A true genius is impossible to define through mere numbers. Johan Cruyff's achievements are not properly captured by his 36 prizes as a player and coach, three European Footballer of the Year awards, or sixth place in a poll of the greatest Dutchmen of all time.

Yet the No.14 jersey he wore has managed toendure as an icon of brilliant innovation. Ajax will officially retire the shirt from their squad list when the great Dutch master turns 60 on Wednesday, not that many players are willing to take on their backs such an impossible comparison.

Cruyff picked his number through superstition, yet it came to symbolise his rejection of conformity in an age when the first XI was ordered in precisely that way. He had worn the No.9 at Ajax during his emergence as the most startling talent within a sublime squad that delivered Rinus Michels' vision of Total Football.

That was until a persistent groin strain kept Cruyff out of action for a spell during 1970. The injury baffled the club's medical staff and, during his absence, Gerrie Muhren took over what was nominally the centre-forward's jersey.

Cruyff made his comeback in October that year against PSV Eindhoven, but elected to leave Muhren in possession. Ajax beat PSV 1-0 and Cruyff's groin held intact throughout the game. No.14, he decided, brought him good luck.

Both films and books about his life have been entitled simply with those digits. It became shorthand for a man whose complexities can still baffle those trying to unravel the layers of his ego. "If I had wanted you to understand, I would have explained it better," was how he used to stonewall his favourite Dutch magazine writers during interviews.

The number, like the player, was unique. The greatest No.10 could be Pele, Diego Maradona or perhaps even Michel Platini. The No.6 was retired by both AC Milan and AS Roma to mark the outstanding defensive contributions of, respectively, Franco Baresi and Aldair. No.14 can only be Hendrik Johannes Cruyff.

Some people feel his essence is better captured by the little things, rather than the four European Cups - three consecutively between 1971 and 1973 as an Ajax player and one as Barcelona coach in 1992 - or 14 national championships.

There is the famous penalty-kick for Ajax against Helmond Sport in 1982, for example, when Cruyff played a one-two with Jesper Olsen before scoring beyond an utterly bewildered goalkeeper. Then, when Ajax stalled on renewing his contract 12 months later, believing him to be effectively finished at the age of 36, Cruyff was sufficiently angered to join their hated rivals Feyenoord.

One season in Rotterdam helped De Kuip stadium salute its first league title in a decade, with the Dutch Cup following to complete a legendary double. Ajax had been suitably chastened.

No member of the "Dream Team" he created at Barcelona, which won four successive La Liga titles, was allowed to think themselves superior to the coach. When asked if Cruyff believed himself to be a greater player that Romario, he was unequivocal. "Yes.

I made other players better, he only scores goals."

Cruyff had undergone heart surgery in 1991 as a result of his 20-a-day smoking habit and vowed never to coach again when he exited Camp Nou in 1996, after two trophyless seasons. His influence, though, continues to flourish.

Cruyff's support assisted Joan Laporta in gaining election as Barcelona president and he remains an eminence grise amid affairs at the Catalan club. The arrivals of Frank Rijkaard, the coach, and Txiki Beguiristain, the sporting director, are both thought to have been Cruyff-approved.

On the playing side, the signings of Henrik Larsson, Samuel Eto'o and Eidur Gudjohnsen were all rubber-stamped by the Dutchman. His relationship with Ronaldinho is apparently less amiable. Cruyff's newspaper criticisms often allude to the Brazilian, who may defer from posting a birthday card this week. Many others, though, will join Ajax in celebrating the landmark of a legend.

Ajax may yet provide Cruyff with a further present as the Dutch league season reaches its incredible climax. Yesterday's results mean AZ Alkmaar, Ajax and PSV Eindhoven enter the final weekend tied on 72 points.

AZ lead the way on goal difference, with long-time leaders PSV now suffering in third place. It has been a race brimming with the tension and drama so absent on this side of the North Sea.