Growing up, my father and I had little in common. Even as a child I identified more with American culture than my Syrian heritage. We clashed constantly. He believed in an authoritarian upbringing, and like any adolescent, I rebelled. Times of peace were rare, but they shared a common theme — football. Weeknights were owned by matches. By heroes pushing across the pitch, and screamers pulled back from the furthest stretches of imagination.
It was a tradition that started when I was a toddler — barely old enough to remember. I sat with him, and we watched whatever games we could find. I craved it. I needed it. After my 90 minutes were up, I pestered him for more. I needed more. And so we sat longer.
We watched videos online, or VHS tapes of the giants of old. The living legends of the all-consuming sport — Pele, Maradona, Platini, Beckenbauer. Still, one man’s star shone brighter than any other: Johan Cruyff.
I desperately wanted to be him. The first time I saw him perform a Cruyff turn, I ran outside and tried to replicate it a few hundred times — none successful. More times than not, I ended up on my back after trying to pull the ball with my miniature cleats. A legend, I was not.
But Cruyff was. When I grew into a pimply teen, I started to follow the Dutch national team. Johan loved total football, so I loved total football. I bled Oranje. I was obviously never old enough to watch him play live, but the legend of the 1974 team drove my obsession.
By 2010, I was all in. I clutched my scarves and t-shirts during the World Cup qualifiers in the preceding years. The were perfect, winning every game. Now, on the eve of what I desperately hoped would be their South African triumph, I sat with my father on the same couch we’d sat more than a decade prior, draped in my Cruyff jersey.
Football, it seemed, was our escape. A fever that started with Johan forced friendship between us. Nights without it often ended in tears, and screams. Slammed doors, and broken hearts. But football, and to a significant amount, Johan, helped mend that.
It’s weird to describe a footballer as an artist, but if anyone earned that title, it was Cruyff. He was a revelation. An inventor. A football Di Vinci. His creation still dominates the sport decades after he hung up his boots.
He was an incredibly cerebral player. Beckenbauer and Rijkaard referred to him as one of the best Europeans ever to pick up the game, citing his intelligence on the pitch, and his ability to dissect any who crossed his path.
“You play football with your head,” Cruyff once said, “and your legs are there to help you.”
Cruyff never won the sports highest team honor, failing to claim his World Cup in 74, and skipping the tournament the following cycle.
“Playing football is very simple,” he said, “but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.”
With all respect to my hero, I disagree. Losing him at 68 is one of the hardest things I’ve ever known.
Total football forever.
Hup, Holland, Hup.