Cruyff at 75: Remembering the Netherlands’ favourite number 14

Johan Cruyff would have turned 75 on Monday, 25 April 2022. He was a football colossus. An iconic figure in the game. The first of the gang to die, at least the first of the modern greats. It seems like his death was just announced, yet unbelievably, it was more than six years ago. Like all the legendary figures of the beautiful game, he lives on in so many images and clips, proof of a life lived, however flawed. It was Cruyff’s imperfection that made him perfect.

It’s not enough to simply describe Johan Cruyff as an Ajax supporter. He lived within a stone’s throw from the ground and joined Ajax’s youth set-up aged 10. His parents, Hermanus and Nel, ran a greengrocers and the young Johan delivered fruit and veg to the club. When, aged 12, his father died and his mother could no longer run the shop, she got a job as a cleaner at Ajax’s De Meer stadium.

When ‘Uncle Henk’, a groundsman at Ajax, later married his mum, the young Johan helped his stepfather around the ground, aerating the pitch, painting the markings and sorting nets. His bond with Ajax was more than simply a fan. Yet like most love affairs, it was tempestuous, rocky, and turbulent. Cruyff was to Ajax as Richard Burton was to Elizabeth Taylor.

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Famously spikey, opinionated and strong-willed, his career felt like a conveyor belt of explosive moments, one full of arguments and confrontation. There are so many inciting incidents, dramatists and writers would hide behind the sofa squeezing cushions to both ears. From the dressing room coup in 1973, his fights with Barcelona’s Josep Lluís Núñez, to early retirement, then being scammed, left with nothing and returning to the game, to being ‘discarded’ (he wasn’t) and signing with fierce rivals, Feyenoord in 1983. This is just the first act. Then there was the second act as a coach and the coda as a pundit and columnist.

Cruyff was given his debut aged 17 in 1964 by Vic Buckingham, before Rinus Michels took over and together they made history. Cruyff would go on to dominate Dutch and European football, winning six Eredivisie titles and the European Cup in three consecutive seasons between 1971 and 1973. During this period, he often started moves from deep positions, with the ball from the keeper, yet from 1964 to 1973 he played 319 times scoring 253 goals.

Cruyff’s whole style of play, that marauding, meandering, maverick, the reader of the game, was down to an epiphany of sorts. When he was 15, the 1962 European Cup final between Real Madrid and Benfica was played in Amsterdam and he was selected to be a ball boy. Suddenly football made sense when he watched Alfredo Di Stéfano solve every mathematical equation he faced. Space. Distance. Speed. Possession.

In 1973, the avuncular coach Ștefan Kovács left Ajax after winning two of the club’s three European Cups to become coach of the French national side. His replacement, George Knobel let players vote for the season’s captain and they selected Piet Keizer over Cruyff.

“I’d just suggested staying on as captain when I heard that I had a rival candidate in Piet Keizer, so there was going to be a ballot,” Cruyff explained in his autobiography. “People were still complaining that I was too self-serving. It was a form of jealousy I had never before experienced.”

Hurt and wounded, Cruyff had played for Ajax for nine years and before the bloody coup, had extended his contract for another seven years.

In David Winner’s Brilliant Orange, Johnny Rep was unequivocal on the captaincy vote: “It was not easy, not all the time. He said you must do this in a game or you must do that. It was not easy for me to shut my mouth. He was always saying: more to the right, or to the left, or the centre. Always! If he gave a bad ball, it was not his fault. And he is always right! He is the best and all the time he is right. That was the problem with him for me.”

Cruyff was so focused he was oblivious to how sick his team-mates had become of his overbearing drive for perfection, detail and incessant criticism. He instructed his agent (and his father-in-law) Cor Coster to get him out and within weeks he was teaming up with Michels again – this time in Barcelona.

The 1974 FIFA World Cup saw the Netherlands and Cruyff mesmerise the global game with Total Football, thanks to their shape and play. When he played against Sweden in 1974, he even invented a move called the Cruyff Turn where he dipped, swivelled and danced the life out of defender Jan Olsson. The play is now deified and treated like a religious relic despite the actual move itself coming to nothing. By the final, the Dutch were so cool they just grooved out and forgot to win.

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By the time Cruyff touched down at Barcelona Airport after the tournament, he was a global superstar and the reception he was greeted by was more fitting of a chaotic Beatles arrival. The love never relented for the next five years. Reunited with Michels, Barcelona were struggling but Cruyff was playing the best football of his life. Barca went on a 27-game unbeaten run, including a 5-0 victory over Real Madrid at the Bernabéu (a game Cruyff’s wife Danny rescheduled the birth of their third child, Jordi, to allow dad to play) guiding them to their first title in 13 years.

We know now that Cruyff’s time as coach of Barcelona was a phenomenal period for the club and is now considered a benchmark in the development of European football. Yet underpinning his term as head coach, was a deep-rooted mistrust of his biggest nemesis in football, President Josep Lluís Núñez. In 1978, when Cruyff announced he would be leaving, he and Núñez fell out over a tax bill when the tax rules changed in Spanish football.

Clubs always helped pay the players’ taxes, contracts were negotiated after tax, based on a net wage. The changes meant players were now responsible for their own taxes – however, to lure top talent, clubs continued to cover the shortfall. The updated rules required players who were liable to pay retrospectively but clubs still helped. As Cruyff had announced he was leaving and would not be there next year, Núñez refused to offer any help and Cruyff was forced to meet the tax bill himself.

After retiring from the game aged just 31, he was conned out of around $6 million (he never gave a definitive figure) but that would be around $24 million today. He quickly realised football was his business. Within seven months, he was back getting fit and playing in the United States, first with LA Aztecs, then the Washington Diplomats.

After a move to Leicester City fell through, (not to mention a cheeky offer from Scottish club, Dumbarton), he played briefly for Levante, in Spain before returning to Ajax in December 1981 and in half a season, he pointed and guided and harangued and tweaked and bossed and shaped them to the title. In the following season, in a side with the three great Danes, Søren Lerby, Jesper Olsen and Jan Mølby and a balance of youth and experience, including a young Frank Rijkaard, they cruised to the league and cup double.

In 1983, aged 36, after Ajax offered a derisory standard contract and ended his lucrative gate-cut arrangement – Ajax kept the average gate and anything above that, the club and Cruyff halved – he jumped ship. Ajax said he had lost pace, was putting on weight, in effect hoping he would be so insulted and annoyed he would leave and of course, Cruyff didn’t disappoint. Feyenoord offered the same gate deal arrangement, had a bigger stadium and a more loyal fan base. He would not only win the double, and player of the year award, but even more significantly, he eventually won the love and adulation of the Feyenoord faithful.

When in 1985 he started to coach, even at this point he was creating friction with the KNVB (Dutch FA), refusing to take his badges. Ajax got around it by describing his role as a technical adviser. He delivered two Dutch Cups and the European Cup Winners Cup.

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For old foe Núñez, securing Cruyff’s return to Barcelona as a coach in 1988 was a guaranteed vote winner. Cruyff was shrewd enough to display some semblance of a working relationship with Núñez but it was always purely business.

He introduced tika-taka, possession-based training and short, sharp, passing. He opened up training to the public, spent time with individual players, changing or tweaking their roles – in Pep Guardiola’s case, changing him from a winger to a defensive midfielder and convincing him he was creative, a great reader of the game and prodigious with a pass. But all through his time there, Cruyff knew he had been installed ‘to keep Núñez on the throne’.

He delivered with his Dream Team. Over the eight years, with players including Michael Laudrup, Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov, Gheorghe Hagi and Guardiola, he won four La Liga titles between 1991 and 1994. He won the club’s first European Cup in 1992, the European Cup Winners’ Cup, the European Super Cup, three Spanish Super Cups, and a Copa Del Rey. More crucially, he instilled something unique and special, a philosophy, principles, values and a way of playing. As this side moved on, he felt his 11 trophies and an established football brand had earned the time to evolve his next team, believing he could turn it around. Cruyff won nothing in his final two seasons and in 1996 was sacked by Núñez.

Cruyff would not live to see the radical changes he had put in place come to fruition. Ajax, as a direct result of changes made to the youth system, returned to the values of Total Football. In 2018/19, they faced Spurs in the semi-final of the Champions League, six of their players coming through the Ajax system, all thanks to changes Cruyff implemented.

Erik ten Hag worked closely with Guardiola at Bayern Munich before becoming Ajax coach and instilling Cruyff’s methods into the team. His young group were seconds away from the final but were defeated by a Lucas Moura goal. Just like before, Ajax would sell off their talent to the major European superpowers, Barcelona, Juventus and Manchester United but the club were, technically and financially, now in great shape.

After leaving Barca, Cruyff’s virtue of picking fights and finding fault with those running the game was a key reason why he never managed at the top level again, although he remained busy between his Cruyff Foundation and media commitments. However, he was keeping his powder dry and via De Telegraaf, let rip in September 2010 after Ajax were beaten 2-0 in the Champions League by Real Madrid at the Bernabéu. Cruyff destroyed the club, those running it and the nature of the defeat. He used his column in the nation’s biggest-selling newspaper to say: ‘This Is No Longer Ajax’. Everything was wrong. The technique, the philosophy, the football basics. There were no former players in each age group imparting any knowledge.

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The De Telegraaf column had a profound effect and soon a chain of events would lead to major change. He wrote, “If you looked at who represented the club, you immediately saw there was a lack of football knowledge there. There wasn’t a single first-team player on the commissioners’ council, the board, the members’ council or the club administration. Not one. So it wasn’t surprising the club was failing to play decent football – the administrators didn’t have the first clue about tactics and techniques that the club had been built on.”

Cruyff suggested that for upcoming club elections fans come together and vote in ex-players at each age group to improve technical expertise. It escalated into a huge story and ended up in court. Cruyff wanted to restructure the youth system from under-7s to under-18s. From the velvet revolution came the Cruyff Plan, he was voted in as a council member, but directors and the chairman refused to budge. They claimed he was out of touch. Football was ‘run through governance not grandstanding through a newspaper column’. They then deliberately appointed Louis van Gaal as general manager, without asking Cruyff’s opinion.

In 2011, the Cruyff Plan, executed by Dennis Bergkamp, Wim Jonk, and Ruben Jongkind – was up and running. Even the amended version of the changes he suggested, helped the club improve. The anger and frustration directed towards Ajax, which had been the starting point for the column, saw a course of action that in time, developed technical coaches preparing stars like Matthijs De Ligt, Donny van de Beek and Frenkie de Jong.

In all it means that, more than six years after his death, Johan Cruyff’s legacy still lives on.

Andy Bollen is the author of Fierce Genius: Cruyff’s Year at Feyenoord and A History of European Football in 100 Objects both out now on Pitch Publishing.

Cruyff at 75: Remembering the Netherlands’ favourite number 14
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