It seemed no one could keep up with Johan Cruyff.

Not the greatest defenders of the 1970s.

Not rival coaches, tacticians or analysts.

Not even occasional critics during the half century that Cruyff voiced his thoughts — often profound, sometimes wacky — about all things football. The Amsterdam street kid had enough chutzpah, football smarts and aura to stare down and silence anyone.

Football lost one of its greatest on Thursday when Cruyff died in Barcelona after a battle with lung cancer. He was 68. Cruyff stands next to Pele, Diego Maradona and Franz Beckenbauer among the best the sport has ever produced.

With his wiry frame and long hair, his loose shirt emblazoned with "14" flapping in the wind, he could wrong-foot the best defenders with a mere wiggle of the hips. In an instant, he would read a play — no, create a play — that others would need a full second for. With stunning eye-feet coordination he could pick up a ball in midair and steer past a goalkeeper in one supremely graceful move.

"Speed and insight are often confused," Cruyff once said. "When I start running before everybody else, I appear faster."

Many children would try to replicate his signature "Cruyff turn" — his technique for passing defenders by faking toward them, then flicking the ball behind his own other leg in the opposite direction and darting after it.

A child of 1970s Netherlands, Cruyff symbolized how the country shed post-World War II shackles of rigid social mores and embraced the sense of flower-power freedom that had blown over from California.

On the pitch, that sense of freedom was called "Total Football," a revolutionary change in tactics with players interchanging roles, pressuring the opposition all over the field and constantly moving with the mesmerizing fluidity of an orange lava lamp. The innovation dumbfounded rival teams for several years before they started to copy it in full or in part.

It never was fully clear whether Cruyff or Ajax and Netherlands coach Rinus Michels was the chief architect of Total Football. But Cruyff was its personification.

He won three European championships with Ajax from 1971 to 1973. He was European player of the year three times and was named Europe's best player of the 20th century.

During the early 1970s, his magic eluded him only once, and only for 89 minutes of one game. It was when he needed it most — the 1974 World Cup final against archrival West Germany in Munich.

With a searing run from midfield before any German had even touched the ball, Cruyff earned the Netherlands a penalty after 50 seconds.

But then, in one of football's eternal mysteries, Dutch momentum that had built through the tournament stopped. After the early lead, Cruyff no longer was superlative and a Beckenbauer-led Germany came back to win 2-1.

Cruyff never won the World Cup.

From Ajax, Cruyff moved midseason in 1973 to Barcelona, the underdog and fierce opponent of Real Madrid and the Franco regime. The adversarial conditions fitted him like a glove. He led the mid-table team to its first national title in a decade.

That season was crowned with a 5-0 away win at Madrid so sweet that Catalans still sometimes refer to Cruyff as "El Salvador," the savior.

Later, as a coach, he made himself immortal for Barca fans by winning the 1992 European Cup — the predecessor of the UEFA Champions League. Before that he coached Ajax to the 1987 Cup Winners' Cup title.

Like others of his time, Cruyff smoked heavily during his career and afterward. He quit after undergoing an emergency heart bypass in 1991.

In an anti-smoking film he made famous, Cruyff took a pack of cigarettes, crumpled it and started juggling it like a football, before kicking it away with a mighty thump.

After more heart trouble in 1997, he stayed true to his vow to never coach again at the highest level.

Instead he became an acerbic, sometimes hurtful, critic and analyst, savaging even his beloved Ajax, Barca and the Dutch national team whenever he felt it necessary.

He became a European version of Yogi Berra with his famous quotes: "Every disadvantage has its advantage," ''You can't win without the ball," ''If I wanted you to understand it, I would have explained it better."

Criticizing overly defensive play, Cruyff once said: "Italians can't beat you, though you can lose to them."

And perhaps best of all: "Before I make a mistake, I don't make it."

The Dutch call them Cruyffisms.

They'll live on — on his Amsterdam streets and beyond.


Raf Casert can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rcasert