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ESPN FC  By ESPN staff

Netherlands great Johan Cruyff dies at age of 68 after cancer battle

ESPN FC's Gabriele Marcotti shares his thoughts on legacy of Dutch footballing legend Johan Cruyff.
ESPN FC's Adrian Healey and Alejandro Moreno discuss Johan Cruyff's greatness as both player and manager.

Netherlands, Ajax and Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff has died at the age of 68.

Cruyff, a three-time Ballon d'Or winner, had been fighting lung cancer but said last month he was feeling "very positive" after undergoing treatment

However, it was announced on Thursday that he had lost his battle.

A statement on worldofjohancruyff.com read: "On March 24 2016 Johan Cruyff (68) died peacefully in Barcelona, surrounded by his family after a hard fought battle with cancer. It's with great sadness that we ask you to respect the family's privacy during their time of grief."

The Dutch FA (KNVB) paid tribute to Cruyff on Twitter, writing: "It is with great sadness that we've learnt of the death of Johan Cruyff. Words cannot express the loss we feel."

Barcelona wrote: "We'll always love you, Johan. Rest in peace."

Javier Tebas, president of the Spanish Football League (LFP), tweeted: "My condolences to the family and friends of Johan Cruyff. He leaves having written an unforgettable chapter in his sport. RIP."

Ajax described his passing as a "great loss" on their official website.

Cruyff, who was part of the Netherlands side that reached the World Cup final in 1974, enjoyed a hugely successful playing career at club level and helped popularise coach Rinus Michels' "Total Football" concept.

He won eight Eredivisie titles at Ajax and was a key part of the side that won three straight European Cups between 1971 and 1973.

He then moved to Barcelona in 1973 but, despite winning La Liga and the Copa del Rey during his five years at the Camp Nou, his biggest impact came when he returned as manager in 1988.

After beginning his coaching career with Ajax in 1985, where he won the KNVB Beker (Dutch Cup) on two occasions as well as the Cup Winners' Cup, he brought even greater glory to Catalonia. He steered Barca to four league titles and their first ever European Cup during his eight years in charge, as well as laying the foundations for their heavy focus on youth development and defining a style of play that ran through all levels at the club.

His later playing career also saw him spend time in the North American Soccer League.

Cruyff had announced his retirement from football in May 1978 having just turned 31, but financial pressures saw him head for the United States in 1979, joining ex-Ajax, Barca and Netherlands boss Michels at Los Angeles Aztecs before moving on to Washington Diplomats.

He then returned to the Netherlands with the intention of playing for Ajax as an amateur, but the Dutch FA refused him permission, so he acted merely as a technical adviser. Still just 33, he received offers from an array of clubs in England and Germany to resume playing but ultimately opted for a return to Spain with Segunda Division side Levante.

When that move failed to work out, he made a brief return to Washington before re-signing with Ajax as a professional in December 1981.

The return was successful: Ajax won league titles in 1982 and 1983 as well as the 1983 KNVB Beker, and it was in his second spell that his famous penalty kick routine was performed. Barcelona stars Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez recently paid tribute to Cruyff with a version of the penalty routine.

Johan Cruyff won the European Cup with Ajax Amsterdam three years in a row.
Johan Cruyff is considered one of football's greatest ever talents.

Ajax declined to extend his contract at the end of his second spell, which he did not take well. He once recalled: "When the people at Ajax told me, 'You're too old,' I said: 'That's not something you decide. I decide that.'"

He exacted revenge by joining arch-rivals Feyenoord, helping them to a league and cup double in 1984 and winning the Gouden Schoen (Golden Boot) as Dutch Footballer of the Year. Nonetheless, he began his coaching career with Ajax the following year.

He scored 392 times in 520 games over a 19-year playing career, while as a coach he won 242 of 387 matches.

His three Ballon d'Ors secured his place as one of the best to ever play the game, and his name was consistently mentioned alongside those of Brazil's Pele and Argentina's Diego Mardona, and today's stars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Pele said on Thursday: "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 Messi added: "Another legend has left us today."

Cruyff's pronouncements on the game, with gems like "every disadvantage has its advantage," skirted the line between profundity and nonsense.

Criticising overly defensive play, he once said: "Italians can't beat you, though you can lose to them." Other much-quoted lines were: "You can't score if you don't shoot," and "Before I make a mistake, I don't make it."

He had a wife Danny, daughters Chantal and Susila, and a son Jordi, who also played at Barcelona in the 1990s and is now the sporting director at Maccabi Tel Aviv.

The Netherlands-France friendly on Friday in Amsterdam will be halted in the 14th minute for a minute's silence in honor of Cruyff, who made the No. 14 shirt his own.

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