Surrounded by his family and closest friends, Johan Cruyff will tonight celebrate the fiftieth birthday he thought he would never see.

The food and wines in his favoured Barcelona eaterie will taste all the more special, as he has lived with the fear of a premature death since he was just 12.

On reaching this significant landmark, the legendary Dutchman permitted himself the luxury of a review of a career unique in football in which he amassed 38 trophies as a player and manager.

He was always a controversial figure, but his popularity in his homeland remains un-diminished. Cruyff receives around 1000 letters every week.

''After all these years more than half of these letters are about the World Cup final in 1974, when we should have beaten Germany,'' he reflected. ''People still talk about the Orange machine which took the game by storm. That our football has lived in their memories is a greater honour than actually winning the World Cup.

''This birthday is very special and I want to spend it privately with the people who matter most - my family.

''My father died when I was just 12 and he was 45. From that day the feeling crept stronger over me that I would die at the same age and, when I had serious heart problems when I reached 45, I thought: 'This is it.' Only medical science, which was not available to help my father, kept me alive.

''I am now at the end of my career in football as I feel that I have seen, done, and won it all. When I look back, I believe I have enjoyed more success than any other player in the world.

''The most annoying thing to others was that I always thought I knew better than anyone else.

''But all the achievements have come with a price. And that has been paid by my family who had to follow wherever my career took me.

''There were difficult times, especially for Jordi. Of my three children he suffered most of all. All my decisions influenced his life.

''In 1983 when I went to Feyenoord from Ajax he stayed in Amsterdam. That was tough, because people tried to hurt him. When I went to Barcelona he had to leave Ajax and his friends behind. There it was said he was only in the team because I was the coach.

''The manner in which Jordi dealt with these situations and criticisms makes him a very special man in my eyes.

''When he scored on his debut for Holland in Euro96 that was the most exciting moment of my life. That was something he did on his own. I had no part in the decision to play him and my pride knew no limits.''

Cruyff insists his decision to resume his playing career in the USA was pivotal in his career. ''It was wrong, a mistake, to quit playing at 31 with the unique talent I possessed,'' he recalled. ''I had lost millions in pig-farming and that was the reason I decided to become a footballer again.

''Starting from zero in America, many miles away from my past, was one of the best decisions I made. There I learned how to develop my uncontrolled ambitions, to think as a coach and about sponsorship.

''There I also began working for the special Olympics. The organisation was poor and I get fed up and told them I was going to quit.

''They asked me to watch a video of me coaching handicapped people, and I saw the joy in their eyes. I took that lesson to football. Those who insist that the result is sacred do not know what they are talking about.

''Of course the result is important, but most important is that the supporters feel the club stream through their veins. I left Ajax on three occasions because of arguments but I still love that club. It is difficult to explain why but it is in my blood for ever. It is vital that supporters feel this way.''

Now Cruyff has harnessed his energies setting up coaching clinics throughout Europe and expanding the Amsterdam Sixes in which Rangers competed earlier this year.

''I never miss training or games for a single moment,'' he admitted. There are new challenges ahead which keep me fully occupied.

''I will continue to be creative in everything I do. Football, though, is a simple game and the most difficult part is to keep it simple. I cannot stand coaches who complicate tactics.

''My philosophy is that the keeper is the first attacker, who dictates the speed of the move, and the striker is the first defender. If there is revenge to be taken that is when players respond best.

''It has been 50 years and it could have been 100 with all that has taken place. I have had a rich and rewarding life and now I am learning to be a grandfather which is an even better experience than parenthood.''