Johan Cruyff, one of football’s greatest players and most influential and visionary coaches, died aged 68 on Thursday after a five-month battle with lung cancer.

The death of the Dutchman, whose creative genius on the pitch and inventive brilliance as a coach changed the modern game, prompted an outpouring of tributes to a figure hailed as doing more than anyone “to make the beautiful game beautiful”.

In his heyday in the early 1970s, Cruyff, slender, quick-witted and outrageously gifted, helped a generation of football fans across the world see the game in a different light.

Unquestionably the best player around in that period, he was voted three times winner of the prestigious Ballon d’Or so that he is now often mentioned alongside the pair widely considered the finest to have played the game, Pele and Diego Maradona.

Pele said: “Johan Cruyff was a great player and coach. He leaves a very important legacy for our family of football. We have lost a great man.”

Maradona said: “We will never forget you, mate” while another Argentine Lionel Messi, the world’s best current player, added: “Another legend has left us.”

Cruyff, who had announced last October that he was suffering from lung cancer, had said only last month that he was “2-0 up in the first half” of his battle against the disease.

Poignantly, that turned out to be one of the last public statements made by the sage whose observations on the modern game were eagerly courted in global football, with his weekly column for De Telegraaf newspaper a must-read until the end.

Cruyff died surrounded by his family and friends at his home in Barcelona, according to his official website.

The news prompted eulogies from his home country with Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, saying: “The whole world knew him and, through him, the world knew the Netherlands.”

The Netherlands’ international against France last night in Amsterdam was halted for a minute-long silence after 14 minutes in tribute to Cruyff, who wore the number 14 in his playing days.

In his adopted home of Barcelona, though, the loss was just as keenly felt with Cruyff having become an iconic figure in the Catalan city, where their current world-beating team, featuring Messi, still bears the hallmarks of his attacking invention.

As Pep Guardiola, one of his successful and influential successors as Barcelona coach, said: “He painted the chapel and Barcelona coaches since have merely restored or improved it.”

As a player with Ajax, Cruyff was the dazzling poster boy for the philosophy of “total football”, embodied in coach Rinus Michels’s magnificent Dutch team that he captained in his pomp to the 1974 World Cup final.

“Total football” centred on the idea of players being accomplished and comfortable enough on the ball to play anywhere – and Cruyff, endlessly skilful and lightning fast in thought, was seen as the ‘total footballer’.

Great players often do not make great coaches but Cruyff was a glorious exception, creating the Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ that won four straight Spanish titles and their first European Cup between 1991 and 1994.

Born Hendrik Johannes Cruyff, he joined Ajax as a long-haired teenager and inspired them to three successive European Cups between 1971-73 before joining Barcelona and guiding them to the 1974 Spanish league title.

He was the best player playing for the best team in the 1974 World Cup and, beyond Germany, there was huge disappointment worldwide that his brilliant Dutch side were beaten 2-1 in the final by the hosts after Cruyff had scored an early goal.

The Dutch also got to the World Cup final but lost again in 1978, this time without Cruyff who had quit the national side, saying years later he walked away after an armed kidnap attempt.

Johan Cruyff in numbers

The numbers behind one of the best players of all time.

3 – As part of the all-conquering Ajax side, Johan Cruyff won the European Cup for three consecutive years between 1971 and 1973.

8 – The number of Dutch league championship titles won by Cruyff with Ajax over two spells.

14 – Cruyff’s iconic shirt number for Holland.

33 – The number of goals scored by Cruyff in 48 appearances for Holland before a premature retirement from international football ahead of the 1978 World Cup.

47 – Hendrik Johannes Cruyff was born in Amsterdam on April 25, 1947.

71 – Cruyff won the first of three Ballon d’Or European Footballer of the Year trophies in 1971.

74 – At the height of his playing career, Cruyff captained Holland at the 1974 World Cup, where they were eventually defeated by hosts West Germany in the final.

92 – Returning to the Nou Camp as manager, Cruyff guided Barcelona to a first European Cup success in 1992 – just a year after undergoing major heart surgery which prompted him to stop smoking.

392 – The total number of club goals Cruyff scored.

922,000 – Cruyff joined Barcelona in a then world record £922,000 deal in 1973, linking up with his former Ajax boss Rinus Michels. In his first season at the Nou Camp, the Dutch forward helped Barcelona end a 14-year Spanish league title drought.

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