Johan Cruyff receives fitting tribute during Netherlands vs. France
AMSTERDAM -- One day, you will be able to tell your children or grandchildren that you were there. You were there on March 25, 2016, at the Amsterdam Arena to pay tribute to Johan Cruyff, one of the greatest players of all time.
You will probably quickly forget that France won the game 3-2 against the Netherlands; that France's Dimitri Payet played well, Antoine Griezmann scored a beauty of a free kick that Cruyff himself would have been proud of, and the Oranje, despite an abject performance for most of the game, still managed to come back from 0-2 to 2-2 before Blaise Matuidi sealed off France's win with a late goal.
But you will never forget all the rest. Somewhere up there, from the big dugout in the sky, Cruyff can be proud of the tribute he received from Amsterdam, his hometown.
When Felix Swayer, the German referee, stopped the game in the 14th minute as planned, it was supposed to be for a minute of silence. The whole stadium stood as one, but the silence never came. Instead, Johan Cruyff was celebrated by applause, and rightly so. There is nothing wrong with a minute of silence, as we saw before the match when one was respected in memory of the people who lost their lives in the Brussels attacks earlier this week.
However, Cruyff revolutionised football; he was football and was applauded so much through his career, both as manager and player, that it felt far more appropriate to do it this way. So we clapped hard. You could see tears on people's cheeks and in their eyes. You could feel the emotion rising, heavy in everyone's heart. A beautiful tifo was displayed by some fans. On the big screen, a photo of the great man was displayed. I can't recall a game being interrupted to pay tribute to someone and then to start again. The Amsterdam Arena did it Friday night. And it was beautiful. Cruyff might not have liked the idea of stopping the flow and momentum of a football game, but he deserved a unique farewell and he got it.
It was the moment the whole ground had been waiting for, eager to pay its tribute. On the big screens, messages coming from all around the world started being showed two hours before kickoff. Videos of his best goals and best moves were broadcasted repeatedly throughout the evening, before the game, at half-time and after the final whistle. Flowers and an iconic image adorned executive box 14 inside the stadium. We saw some fans wearing their vintage orange shirts from 1974, and some in the current Dutch jersey with "Cruyff 14" on the back. Every single one of the 53,000 persons in this stadium was proud to be there.
"It was a very special moment. We knew what was going to happen, but it was still very emotional. He was one of the greatest and he deserved such a great tribute and goodbye. Football will miss him," France captain Blaise Matuidi said after the game.
The most important thing on the night was not the performance or the result and it won't be remembered for that anyway. The most important was somewhere else. From a friendly with nothing at stake between a Netherlands team looking for rebuilding after the disappointment of being the only big nation not to qualify for the Euros, and a France team in the final sprint before "its" tournament, this game became one of the most important of the season. People came to be part of history. The "Cruyffistas" around the world, still with a tear in their eyes, watched it, wishing to be here with us.
"I am proud to pay tribute to Johan Cruyff with my goal. It is my humble participation," France striker Olivier Giroud said. "I was not born when he was playing, but I saw many videos of him. I am very happy to have scored tonight because I said to my family that I wanted to score and dedicate my goal to his memory. It was special moment."
Friday night was more than a game. It was a pilgrimage. Emotion was the theme of the night. I can proudly say that I was there.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter @LaurensJulien.