A version of this originally appeared in the Irish Examiner in October 2013
As Johan Cruyff discusses the transfer approach of a particular European club, he lets out a certain agitation.
“I read in the paper that this team are watching this player, this player, this player. Well, they’re idiots because they’re so different that how can you look at three different players in the same position?
“There are too many different things in football. People who are buying, people who are selling or people accepting to go one place or another – it’s not like that. It’s [about] what the team needs.
Those last two words comprise a phrase that he uses on four separate occasions over the course of a 40-minute interview. Clearly, Cruyff still gets frustrated with many of the orthodoxies of football, a sport he says has “been always narrow-minded”.
As he finishes a morning with another sport, there are admittedly a few moments when the 66-year-old looks like nothing more than an orthodox retiree. He’s just stepped away from a golf course on a Thursday afternoon and, as Cruyff jokily laments his game after a morning spent hitting shots into the wind, a group of teenagers walk breezily by without an utter notion who he is – a few of them wearing football gear.
The Amsterdam native is, of course, so much more than someone who has won the European Cup three times as a player and once as a manager. He essentially is to football what David Bowie is to modern music. If more celebrated counterparts are put forward as the greatest ever, the innovative mindset that underscored his magnificent talent has made him arguably the most influential figure in the history of his field.
It was the approach Cruyff helped create at Ajax in the early 70s that changed football, the structure he put in place at Barcelona that has come to dominate the game’s thinking, and all that while he himself has evolved as a figurehead for one of the sport’s primary philosophies.
The way he thinks remains almost as fascinating as the way he used to play. When asked about specifics of his career, his answers almost always develop into something more conceptual, more lasting. His litany of quotes have become legendary in their own right, and he seems to unintentionally build to single-line mantras about how to approach things. Some of them are elusively paradoxical, others the kind of eternal lessons that you could still valuably coach kids with. One question about his Ajax team of the 70s ended with a response about his nation’s history for travel – and a potential blueprint for any small-to-mid-sized sports federation looking to alter their future.
“We had the typical mentality for that because the Dutch people have been everywhere: from Japan to Indonesia to New York – which was New Amsterdam – to Cape Town. It’s a country which is so [small] so it’s in their character to try new things and to have a look whatever happens wherever. That’s what they did. Maybe sometimes it’s sport, sometimes it’s business but the same thing we see in skating, the same thing we see in hockey, the same thing we see in baseball. How can a team like Holland in baseball – against Japan and the United States – two years ago win the championship? I mean, it’s there. Try new things. Maybe 10 years you don’t hear anything because there are not that many people, but they are capable.
“It’s a country where everybody talks, everybody thinks, everybody’s got their own mentality… and that’s why they’ve been everywhere. It’s a good quality, but at the same time it’s their worst quality.”
Cruyff had his own external influences very early on his life, picking up what he admits is his idiosyncratic English from the forward-thinking former Ajax coach Vic Buckingham. The one-time Tottenham wing-half arrived in Amsterdam in 1959 and began to change things even before Rinus Michels and Cruyff.
“Buckingham I knew very well because I lived next to the stadium [as a boy]. That’s where I learnt my English – if it’s bad!”
On the day of this interview, Cruyff’s own travels have taken him to Scotland, where there is admittedly nothing all that normal about his round of golf either. He is playing at St Andrews in the same group as Ruud Gullit, as part of the celebrity-filled Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. The famous number-14 adores both the event and the area and tries to make it every year, with the added goal of promoting his charity, the Cruyff Foundation.
Even a discussion of the organisation’s aims, which are to improve the lives of all through sport, evolves into something deeper.Cruyff’s description sounds markedly similar to Bill Shankly’s famous quote about football representing a form of socialism.
“What is sport, besides the physical education you do for yourself? It’s playing together, trying things out, getting better every day, winning together, losing together, helping somebody out. It’s life. It’s totally life, 100%.
“We’ve got in the foundation the 14 rules and, if every person, whatever they do, will use these 14 rules, they will be the perfect person.”
The first of those rules, not unsurprisingly, is to be a ‘team player’: “To accomplish things you have to do it together”. One of the last is to “try learn something new every day”.
With all that in mind, Cruyff’s perspective on an individual sport like golf is interesting, particularly since he was the player that most fully made true the idea of individual creativity flourishing within a collective system.
“A lot of individual sports are advanced… You can always learn from other people. We a lot of times stick in the things that we do. If we say the difference between football and golf, a golf professional has got a coach for driving, a coach for putting. In football we’ve got one coach for 15 people, which is absurd.
“And you say yes, but in golf you need a drive, you need this. Yes, but in football you need your left foot, your right foot, to pass it, to control it, to control it with your chest, you need to see 10 other people what they are doing, so there are a lot of things involved. That’s why you should change a lot of things.”
That was exactly what they did at Ajax when Michels took over in 1965.
“It was a conscious [decision], because the individual is the quality. You need the mentality to put it into the team. Everybody’s different, everybody has a different quality, but you should have the same mentality. It means you’ve got to put your quality into the value of the team itself because, in the end, the best player will never come out of a team who loses too much. It’s impossible.
“That’s what I’m trying to explain… Read the paper and [a club] are looking at three different players for one position and you say ‘how can you look at these three? You can look at these three, or these three, but you can never look at these three.’ It’s impossible. What are you looking for? Somebody who’s called defender or a type of defender?
“It’s a big difference, such a big difference.
“A lot of times people don’t see the quality of the individual, and this individual should function good in the team and the way the team plays.”
Ultimately, this very specific interpretation is stamped all over the top level of the game. Through Cruyff, Barcelona and Spain adapted the passing-pressing approach that Ajax initially developed from that base, and Bayern Munich have taken it on further. The principles have not changed: these teams seek to control possession until, when its lost, they press en masse to win it back. The fundamental idea remains to either control the ball or the space to the maximum amount possible, but is now just being applied through the modern trappings that have made the game so physically relentless.
“We said ‘OK, where are the best players?’ Cruyff explains “‘There, in the positions very good but also with the ball – so attack them there. What’s the difference between a good player and bad player? It’s the speed of [control], so if you’ve got to speed them up, it’s to provoke mistakes. And the main thing is that the quicker you can change your mentality, offensive [to] defensive, the first defender is the centre-forward. He’s the nearest by, so the quickest he can put the pressure on, start defending.
“And you run less. You don’t run more. You run less… of course, you’ve got to do possession. It’s a way of thinking and it’s the way you can re-organise the whole thing.” “Because, who’s got the ball, who scores the goal?”
Cruyff doubts whether the actual principles have ever been bettered.
“Well I don’t think so. I think the way Barcelona played, it’s a pleasure for everybody who likes football, because the technical qualities is the highest standard and every little child can try to do the technical qualities. It’s not like somebody runs 100 yards in nine seconds [and] if you can’t do it, you don’t count. You always count because you always can get better. If you want to play basketball you’ve got to be two metres. Otherwise you can’t play. Here, everyone can play and everyone can develop. That’s the nicest thing about the game of football.
“The main thing is, a lot of people think that making a mistake is a problem. No, I don’t think so. Making a mistake is to make you better, as long you learn from your mistake. So I think making a mistake for me is never a problem. It’s a perfect thing, as long as you learn from it and don’t make the same mistake again. The only way you can learn is from your mistakes. You can never learn from the things you did well. It’s impossible.
“That’s what we learned [at Ajax]. You tried something, that didn’t work for that [reason] and that. Do it again. Do something different.
“Football is a game of mistakes and, if you analyse a mistake, you can say OK. If I put somebody where the mistakes come from, with his quality, you’re going to make less mistakes and if you make less mistakes you’ve got more possibilities.
“So it’s a different way of thinking. It’s not like we think this pass is good or bad. If this was the best pass why didn’t he do it? Did he see or didn’t he see it or wasn’t he capable of executing it.
“A lot of times, you’re going to discuss or analyse what he did. Most of the time you’ve got to analyse why he didn’t do the other thing.
“That’s where it all starts, how you see totally different the game. If you analyse it, you can train it on it.”
Cruyff certainly started something at Barcelona. The transformation at the club from his arrival as coach in 1988 was almost as profound as that at Ajax in the late 60s. Over the previous 28 years, the Catalans had won just two league titles and consistently stumbled from crisis to crisis. In the 25 since, they have won 12 Liga championships and the Champions League four times, finally ending the club’s wait for that elite trophy in 1992. Cruyff speaks about such an emphatic metamorphosis as if it was all rather elementary.
“When I came in, they were bad. We had to change. There was no sense to continue something that goes wrong.
“I had a big advantage that I played there [from 1973 to 1978]. You know the mentality, you know what they do, what they think, so it was quite easy to make some rules.
“The players were there, they were good players. You had to put in some character. We brought some players from the Basque country that you know for sure will give it. So it’s a question of compensation in the things you need.”
When his native Netherlands compensated for their inferior ability with a much more negative style in the notorious 2010 World Cup final, Cruyff famously described it as anti-football and put his support behind Spain. Today, he’s a little less dogmatic about it all when asked what sides currently impress him beyond the likes of Barca.
“You can’t say this or that, or this is better than that. You’ve all kinds of different players. A lot of people make comparisons between [Leo] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo. They’re completely different. You can’t compare them. They’re both great in the things what they do, and they’re different. So you can’t say who’s better. You can say who do you prefer as a way of playing. Do you prefer a [more] technical one or you prefer somebody who is technical, who is physical and who can shoot very high. It’s totally different and that’s why it’s so good that the differences are there because you can see that a lot of people make a wrong decision in choosing the team where they go. It’s if the team fits with the quality you have.”
“[Football] has always been narrow-minded because we say ‘he’s a football player’ but in baseball we say he’s a pitcher, he’s a catcher, he’s a third baseman… but why is he a footballer? It’s all different. But, as a coach to direct a team, you’ve got to look at the individual qualities. That’s why I see the game totally different.”
Cruyff is also hoping to influence one more highly distinctive achievement as his life in football comes full circle and brings all of these ideas together. In 2011, if not with about many initial disputes, he was central to a plan that sought to completely restructure Ajax and re-establish many of its principles after almost two decades of losing their way. Just like at Bayern Munich, many ex-players have returned in key roles, with Frank De Boer head coach, Dennis Bergkamp assistant and even Edwin van der Sar marketing director.
“[Bayern’s] organisation was based on football up,” Cruyff says. “That’s what we did now. We copied that. The well-educated ex-players should be the decision-makers within a football club. Not somebody who is a great businessman in whatever, and he makes the football decisions. This is absurd.
“A lot of clubs don’t do this. At Ajax, we did it. OK, the results are not there in one day, which is normal.
“It’s a totally different approach in all these details and, in Ajax, we changed all of them and I think the result will come.”
The ‘result’, however, is the really interesting question. Does he mean and what he seems to mean, that the club can defy current football economics to return to the glory of his time?
“Yes, that’s what we are convinced.
“Everybody who’s there, and all the great players Ajax ever had, they are there now, so we think we can do it. The future will tell us.”
The present, however, involves a lot of painful realities in which such mid-sized clubs are constantly reminded of their status and any of their better players will immediately seek to improve their own – such as Christian Eriksen going to Tottenham Hotspur.
“That’s one of the problems, and that’s the problem with this year, that Eriksen went away.
“At a certain age they will go because the other one will pay more, which is reality. But, as soon as you know reality, you can do something against it. Or start earlier. Or get them back when they are finished but one of the most important things is to treat them well.
“We have these new players, good players but we need to educate them still. Who knows.
“We are all convinced.”
With Cruyff, at least, it’s never been any different.