’s what we learned [at Ajax]. You tried something, that didn’t work for that [reason] and that. Do it again. Do something different.

Football is a game of mistakes and, if you analyse a mistake, you can say OK. If I put somebody where the mistakes come from, with his quality, you’re going to make fewer mistakes and if you make fewer mistakes you’ve got more possibilities. 

So it’s a different way of thinking. It’s not like we think this pass is good or bad. If this was the best pass why didn’t he do it? Did he see or didn’t he see it or wasn’t he capable of executing it.

So it’s not a lot of times that you’re going to discuss or analyse what he did. Most of the time you’ve got to analyse why he didn’t do the other thing.

That’s where it all starts, how you see the game totally differently. If you analyse it, you can train it on it.

If it doesn’t go well, you’ve got to change. If it does go well, don’t change, just make the weak things. It’s a different approach.

Has anyone impressed you as much as Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona then?

You can’t say this or that, or this is better than that. You’ve all kinds of different players. A lot of people make comparisons between [Leo] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo. They’re completely different. You can’t compare them. They’re both great in the things they do, and they’re different. So you can’t say who’s better. You can say who do you prefer as a way of playing. Do you prefer a [more] technical one or you prefer somebody who is technical, who is physical and who can shoot very high? It’s totally different and that’s why it’s so good that the differences are there because you can see that a lot of people make a wrong decision in choosing the team where they go. It’s if the team fits with the quality you have.

[Football] has always been narrow-minded because we say, “He’s a football player,” but in baseball we say he’s a pitcher, he’s a catcher, he’s a third baseman... but why is he a footballer? It’s all different. But, as a coach to direct a team, you’ve got to look at the individual qualities. That’s why I see the game totally differently.

You played a part in starting that at Barcelona.

When I came in, they were bad. We had to change. There was no sense to continue something that goes wrong.

I had a big advantage that I played there [from 1973 to 1978]. You know the mentality, you know what they do, what they think, so it was quite easy to make some rules.

The players were there, they were good players. You had to put in some character. We brought some players from the Basque country that you know for sure will give it. So it’s a question of compensation in the things you need.

You’ve now also been involved in a similar transformation at Ajax, where you say it’s taken from the Bayern Munich ideal?

Their organisation was based on football up. That’s what we did now. We copied that. The well-educated ex-players should be the decision-makers within a football club. Not somebody who is a great businessman in whatever, and he makes the football decisions. This is absurd.

A lot of clubs don’t do this. At Ajax, we did it. OK, the results are not there in one day, which is normal. It’s a totally different approach in all these details and, in Ajax, we changed all of them and I think the result will come.

Given the modern game’s economics, do you really think that can mean returning to the heights of the past?

Yes, we are convinced. We are all convinced. Everybody who’s there, and all the great players Ajax ever had, they are there now, so we think we can do it. The future will tell us.