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Football News: Legends of the game part 4: Johan Cruyff

Legends of the game part 4: Johan Cruyff
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Legends of the game part 4: Johan Cruyff - 'El Flaco (Skinny One), Nummer 14 (Number 14), The Total Footballer, Jopie (while a child), The Prophet of Betondorp, The Saviour'


"Without Cruyff, Holland wouldn't have had a football tradition." - Simon Kuiper


Johan Cruyff was born just five minutes away from Ajax's stadium in Amsterdam, on 25th April 1947, the second son of Hermanus Cornelius Cruijff and Petronella Bernardo Draaijer. He would spend all his spare time playing football with older brother Henry and his schoolmates, with his father's encouragement, as Hermanus loved football. Spotted by a youth coach from Ajax, Jany van der Veen, he was offered a place in the youth team and joined on his 10th birthday, to his father's delight.

Just a couple of years later tragedy struck for young Johan as Hermanus died from a heart attack in 1959, aged just 45. Johan later said he developed a belief that he would also go young: "my father died when I was just 12 and he was 45, from that day the feeling crept 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 my father kept me alive.

Despite the feeling, or maybe partly because of it, young Johan was driven in his pursuit of football as a future career, seeing it as a tribute to his father and using that to inspire him. His mother had needed to take a job to make ends meet and began working as a cleaner at Ajax, where she later met her second husband, a field hand (groundsman in England) called Henk Engel. By then young Johan had already left school, aged just 13, to focus on his football, despite still being small and frail.

His size and weakness is something that he never forgot and became an important part of his later thinking when he moved into management. For now though he was just a skinny kid who also had a talent for baseball, playing as either a pitcher or a catcher. Like school he put it aside while still a child when, at 15 years old, he left Ajax's baseball section to concentrate on his burgeoning soccer talent which was beginning to draw notice within the club.

English coach Vic Buckingham was in charge at Ajax and he said of Cruyff: "He was so mature. He was such a skinny little kid but he had such immense stamina. He could run all over the field and he could do everything: set movements up, fly down the wing, run into the penalty area, head the ball in. Left foot, right foot, anything - and such speed." So impressed was Buckingham that he gave Cruyff his debut on 15th November 1964, in the Eredivisie versus GVAV. The 17 year old Johan scored Ajax's only goal in a 3-1 defeat.

The stage was now set for a great talent to emerge as Ajax appointed Rinus Michels to be their new head coach. Michels designed an exercise programme to develop Cruyff's frail physique and to enable the youngster to deal with the rigours of pro football, as he looked to build his new team around Cruyff's talents. Michels would produce something different, based on a style called 'Carousel' which had been around since the 50s, at least, under Michels and with Cruyff leading on the pitch, it became 'Total Football' and began a revolution in the sport.

"When players like Bale and Ronaldo are worth around 100million euros, Johan would go in the billions!" - Franz Beckenbauer in 2014


The following season, 1965-66, Johan established himself as a first team player as he scored 8 goals in 7 games in the winter, including both goals in an October victory over DWS at the Olympic Stadium. The following March he got his first hat-trick with the first 3 goals in a 6-2 league win over Telstar, then, just four days later, he notched 4 goals against Veendam in a 7-0 cup win. His 25 goals in 23 Eredivisie games helped Ajax to win the title, despite having finished just 13th the previous season.

That was followed up with a league and cup double as Ajax won the Eredivisie and KNVB Cup in 1966-67, Cruyff top scoring with 33 goals and picking up the Dutch Footballer of the Year award. 1967-68 saw Ajax get a third successive league title and Cruyff get a second successive Dutch Footballer of the Year award. Just 21 years old, Johan Cruyff had already got 3 successive league titles, a cup winners medal and 2 Dutch Footballer of the Year trophies on his mantelpiece! It is easy to see why football historian Jimmy Burns later said: "With Cruyff, the team felt they couldn't lose."

His personal life was also in a good place, he had met Diana Margaretha 'Danny' Coster, the daughter of his agent Cor Coster, at the wedding of Ajax team-mate Piet Keizer in June 1967. They were to marry in December 1968, a personal triumph to add to his third successive Dutch Footballer of the Year award he was given in the 1968-69 season. Unfortunately the league title eluded Ajax that year, partially down to the distraction of the European Cup as they reached the final, only to lose 4-1 to AC Milan.

The lack of trophies was rectified quickly, as 1969-70 saw Cruyff get a second league and cup double, though the Dutch Footballer of the Year award eluded him after 3 in a row. Next season came a moment that produced the number 14 that he became so well known for wearing (inspiring many future generations of players to wear 14 themselves) as he returned from a groin injury that had kept him sidelined for a while. It was the 30th October 1970 and Ajax's players were gathered in the dressing room ahead of a match with PSV Eindhoven preparing for the game.

In those days it was customary for the eleven players picked for the game to wear numbers 1-11, Cruyff usually wearing the 9 shirt. Gerrie Muhren was unable to find his number 7 shirt so Cruyff gave him the number 9 and went to the laundry basket to pull one out at random to wear - it was number 14. Wearing 14 Ajax won 1-0 so Johan suggested to Muhren that they should stick to wearing 9 and 14 afterwards, though he would sometimes be forced to wear the 9 again, particularly in Spain as league rules made numbers 1-11 mandatory, the 'Nummer 14' was born.

It was understandable he wanted to stick with 14 as he scored 6 goals in an 8-1 win over AZ '67 the next month and that season ended in a hugely triumphant moment as Ajax headed to London and beat Greece's Panathinaikos 2-0 in the 1971 European Cup final, Ajax's first European trophy. A 4th Dutch Footballer of the Year award was joined by a European Footballer of the Year award (which was later to become the Balon d'Or) and Ajax awarded their star a 7 year contract.

Cruyff's star was still rising as Ajax landed a second successive European Cup, Cruyff getting both goals in the final as Ajax saw off Inter Milan 2-0. They also won another KNVB Cup, with a 3-2 victory over ADO Den Haag, but they were not stopping there. Argentina's Independiente were beaten over two legs in the forerunner of the Club World Cup, the Intercontinental Cup and Rangers were also despatched over two legs in the European Super Cup. The only thing missing from the 1971-72 season was yet another league title.

Perhaps the most notable moment of the 1972-73 season is Johan's only ever career own goal, which he scored in August against FC Amsterdam, as Ajax won yet another league title and a third successive European Cup with a 1-0 final win over Juventus. It was almost becoming a routine of title after title, except that it was all to end, suddenly, in acrimony after the players held a secret ballot to choose a new captain and picked Piet Keizer instead of Johan. Cruyff, displaying the arrogance and confrontational attitude that reared its head throughout his career, took the result as a personal insult and demanded a move away, declaring he would go on strike if he was not given his wish.

So it was that the great man left Ajax for a world record fee of around $2m for the surprise choice of Barcelona, who were not the juggernaut of today by any means. His final game for Ajax was the second game of the 1973-74 season as he took part in a 6-0 win over FC Amsterdam in 19th August, with many of the Dutch population believing his move was purely motivated over money. Despite all he achieved on the pitch, Cruyff was not the most popular man in Netherlands.

"When you saw Cruyff off the pitch he was like a thin boy. But on the pitch he was from another planet." - Rinus Michels


Surprisingly for a player so good, he had a remarkably low number of caps, partially because he took early retirement from international duty and partly because national teams played less games back then. Either way it is a shame for world football that he got only 48 caps for Netherlands. Even more of a shame for the nation itself, as not one of his 33 goals came in a defeat for the Dutch. Though, it must be pointed out, his intransigence did result in him missing out on at least one cap, as he refused to face Poland due to a lack of insurance against injuries.

His stubbornness also led to the famous special kit Adidas produced just for Cruyff in 1974, for that year's World Cup. With Cruyff contracted to Puma and the two sportswear manufacturers involved in a bitter feud, Johan refused to wear the Holland kit provided. A compromise was finally reached when Netherlands persuaded Adidas to produce a kit especially for Cruyff with just two stripes on the sleeve instead of Adidas's trademark 3 stripes.

All of that was a way off in 1966 when, on 7th September, Johan Cruyff made his Netherlands debut in a qualifier for Euro 68 versus Hungary. Cruyff scored in a 2-2 draw. Cruyff's second cap was not as successful though, as he became Netherland's first player to ever be sent off during a friendly with Czechoslovakia in November 1967. He was punished with a ban from playing by the Dutch FA, though the ban never applied to internationals, despite his offence having ocurred in an international match.

Cruyff's international career is known for two things, the 1974 World Cup, when the 'Clockwork Orange', as the Netherlands team became known, were devastating, and his shock retirement just three years later aged just 30. It was the '74 World Cup that really brought 'Total Football' to the world and delighted the millions watching. The Dutch came into the tournament as one of the favourites, despite never having won it before.


"Surviving the first round is never my aim. Ideally I'd be in one group with Brazil, Argentina and Germany. Then I'd have lost two rivals after the first round. That's how I think. Idealistic." - Johan Cruyff

For Johan Cruyff's player profile click HERE

The above quote probably summed up the feeling of the entire Dutch squad in 1974, as they went out there with an almost strutting arrogance and took the game to opponents from the start. The group stages also saw something special from the great man himself, as he unleashed the 'Cruyff turn' for the first time on unsuspecting Sweden defender Jan Olsson. Olsson later said: "I played 18 years in top football and 17 times for Sweden but that moment against Cruyff was the proudest moment of my career. I thought I'd win the ball for sure, but he tricked me. I was not humiliated. I had no chance Cruyff was a genius." That was the most memorable moment of the group stages, as Netherlands eased through to the knockout rounds.

Two Cruyff goals helped see off Argentina 4-0 in the next round, before East Germany went home on the back of a 2-0 defeat as the Dutch went through to the semi-final to face Brazil. The reigning champions were also sent home, Cruyff scoring one of the goals as Netherlands beat them 2-1 to set up a final with the other German team, West Germany. The match kicked off with an incredible move as Cruyff took the kick off and 15 passes later had the ball returned to him. He glided past his marker Berti Vogts and into the box where Uli Hoeness took him out to give the Dutch a penalty, which Johan Neeskens duly converted. 1-0 to Netherlands and West Germany had not had a touch of the ball yet, other than to pick it out of their net!

It was this moment that arrogance spoilt all the work the Netherlands had done, as they believed they had done enough and allowed the Germans back into it. Vogts marked Cruyff out of the rest of the game and the deadly efficiency of the German footballing machine ground out a 2-1 win to leave the Dutch 1974 World Cup side as the best side never to win a World Cup. Cruyff's Golden Ball (awarded to the best player at the World Cup) was no consolation to him as their bitter rivals, Germany, had the big one he wanted.

Sad to say, but that was Cruyff's last attempt to win the World Cup, as he shocked the world with his announcement in October 1977, just after helping his nation qualify for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, that he was to retire from international football. Officially he said that he was dropping out of the squad for the World Cup in protest at the military dictatorship in Argentina at the time. It was only revealed in 2008 that he had dropped out after an attempted kidnap attempt at the Cruyff family home in Barcelona. Cruyff told Catalunya Radio: "To play a World Cup you have to be 200% okay, there are moments when there are other values in life."

For years Cruyff had not told anyone why, at the age of just 30, fit and in form, he stopped playing for Netherlands, despite the accusations of abandoning his country. "You should know that I had problems at the end of my career as a player here," he continued. "And I don't know if you know that someone put a rifle to my head and tied me up and tied up my wife in front of the children at our flat in Barcelona. The children were going to school accompanied by the police. The police slept in our house for three or four months. I was going to matches with a bodyguard. All these things change your point of view towards many things. There are moments in life in which there are other values. We wanted to stop this and be a little more sensible. It was the moment to leave football and I couldn't play in the World Cup after this."

"In Spain all 22 players make the sign of the cross before a game; if it worked every game would be a tie." - Johan Cruyff


Johan Cruyff joined Barcelona in 1973 for a world record transfer fee of around $2m, of which his agent (and father-in-law) manage to negotiate a cut of around 25% for his client. Cruyff had threatened to retire unless Ajax sold him, so desperate was he to leave the club and the Spanish FA had to give special dispensation for the move to go through, as the Spanish transfer deadline had passed before the move was complete. By this time the Dutch public were firmly of the belief that Cruyff was just a money grabber, a mercenary looking for a payday, but Cruyff did reject a better offer from Real Madrid saying he could never join a club "associated with Franco."

He later said: "I remember my move to Spain was quite controversial.... The president of Ajax wanted to sell me to Real Madrid.... Barcelone weren't at the same level as Madrid football wise, but it was a challenge to play for a Catalan club. Barcelona was more than a club." Cruyff endeared himself even more to Catalans when his 3rd child was born in Barcelona, as he flew the family back to Holland to name his son after the patron saint of Catalonia, St. Jordi. They had to return to Netherlands to register the name as General Franco had made all symbols of Catalan nationalism illegal.

Cruyff had little need of any gimmicks to get the love of Catalans though, his first season was all he needed as he helped Barcelona to their first league title since 1960. Even more love was generated as they beat Real Madrid 5-0 in the Santiago Bernabeu to spark mass street celebrations in Barcelona, one NY Times journalist commenting that Cruyff had done more for the spirit of Catalan people in 90 minutes than many politicians in years of struggle. Cruyff became the first man to receive three Ballon d'Ors, when he was awarded it in December 1973 and 1974. Though the rest of his time in Spain was not so successful with only a Copa del Rey win in the 1977-78 to show for Cruyff's brilliance on the pitch.

In fact, other than the first season title, Cruyff's time as a player is known for his moments of genius, rather than the team's quality. The moment that probably sums it up is his famous 'Phantom Goal' against Atletico Madrid, where Cruyff leapt into the air, twisting his body to connect with a ball, that had already past the far post, with his right heel. At neck height. Miguel Reina in the Atleti goal could do nothing against a moment of sheer brilliance. Only a genius like Cruyff would have even considered it possible before making it so.

Which made it all the more shocking when Johan Cruyff announced his retirement from playing in 1978, just 31 years old, after 143 appearances and 48 goals for Barca. Looking back now, with the knowledge of the kidnap attempt the previous year, it is understandable that the great man just needed a break. At the time it was a shock of seismic proportions.


"Never in my life have I seen a player like Cruyff rule matches. He was the owner of the show. Much more than his team, the referee or the fans. His grip on what was happening on the field was amazing. He was a player, coach and referee at the same time." - Jorge Valdano


Unfortunately for Cruyff, but fortunately for football, his plans of a quiet retirement were dashed very quickly. He had gone into business with a neighbour of his in Barcelona, Michel Georges Basilevich, a very charming Russian-Frenchman described by Johan's wife Danny as "the most beautiful man in the world." Basilevich was granted control of the Cruyff fortune and burned through it at a vast rate, investing heavily in businesses that failed, in particular a pig farm that lost millions, much to the amusement of the Dutch public, who were utterly convinced by now that Cruyff's sole interest was money.

Cor Coster, Johan's father-in-law and agent, announced that Basilevich was a fraud (as he had suspected all along) and that "Johan has to get back to work." Cruyff himself admitted "I had lost millions in pig farming and that was the reason I decided to become a footballer again." However being Johan Cruyff there were options open to him to step straight back in. Despite the money grabbing image he rejected an offer of $2m to return to Barca. He had decided he wanted to go to the NASL after playing a couple of exhibition games in the USA for New York Cosmos. He wanted to bring football to the States, but he did not want to play for the Cosmos, even though they would offer him the most money.

Unfortunately there was a hitch as the contract signed when he played in those two exhibition games gave Cosmos first option if he changed his mind about retirement. There was a buyout clause of $1m to any team that wanted to take him to the NASL. Franz Beckenbauer had warned him that Cosmos would enforce all their clauses and, if he signed for them, force him to go to all sorts of promotional activities, as they had with him and Pele. Cruyff had made up his mind though, he wanted to be on the other side of the country saying, "Cosmos drew a lot of fans with Pele. Even after he left they drew a lot of fans. So I thought my job should be on this coast."

As so often happened Cruyff got his way and signed for Los Angeles Aztecs, who agreed to pay Cosmos $600k spread over three years to take Johan to the west. With the NASL seen as just a holiday retirement home for Europeans, Cruyff's reputation was even worse back home in Netherlands, but he once again denied it was about money saying: "I'm only doing things I am excited about, and this is what I am excited about." There is reason to believe he was being honest as, not only was Rinus Michels coach of the Aztecs, but his conduct while in the US was almost that of a missionary zealously trying to convert the heathen hordes to his religion - soccer.

Aztecs owner Alan Rothenburg remembers: "Johan had the intensity of the best kind of development worker. He was willing to drive for hours to talk about soccer for 10 minutes on TV for nothing." Cruyff was also happily giving free coaching clinics to local children and doing all the promotional work Beckenbauer had warned him about. All this while Barcelona were busily changing La Masia over to follow the recommendations Cruyff had made. While the general public were of the opinion he was nothing but a mercenary, Johan Cruyff was busily working on producing future generations of football players and fans on two continents!

"It's like everything in football - and life. You need to look, you need to think, you need to move, you need to find space, you need to help others. It's very simple in the end." - Johan Cruyff


The 1979 season started well as Cruyff, fresh off a flight and facing a 9 hour time difference which caused him jetlag, still showed his quality, scoring two goals in the first seven minutes and getting an assist before being subbed off. Though his young countryman team-mate Thomas Rogen remembers his first words as being: "Thomas, I know you are ok as a player, but just win the fucking ball and get it to me." The season continued in a similar vein as he scored 14 goals and 6 assists in 23 appearances, leading Aztecs to the Conference semi-finals. It led to him being voted NASL MVP.

Good times very rarely last long though and Rothenburg sold the Aztecs to a Mexican company called Televisa, who planned to build the team around Mexican stars. As such they wanted Cruyff's $500,000 salary off the books and agreed to sell him to Washington Diplomats for $1m and the remainder of the debt owed to Cosmos. This was not a match made in heaven, there was no Rinus Michels trying to reproduce 'total football' coaching the Dips. Instead they had an English coach called Gordon Bradley, who coached a long-ball static game, the antithesis to the way Cruyff played the game!

It soon became apparent how different things would be for Cruyff in Washington as, on his arrival in 1980 at Dulles International Airport he was met by three of the club's executives. To his apparent surprise there were no fans waiting for an autograph either inside or outside the airport and he was taken to Tiberio, a famous Italian eatery where Washington's movers and shakers ate. None of the senators, congressmen or other powerbrokers recognised Cruyff, which left them scratching their heads in confusion as a succession of busboys, dishwashers and cooks queued up for a picture, autograph and to speak to the great man.

There were problems on and off the pitch with his team-mates, one of whom, Bobby Stokes, told the press: "When the board bought Cruyff they should have gotten a few bales of cotton too. To stick in our ears." That was because Cruyff, was frustrated with Bradley's tactical approach and would be instructing, pointing and explaining to his team-mates what he wanted from them. Nick Mijatovic remembers Cruyff getting exasperated in the middle of a game and standing still with the ball at his feet: "'Somebody please move.' Then he'd raise his arms and declare: 'It's impossible!'"

Team-mates were in the press complaining that Cruyff was killing their confidence, while Cruyff himself was busy pelting the board with requests on behalf of the entire team. Cruyff wanted changes made to practices, which he felt were too long and tough in the oppressive summer heat, 1st class travel for the players, a better travel schedule and other changes. In the end Cruyff decided to just change matters himself, in a way that only Johan Cruyff could get away with.

Thomas Rongen, who the Aztecs had sold to the Diplomats as well, said: "After a teamtalk Johan would walk to the blackboard and erase all Bradley's formation and notes. 'We'll be doing this very differently, of course,' he would tell us. And then he'd tell us how we'd actually be playing." Diplomats club president Steve Danzansky later said: "He was like a musician with perfect pitch who was forced to play in an orchestra where everybody around him was playing off key. It drove him completely nuts."

While most agree that the team benefitted as team-mates were shuffled around, added and dropped at his bequest, there was one particular player who felt otherwise. Sonny Askew was a young, rising American star, who thought he was good enough to ignore the advice of one of the greatest players ever to grace a football pitch and it was not long into the season before, according to Askew, Cruyff told Bradley that "it's either him or me."

Ironically Askew seems rather proud of his refusal to play the Cruyff way, even now after his career amounted to so little, while Cruyff went on to prove himself one of the best coaches the game has ever seen. Askew said, "in the game they all gave the ball up to Cruyff. The whole time, continously. But I didn't, out on the right wing. I went my own way. And that drove Johan nuts." It got to the point where the two had a brawl on the training ground, with team-mates having to separate them. You just have to wonder if Askew will ever realise what a wasted opportunity he had to learn from a legend, instead of arrogantly deciding he knew better!

"Speed is often confused with insight. When I start running earlier than the others, I appear faster." - Johan Cruyff


Cruyff carried on trying to bring football to the public in the US as Canadian right back Bob Iarusci, who had played with Pele on the Cosmos team and Cruyff in Washington said: "Pele was useless to you outside of the field. He was a self-centred man. Cruyff really wanted to turn American soccer into something big. They said that of Pele too, but with him I question if it wasn't only really about the money." Cruyff was staying back after training, tutoring young American players and asked for reserve teams to be created to give the youngsters a chance to get more games.

Despite all his efforts the Diplomats were struggling and his lack of goals were being called into question as Cruyff operated from a deeper position, trying to pull the strings, rather than being the goalscorer. In June 1980 the Washington Post labelled Cruyff "the biggest disappointment since Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society." While I have absolutely no idea what that is, it certainly does not sound like a compliment and it certainly annoyed Cruyff.

In fact it annoyed him so much that he was being scapegoated by American fans with so little knowledge or understanding of the game, that he said to the Post: "I thought my job was to organise the team when I came here. Sure, I could score goals. I'm not worried about that in the slightest. In fact, that's what I am going to do now. Forget about organisation, I'm going to play spectactularly now. I'm going to play football for the spectator. We'll start winning games. But no championships. If you want to win trophies you have to play organised."

That is exactly what he did, finishing the game with 10 goals and 20 assists, but his team were knocked out of the play offs by a much more organised Aztecs side. However it was an important period for him as he learned to value just how much entertaining the fans mattered, even admitting to trying to hit the bar once when the team was 4-0 up as that was more fun for the fans than scoring another goal.

His time in the NASL had awoken an interest in analysing the game and taught him about philanthropy, how to negotiate with club management and made him realise he should give up on being a business entrepeneur and stick to what he knew better than just about anyone else, football. During that offseason Cruyff told a Dutch newspaper that he had demanded changes to the internal organisation of the Diplomats, practices and the make up of the squad. He was to get none of those demands met as owner Sonny Werblin decided he was no longer willing to cover the team's losses and shut it down.

Cruyff was left without a club, but pleased he had taken on his American adventure: "It was wrong, a mistake, to quit playing at 31 with the unique talent that I possessed. 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." Without his time in the NASL we might never have had Johan Cruyff the coach, we might never have had, to paraphrase Graham Hunter, the pound for pound most important man in the history of football.


"Every disadvantage has its advantage." - Johan Cruyff


It was now time for the return of the not-quite conquering hero to return to Europe, playing three friendlies for FC Dordrecht in January 1981, before finding out that the Diplomats were no more. Offers were not slow in arriving, Leicester City manager Jock Wallace spending three weeks trying to set up a deal to sign Cruyff. Despite Cruyff expressing a desire to play for the Foxes, no deal could be agreed and he ended up joining Spanish 2nd Division team Levante. His spell at Levante was short-lived and marred by injuries and disagreements with the club and ended after just 10 games.

In May 1981 he appeared as a guest in a tournament for AC Milan, but injury scuppered his chances of any long term deal with the Italian giants. Former club Ajax stepped in with an offer and he returned to the club, winning the Eredivisie in the 81-82 season and the league and cup double (again) in 82-83. He also scored one of the most memorable goals of all time against Helmond Sport in 1982. Lining up to take a penalty, Cruyff nudged the ball to the side, instead of shooting, where Jesper Olsen ran onto it and knocked it back to Cruyff to slot it home. Everyone was caught unawares by the move, including the referee, who had to ask Johan if it was legal!

Despite the two titles in a row, Ajax decided not to offer him a contract at the end of the season, leading him, in a fit of pique, to sign for bitter rivals Feyenoord. In Rotterdam, where Feyenoord are based, he lined up alongside a young Ruud Gullit and claimed another Eredivisie and KNVB Cup double, as well as his 5th Dutch Footballer of the Year award. It was Feyenoord's first Eredivisie title in 10 years. It was to be Cruyff's last title as a player as he retired at the end of the season, his final match was versus PEC Zwolle on 13th May 1984.

This time there was to be no money issues to reverse the decision, partially helped by the fact that his Feyenoord deal paid him a guilder for every spectator that attended over and above the average gate from the previous season. It was time for Cruyff to look at coaching: "I wanted to get my coaching badges after retiring, and I asked to take the exam, but they told me I needed to study for four years. I told them they were crazy. Who is going to study for four years? How is someone going to teach me technical things when I know more than they do?"


"Choose the best player for every position and you'll end up not with a strong eleven, but with elevens strong ones." - Johan Cruyff


Cruyff took charge at Ajax in 1985 and led them to second in the Eredivisie behind a Jan Reker's led PSV Eindhoven, despite a goal difference of +85, 120 goals scored and 35 conceded. They did win the KNVB Cup and then retained it the following season, along with lifting the UEFA Cup Winners Cup, but it was more about the football played, which was glorious at times. So good were they to watch that Cruyff was awarded the World Soccer Awards Manager of the Year for 1987, but it was nothing compared to what was to come, as once more Barcelona beckoned for the Dutchman.

What changed everything was the 28th of April 1988 as twenty one Barca players and head coach Luis Aragones gathered in the Hesperia Hotel to speak to the press. At 7pm club captain Alexanko read out a prepared statement: "President Josep Lluis Nunez has deceived us as people and humiliated us as professionals. In conclusion, although this request is usually the preserve of the club's members, the squad suggest the immediate resignation of the president." The club was once again at war with itself over money. Barca had won just 2 league titles in 28 years, they were in debt as well as in crisis. Results, performances and atmosphere were all terrible and attendances were down.

What had caused this latest crisis was the Spanish treasury who had investigated every Barcelona contract believing tax was owed because each squad member must have separate playing and image rights deals, which none had been given. Barca told the players that any difference owed to the taxman would be down to them to pay, which led to what later became known as 'The Hesperia Mutiny'. Luis Aragones was to leave at the end of the season, suffering from depression and Nunez was on the verge of losing his presidency, so he played his trump card. On the 4th May 1988 Johan Cruyff was duly announced as the new Barcelona coach.


"Everybody could use the money, but you don't play for it - you play with your heart - and that's a big difference you see in Barcelona. Everybody wants to play there; everybody wants to enjoy themselves. It's maybe a small percentage, but maybe it's the difference." - Johan Cruyff


Cruyff immediately set about a squad revamp, selling fifteen (15!) players, including first team favourite (and principal mutineers) Victor Munoz, Ramon Caldere and, shockingly, Bernd Schuster to bitter rivals Real Madrid. Even more of a shock and much to Nunez's chagrin, Cruyff elected to keep hold of club captain Alexanko, despite the 32 year old being booed by a packed Nou Camp at the club's pre-season unveiling. Cruyff explained his decision by saying, "Alexanko did nothing except what was his duty as captain. He was the spokesman - he didn't let his players down. That's character. The messenger often gets killed. Not with me. Although not a regular, he's a leader and there was a unity."

Twelve new signings arrived, four of which were to become key members of what became known as 'The Dream Team', named after the US Olympic basketball team from the Barcelona Olympics. Those four were winger Txiki Begiristain, attacking midfielder Jose Mari Bakero, centre forward Julio Salinas and defensive midfielder Eusebio. Nunez's chagrin deepened when Cruyff made it plain he would not tolerate the meddling in team affairs that had characterised Nunez's presidency. Cruyff told him: "If you want to talk to me, I'll come to your office. You don't come to my dressing room."

The youth academy was overhauled to complete the changes Cruyff had begun at La Masia back in 1979 as he scrapped the 'prueba de la muneca' or 'doll's trial'. That was held at the age of 15 and only players who were to reach over 5ft 9inches would be kept on with the academy under the old system. Cruyff also had the whole set up, from the youngest age group upwards, play using his new system, which he gathered the first team together to explain to them in early July 1988.

Eusebio told 4-4-2 magazine: "He got a blackboard and drew three defenders, four midfielders, two out-and-out wingers and a centre forward. We looked at each other and said, 'what the hell is this?!' This was the era of 4-4-2 or 3-5-2. We couldn't believe how many attackers were in the team, and how few defenders. He single-handedly introduced a new way of playing football in Spain. It was a revolution." It was an updated version of the Ajax style, with a high defensive line, high press and interchanging players on the field and became known as the 'Barcajax School'.

Cruyff explained his thinking, saying, "if you have four men defending two strikers, you only have six against eight in the middle of the field; there's no way you can win that battle. We had to put a defender further forward. I was criticised for playing three at the back, but that's the most idiotic thing I've ever heard. What we needed was to fill the middle of the pitch with players where we needed it most. I much prefer to win 5-4 than 1-0."

Rondos were introduced to training sessions, Cruyff would take time out to give individual training sessions to work on players' weaknesses and a 6 v 4 training routine was introduced, in an area half the size of the penalty area. "In a small area, the movement is necessarily and the passes must be pinpoint," Cruyff explained. "Two of the six play wide and change team whenever the other four gain possession. It is always six with the ball against four trying to retrieve it. This possession principle should operate in any area of the normal field of play, so our training is intense and it is the basis of our game. You can close down space more effectively by accurate passing when you have the ball, forcing opponents into certain positions, then you can by man-marking without the ball."

Cruyff wanted the player receiving the pass to turn away from his marker saying: "this ability is controlled not by the receiver but by the passer. The passer can see the field in a way the receiver cannot. If the receiver has his back to goal, the passer should send the ball to the feet on the side where the receiver should turn, reducing the arc through which he must control the ball to move." It is an ideology that still runs through Barca today and is followed by 'Cruyffian' disciples, such as Pep Guardiola, still.


"Throughout my career I've simply tried to instil what I learned from Johan Cruyff. He has had the biggest influence on football out of anyone in the world, first as a player and then as a coach. He taught me a lot and you can see that in the fact that so many of his former players are now coaches." - Pep Guardiola


There were some teething problems with Cruyff's regime, such as when goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta asked him how he wanted the team to defend a set piece: "How should I know?" Cruyff replied. "You decide. You're more interested in how to defend a corner than me." However the team went on to win the Cup Winners Cup in his first season, beating Sampdoria 2-0 in the final in Switzerland. The 1989/90 season was seen as so disappointing, despite winning the Copa del Rey, that president Josep Lluis Nunez had to veto a vote of no confidence which was aimed at sacking Cruyff. How near it came to all crashing down before he had really begun!

In 1990/91 Barcelona won the league, despite Cruyff being forced to miss the last 9 games after his smoking habit clogged an artery and he needed a 4 hour heart bypass op. He gave up smoking after that and would suck on a lollipop on the bench, where in the past he would smoke to ease his nerves. It led to Cruyff being used as the star of an anti-smoking commercial aimed at Catalans. When Cruyff went along to shoot the advert, the director began explaining to him how trick photography would be used to make it look like Cruyff was juggling a cigarette packet. While the director spoke, Cruyff nonchalantly flicked the packet up with his feet, thighs and shoulders before volleying it into a nearby bin. Needless to say, the trick photography was dispensed with and Cruyff can be seen juggling the packet 16 times in the final advert.

There was more to come from the team the following season as Barca took on the European Cup. In November, leading Kaiserslautern 3-1 after the first leg, Barcelona were having a stinker in a bitterly cold Germany, losing 1-0 at half-time. Miguel Angel Nadal recalls the half-time team talk: "Cruyff came into the changing rooms and we were expecting a rocket. He just rubbed his hands together and said, 'bloody hell lads, it's fucking freezing out there'. Our season was about to end, and all he did was talk about how cold he was. All the pressure had gone. He was full of self-assurance that the team he had built would triumph."

It worked a treat as Barcelona went through, all the way to the final, as well as retaining their La Liga trophy. Barca had never won the European Cup before and Johan Cruyff's final words, before the players went out, were "salid y disfrutad" - go out and enjoy it. They went out and won it, beating Sampdoria again with a Ronald Koeman free kick in the 111th minute in extra time after a goalless 90 minutes. One million people took to the streets of Barcelona to welcome the team home.

The European Super Cup was added to the cabinet before the 92/93 season got underway with the team now being called 'The Dream Team', following the Barcelona Olympics that summer. A third straight La Liga title was won as Barca dominated in the league but it was not all plain sailing from then on as the 1993/94 season saw Barcelona's league dominance challenged by Deportivo La Coruna. February was a real low as Real Zaragoza thrashed them 6-2 to leave them chasing Depor. Following that game Cruyff promised new contracts to every out of contract squad member that summer if they won the league.

They were relentless in their pursuit of Depor but were still trailing as Depor fans danced in the stands with giant Chupa Chup lollipops to taunt Cruyff during the penultimate game of the season. That season has since become known as the Liga of the Chupa Chups as Depor threw it away on the final day allowing a Barca side, that had picked up 28 of a possible 30 points since losing to Zaragoza, in to lift their 4th successive La Liga title. The press dubbed the team 'Hostia Team' (Bloody Hell Team).

Four days later they faced AC Milan in the final European Cup final, before it was rebranded as the Champions League, only to get humiliated 4-0. Cruyff was furious and went back on his promise to give out new contracts, instead tearing the team apart. Andoni Zubizarreta, Michael Laudrup, Andoni Goikoetxea and Julio Salinas never played for Barca again. Romario followed in January 1995, with Cruyff saying of the Brazilian forward, "he's not as good as I was. I made others play better; he can only score goals." The 1994/95 season ended with no silverware for Barca, but that failing was compounded as Ajax, still playing the way Cruyff had set them up to play before moving to Barca, went on to win the Champions League that season.

The following season was a second without silverware and rumours abounded that Bobby Robson was being lined up to replace Cruyff, Barcelona's most successful ever manager at that point. With the season all but over Barca's vice-president Joan Gaspart went to the dressing room to talk to Cruyff about the rumours. The pair came to blows and Gaspart threatened to call the police if Cruyff did not leave Nou Camp immediately. The longest serving coach in Barcelona's history, as well as the most successful, but that was the end of his time. The fans showed who they favoured the following day as Barca came from behind to beat Celta Vigo 3-2, inspired by Johan's son Jordi Cruyff, who left the pitch to a standing ovation and chants of "Cruyff, si! Nunez, no!" It did not matter though as Nunez sacked him anyway.


"If the 175,000 FC Barcelona members (socios) queued up in an orderly line, night after night, to massage his tired feet, cook his dinner and tuck him into bed; if they carried his golf clubs round Montanya's hilly 18 holes; if they devoted 50% of their annual salary to him.... it still wouldn't be near enough to repay the debt those who love this club owe to Johan Cruyff." - Graham Hunter


Despite having had discussions regarding taking charge of Holland for the 1994 World Cup, which fell through at the last minute, Johan Cruyff never managed proper competitive football again, due to advice from his doctors as further heart problems affected him. Taking their advice, he went into semi-retirement from the game, though he did have a spell between 2009 and 2013 as manager of Catalonia, winning his first game, a friendly against Argentina, 4-2 at Nou Camp. Cruyff did not entirely walk away from football however, becoming a vocal football critic and analyst and an unofficial technical advisor to Barcelona president Joan Laporta.

Laporta said in March 2017: "I chose Frank Rijkaard, Txiki Begiristain and Pep Guardiola because Johan told me to." Little wonder Laporta listened to Cruyff as it was Cruyff's support that enabled him to win Barca's presidential elections in the first place! It was also Cruyff that ensured Jose Mourinho did not get the Barca job after Rijkaard left, despite Mourinho pushing himself forward for the job. Cruyff said: "Jose is a negative coach. He only cares about the result and doesn't care much for good football."

On 20th February 2008 Ajax announced that Cruyff would be the new Technical Director of the club, as they sought to restore their glory days. That did not last long as he pulled out the following month after a "professional difference of opinion" with then Ajax manager Marco van Basten. Van Basten said that Cruyff's plans were "going too fast". In 2010 Barcelona named Johan Cruyff as honourary president of the club at the end of March, only for new president Sandro Rosell to strip him of the title in July.

Jose Mourinho is not the only coach Johan Cruyff was particularly critical of and he was involved in a long-running feud with Louis van Gaal as well. Cruyff had once said of him: "Van Gaal has a good vision on football. But it's not mine. He wants to gel winning teams and has a militaristic way of working with his tactics. I don't. I want individuals to think for themselves and take the decision on the pitch that is best for the situation." Added to that Cruyff criticised the changes that had been made to Ajax's youth set up by van Gaal: "On the basis of the criteria which are now in use at Ajax [recommended by van Gaal] I would have failed the test. When I was 15, I could barely kick the ball 15 metres with my left and with the right maybe 20 metres. I would not have been able to take a corner. Besides I was physically weak and relatively slow. My two qualities were great technique and insight, which happen to be two things you can't measure with a computer."


"Johan is so technically perfect that even as a boy he stopped being interested in that aspect of the game. He could do everything when he was 20. That's why he has been very interested in tactics since he was very young. He sees football situations so clearly that he was always the one to decide how the game should be played." - Marco van Basten


That feud came to a bitter head when Ajax was split between the two after Cruyff was appointed to a sounding board group to decide on a plan to move the club forward. In February 2011 Cruyff presented his plans. The following month the board of advisors and the CEO of Ajax all resigned. Cruyff was appointed to a new board of advisors in order to implement his plans, but, behind his back, the advisory board had made a verbal agreement with van Gaal to appoint him as CEO. Cruyff was furious and took his fellow board members to court to block the appointment and won. The court overturned the appointment of van Gaal on the grounds that he had been 'deliberately not consulted'.

The quarrel led to Cruyff resigning from Ajax, despite having the backing of the majority of fans and many former players such as Dennis Bergkamp, Wim Jonk, Marc Overmars and others. Other than acting as an ambassador for the failed joint bid by Belgium/Netherlands, he pretty much faded into the background despite many offers to return to the forefront of the game. Not least being asked to be Liverpool's Director of Football when FSG bought the club, after former Arsenal director David Dein advised them that Cruyff was the best possible man for the job. However Cruyff was not willing to take on a job of that size and continued to work behind the scenes on implementing his vision for Ajax's academy to take it on into the future.

Away from professional football he set up an educational system, comprising Johan Cruyff College, Academy and Institute, he set up a foundation in 1997 to help provide children with the chance to play and be active, had his own Cruyff Classics clothing label and set up Cruyff Courts, which were small sided pitches for a 7-a-side game. All of those featured his 14 rules "to teach young people that sports and games can also be translated to everyday life." Those rules are put up on each court and at school sports grounds. They include:
1. Team Player - 'To accomplish things, you have to do them together.'
4. Integration - 'Involve others in your activities.'
5. Initiative - 'Dare to try something new.'
9. Technique - 'Know the basics.'
10. Tactics - 'Know what to do.'
Most Cruyffian of all is:
14. Creativity - 'Bring beauty to the sport.'

Mainly though he was involved in analysing the game and giving his opinions, which included saying things such as: "Technique is not being able to juggle a ball 1000 times. Anyone can do that by practising. Then you can work in the circus. Technique is passing the ball with one touch, with the right speed, at the right foot of your team-mate." Cruyff took great delight in watching La Masia, the La Masia that he did so much to create, produce great players, including 6 of the starters in the 2010 World Cup final, while trying to set up the Ajax academy along the same lines. Then, on 15th October 2015, it was announced that he was suffering from lung cancer, which eventually claimed him on 24th March 2016.

Amongst all the many tributes, one stood out to me as summing Johan Cruyff up perfectly, from a man that many feel has good reason to be bitter towards Cruyff, Gary Lineker, who was sold by Cruyff when he was at Barcelona. So well did it sum up the great man that I am going to end with it, as it says all that needs to be said.

"Football has lost a man who did more to make the beautiful game beautiful than anyone in history." - Gary Lineker.

For the previous Legend of the Game article on Pele click HERE

Written by Tris Burke April 09 2018 00:21:54