Johan Cruyff: All-time Top 20: No. 3

This article first appeared on ESPN FC on April 16, 2014 as part of our All-Time Top 20 World Cup players.

Name: Hendrik Johannes Cruyff 
Nationality: Netherlands
Position: Striker/Attacking midfielder
Clubs: Ajax (1964-73), Barcelona (1973-78), Los Angeles Aztecs (1979-80), Washington Diplomats (1980-81), Levante (1981), Ajax (1981-83), Feyenoord (1983-84)
International career: 48 matches, 33 goals. 
World Cup participation: 1974 -- Played 7, Scored 3
Finest World Cup moment: Scoring volleyed goal vs. Brazil that took Netherlands to 1974 final   
Roll of honour: Runner-up 1974

Johan Cruyff almost certainly ranks as the finest player to fail to win the World Cup trophy. Few teams have captured the imagination like his Netherlands team of 1974.  Dutch football had come from the wilderness to dominate the European club scene with Ajax winning three straight European Cups from 1971 to 1973, after Feyenoord had won the competition in 1970.

At its centrepiece was Cruyff, who, in cohort with coach Rinus Michels, led the national team to the brink of winning the World Cup in the only tournament he featured in.  Cruyff was a lightning rod. He conducted and cajoled a team playing a revolutionary brand of football -- an interchangeable style known around the world as 'Total Football'.

On the road to Munich, he supplied moments of class that belong on any World Cup highlights reel.  

"[He was] the best Dutch player in history," Erik Oudshorn of Voetbal International tells ESPN FC. "He was unique. For defenders, he was slippery, because of his technical skill and his speed. He could pass with the outside of his feet and judge the right moment for every opponent's tackle. That's why he was rarely injured. He had eyes in the back of his head. He could feel when a defender came in to tackle.

Cruyff was at the peak age of 27 when he led the Dutch into West Germany in 1974. He was coming off his first season at Barcelona, having won the La Liga title there after three consecutive European Cups with Ajax.  

Ruud Krol, Cruyff's Ajax colleague, who would succeed him as national captain, confirms Cruyff's supernatural value to the team. "If you played with him, you thought it was normal," he tells ESPN FC. "But of course it was not normal. You did not realise that at the time. When you see it every day with that kind of player, you think it is normal, but of course it was not normal."

The Dutch sailed to 1974's final, with Cruyff at the fulcrum. 'Total Football' pulled opponents in all directions. With two goals against Argentina and a thunderous volley that ended the hopes of holders Brazil, Cruyff was reaching a crescendo as the Netherlands won the second group stage that preceded the showpiece. 

"His actions, his skill, and his support to other players were fantastic also," says Krol. "We often forget his support for the other players." He also bequeathed football a new technique. The "Cruyff Turn" -- a pirouette and dummy away from Sweden's Jan Olsson to leave the full-back thrashing at air -- has been copied endlessly and is now part of any young footballer's training. 

"People often ask me about it," Olsson told David Winner in his book "Brilliant Orange, the Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football". "I say that I played 18 years in top football and seven times for Sweden but that moment against Cruyff was the proudest moment of my career. I thought I'd win the ball for sure, but he tricked me. I was not humiliated. I had no chance. Cruyff was a genius."

Yet, Cruyff was to be denied the World Cup. Four decades on, defeat in the final remains a painful blot on Dutch football history. They did take the lead in the first minute after a move that embodied the Total Football style, ended as Cruyff's slaloming run was stopped by a desperate lunge from West Germany's Berti Vogts to bring him down in the box.

However, following Johan Neeskens' penalty, the Germans came back into the game and led by half-time after Paul Breitner had converted a controversially awarded penalty. The Dutch flow had been stemmed, even in a second half in which they dominated possession.

"They dominated the game as before, but he was not a leader of the team as before," says Oudshorn of Cruyff. "It isn't as if he played badly, though he did lose the ball several times, but he couldn't succeed in his actions as he usually did. It was his performance, it was not the Germans. When he played at his best nobody could stop him."

In the end, Gerd Muller's strike won the final 2-1 for the hosts. The reasons behind Cruyff's lacklustre display are regularly attributed to a scandal that broke in German tabloid Bild on the eve of the final.

Following a victory over East Germany, three Dutch players were alleged to have continued their partying by swimming with some local girls late into the night. The tabloid splash is said to have led to Cruyff spending the night before the final pleading innocence down the phone to wife Dani. He certainly performed as if he was distracted on the day. He would never again play a World Cup finals match.

Despite guiding the Dutch to the 1978 finals, he refused to fly to Argentina, on the orders of Dani, whose resolve had been further deepened by a terrifying kidnap attempt at the Cruyff Barcelona home when he was held at gunpoint,

"To play a World Cup you have to be 200 percent. There are moments when there are other values in life," he reflected to Radio Catalunya of his decision to quit international football in 1977. His involvement in 1978 was reduced to TV work, including punditry on the final for ITV in the UK.

Without their talisman against Argentina, the Dutch were denied the trophy by the width of a post when winger Rob Rensenbrink rattled the woodwork in the last minute of normal time; Argentina prevailed 3-1 in extra time thanks to goals from Daniel Bertoni and Mario Kempes.

"They tried to persuade Cruyff to go, but it was too hard," says Oudshorn. "It was easy for him, to decide not to go. I am sure that the Dutch team would have won that final with Cruyff."