Johan Cruyff, father of modern soccer, fades on the sidelines
On the face of it, Johan Cruyff lives a retiree's life. The 68-year-old grandfather is so detached from day-to-day work that intimates say he doesn't have email or a mobile phone. He migrates between his mansion in Barcelona and a second home in Amsterdam, where locals like to report sightings of "Johan" cycling around or eating fries.
He hasn't had a full-time job since Barcelona sacked him as coach in 1996. He doesn't want one, either. However, Cruyff does crave influence. Arguably the spiritual father of both Ajax Amsterdam and Barcelona, he still wields soft power at the two clubs. Ajax is run by a clique of ex-players whom he installed. And Josep Maria Bartomeu, reelected as FC Barcelona's president in the elections of July 18, wants to get Cruyff back on board in some sort of role. Yet in both Catalonia and the Netherlands, Cruyff's influence is waning. The man who invented modern soccer may have to content himself with watching it on TV in his mansion.
To understand Cruyff's significance for Barca, you have to go back to his arrival in 1973. He and coach Rinus Michels had already turned little semi-pro Ajax into Europe's dominant team by creating a new style: one-touch passing, constant attack, a 4-3-3 formation with players forever switching positions, even a goalkeeper who played like an outfield player in gloves. The same style took Holland to the World Cup final in 1974. Foreigners (but never the Dutch) called it "total football."
After Ajax, Michels brought Cruyff to Barcelona. The club they found was very much No. 2 in Spain, behind Real Madrid. For a while at least, the Dutchmen made it the nation's No. 1. In 1988, Cruyff returned to Barcelona as coach and institutionalized Cruyffian soccer throughout the club. Watching the youth teams one day, he spotted a skinny kid controlling central midfield. Cruyff stuck the kid in the first team. He didn't care that young Josep Guardiola was slow and physically weak. "Pep" could pass into space, and for Cruyff, soccer is a dance in space. In 1992, Cruyff's "dream team," quarterbacked by Guardiola, won Barcelona's first-ever European Cup.
Even after Cruyff left in 1996, Barcelona remained Cruyffian. The Masia, the youth academy, produced Guardiolan passers like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Leo Messi. These kids had spent the sunny mornings of their childhoods playing piggy-in-the-middle-style passing games.
When Joan Laporta became president in 2003, he let his ally and hero Cruyff choose the head coach. First came a former Ajax teammate of Cruyff's, Frank Rijkaard, who helped Barcelona win the Champions League in 2006. Two years later, Guardiola took over as a novice coach and created possibly the most successful club team in history.
All this was in the Cruyffian tradition, but Cruyff's influence waned after 2010 when Sandro Rosell succeeded Laporta as Barca's president. Rosell is on Cruyff's long enemies list. Cruyff, a supremely difficult man, always wants his own way, especially when money is involved. I know, I crossed him once in 2000 (long, unhappy story). Like many of Cruyff's enemies, I was then savaged in articles in his pet Dutch media: De Telegraaf, the country's biggest newspaper, and Voetbal International, the biggest Dutch soccer magazine.
But he couldn't beat Rosell. Cruyff refused to enter the Nou Camp while his enemy remained president. In 2014, Rosell resigned after irregularities emerged surrounding Neymar's transfer, but his right-hand-man Bartomeu succeeded him. This January I asked the bespectacled, mild, friendly but shrewd Bartomeu whether Barca couldn't make up with its spiritual dad. Bartomeu said, "Johan Cruyff should be not at the level of the president of Ajax or the president of Barca. He should be" -- and Bartomeu raised his hand high -- "in an upper position. I would like, of course, to put him in another position."
I asked if he had made overtures. "Well," he replied, "sometimes I had a few contacts, but Johan Cruyff, ehhhh, does a lot of things." Bartomeu had been reduced to getting Barcelona's charitable foundation to do a shared project with Cruyff's. Bartomeu mused: "To have his name related to Barca would make our club better. Better on the image point of view, I mean." After Saturday's presidential election, Bartomeu again expressed the hope of working with Cruyff. But he seems to want Cruyff as figurehead rather than decision-maker.
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Cruyff probably won't buy it. He has spent the Rosell-Bartomeu years sniping from the sidelines. When Barca signed Luis Suarez last summer, he said in his column in De Telegraaf: "With Suarez it can never work ... I don't see how with Messi, Neymar and Suarez in the team you can still have good positional play. Three individualists -- Barcelona is choosing individual actions and not team play." After Barca's Treble, those surely count as famous last words.
Frustrated at Barcelona, Cruyff took over Ajax in 2011. The sitting directors didn't stand a chance against the father of Dutch soccer. Cruyff chose a junta of ex-players to run Ajax for him: Frank de Boer was already club coach, Marc Overmars and Edwin van der Sar became directors, while Dennis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk took over the youth academy. Cruyff started out as a Sixties rebel against authority and this was a Sixties idea: the talent should run the business. Ajax, he said, ought to be playing beautiful soccer and winning Champions Leagues again.
It hasn't happened. True, Ajax won four straight Dutch titles through 2014 (a streak that was just starting when Cruyff's men took charge) but the Dutch league scarcely counts nowadays. In the Champions League the club got humiliated nearly every season. The play deteriorated, and last season Ajax finished second, often jeered off the field. Meanwhile, as happens in Cruyffian organizations, conflicts broke out.
Cruyff decided Overmars was buying too many players instead of promoting youngsters. No matter that Ajax can afford to buy: it is Europe's most financially secure club, according to the financial information provider S&P Capital IQ, with nearly €87 million in the bank. No matter, either, that the many homegrown kids in the first team don't look like world-beaters.
Regardless, Cruyff wants fewer transfers. So he has installed his old teammate, Tscheu la Ling, as special adviser at Ajax. As a player, Cruyff inevitably quarreled with Ling, but now he seems to venerate him. Overmars does not. Jonk no longer speaks to some of the other ruling junta. Ajax is an unhappy ship that's going nowhere.
But Cruyff's influence spans all continents. Through his son-in-law Todd Beane, he has a business selling Cruyffian reform to clubs worldwide. Those that have purchased the service include Chivas in Mexico, South Africa's Mamelodi Sundowns, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Australia's Melbourne City. In 2012, Chivas was persuaded to appoint John van 't Schip, another ex-player from the Cruyff stable, as coach. The club sacked him, and special adviser Cruyff, within six months. "Van 't Schip was presented as the new Pep Guardiola," Chivas' billionaire owner Jorge Vergara grumbled recently to a Dutch newspaper. Now Van 't Schip coaches Melbourne.
That leaves Barcelona as Cruyff's last great hope for direct influence in top-level soccer. He had hoped Laporta would beat Bartomeu in last Saturday's election. Laporta still loves Cruyff. He once told me that the soccer he grew up on was the Dutch game of the 1970s. In the election campaign, he and Cruyff could hardly criticize the current regime's results, so instead they complained about Barca's lost "values": no more players coming through from the Masia, Qatar instead of Unicef on the shirts, Neymar's murky transfer, and FIFA's transfer ban on Barcelona for making under-age signings. It wasn't enough: Bartomeu, lifted by the Treble, won reelection with 55 percent of the vote. Laporta got just 33 percent.
Bartomeu would still love to have Cruyff back, but presumably only in the sort of role that Alfredo di Stefano long held at Real Madrid: a club treasure, always seen at the stadium and beloved, but no longer heard. The truth is that Barca doesn't need Cruyff's advice anymore. In 1973, 1988 and 2003 he came to save a struggling club seeking direction. Now Barcelona is all-conquering. And with the "MSN" attack, Barca's traditional intricate passing-and-pressing game has lost importance. When Messi beats three men and feeds Neymar to score, that isn't Cruyffian soccer.
Happily, Cruyff's influence is bigger than any club. Barcelona's Masia, Spain's tiki-taka and the attacking overlapping one-touch German world champions are all ultimately his babies. Fabio Capello said recently: "Guardiola's era is one of the three greatest legacies in soccer's modern history: [Arrigo] Sacchi's era [at Milan], the era of the Dutch and the era of Barca." All three are Cruyff's legacies. As the old man sits in his mansion watching TV (with the sound turned off so that he can give the commentary himself), wondering why Barcelona no longer listens to him, he can console himself with the thought that he invented modern soccer.
Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.