Barcelona, Xavi thank Johan Cruyff for 'altering history of club' in tribute

Johan Cruyff has been hailed for guiding Barcelona to "become the greatest club in the world" by ex-Barca presidents following the former Camp Nou player and coach's death on Thursday, while ex-club captain Xavi Hernandez called him "a professional reference for all of us that love this sport."

Netherlands, Ajax and Barca legend Cruyff passed away at his home in Spain at the age of 68 after losing his battle with lung cancer.

The flags at the Camp Nou have been lowered at half-mast, while Netherlands' friendly at home to France on Friday will pause for a minute's silence in the 14th minute to honour the three-time Ballon d'Or winner.

An open letter signed by eight ex-Barcelona presidents reads: "Every FC Barcelona fan will recall their own memories of and experiences relating to Cruyff as both a leader and as a symbol. We, as presidents of FC Barcelona, have the immense honour to give thanks, on behalf of Barcelona supporters everywhere, to a brilliant and audacious man who decisively marked the trajectory of the club.

"Without Cruyff's unabashed and non-conformist spirit, we quite possibly wouldn't have become the greatest club in the world."

Cruyff joined Barca in 1973 after winning eight Eredivisie titles at Ajax and three straight European Cups.

He scored 51 goals in 184 appearances in a five-year stint with Barca, helping the club win La Liga and the Copa del Rey.

Cruyff returned to the Blaugrana in 1988 as manager and revolutionised the club. He guided 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.

"The professional and personal footprint he left at our club is enormous," the letter continues.

"We are thankful to Cruyff for his work as a player and as a coach, and for the titles he achieved. But above all, we are thankful for the intangibles which are still alive today and which will endure into the future, for they are worth more than all those titles; Cruyff endowed us with high levels of self-esteem and set a new course for the success of FC Barcelona.

"The arrival of Cruyff altered the history of Barca. He contributed decisively to a change of mentality.

"We began to play differently, breaking new ground and innovating. With him, both as a player and coach, we established our own style on the field, what is traditionally known as 'total football,' the Barca style everyone admires."

Among Cruyff's admirers was former Spain international and Barca captain Xavi. The 36-year-old, who is now on the books of Al-Sadd in Qatar, said in Mundo Deportivo: "For me, he is the most relevant person in the history of Barca and the ones that are here always maintain his legacy.

"He was advanced for his time, a professional reference for all of us that love this sport, an example to follow.

"At Barca, he should always be remembered by everyone, his philosophy was the best in the history of football."

Cruyff left the Barcelona bench in 1996 having won 242 of his 387 matches in charge. He came out of retirement 13 years later to guide the Catalonia national team, which only plays unofficial matches, for four years.

The letter concluded: "Thank you for your audacity, thank you for your expertise and thank you for having chosen Barca and Barcelona in the same way that, for Barca and Catalonia, you have always been, and you will always be, one of us. Thank you Johan."