How Johan Cruyff revolutionised Dutch football, the good and the bad
When Johan Cruyff returned to Amsterdam to play for Ajax in 1981, I was 12 years old and living in the Netherlands. I spent my teens imbibing everything he said about soccer. It was as if you could read a conversation with Albert Einstein in the paper every few days.
Cruyff said things you could use at any level of soccer. Don't give a square pass, because if it's intercepted the opposition has immediately beaten two men, you and the player you were passing to. Don't pass to a teammate's feet, but in front of him, so he has to run onto the ball, which speeds up the game. If you're playing badly, play simply: pass to your nearest teammate a few times and soon the feeling that you're doing things right will restore your confidence.
Everyone playing or coaching in the Netherlands in the 1970s and 1980s, from Dennis Bergkamp to Louis van Gaal (though he'd never admit it), studied at Cruyff's feet. Cruyff is the father of Dutch soccer. He made everything in it, the good but also the bad.
He grew up a few hundred yards from the Ajax stadium, and spent most of his childhood hanging around the changing rooms. When he made his first-team debut aged 17 in 1964 (Ajax lost 3-1 at a club called GVAV), the Dutch had no soccer tradition. They had only ever appeared at one World Cup, in 1934, and had flunked swiftly out of that. The only distinct thing about the Dutch style of play then was that it was slow. Cruyff grew up worshipping English soccer.
But two months after his debut, the new Ajax coach Rinus Michels parked his second-hand Skoda beside the stadium. Two brilliant thinkers on soccer found each other. Like Lennon and McCartney, they often quarreled, but together they revolutionized Dutch and global soccer.
It's odd that Cruyff is known outside Holland for his "Cruyff Turn" past a Swedish defender at the World Cup in 1974, because his ideal of soccer was one touch. He said the paradox was that you had to achieve mastery over the ball before you were able to touch it just once. His Ajax and Holland teams passed faster than anyone else. They treated soccer as a dance for space. Full-backs overlapped, keepers played as sweepers, and everyone was forever popping up in unexpected places. Foreigners called the style "total football"; the Dutch mostly call it "Hollandse school".
More accurately, it was Cruyffian. Arsene Wenger once marveled to me that Cruyff would sometimes drop into midfield to tell two teammates to switch positions; 15 minutes later, he'd tell them to switch back. Wenger said that since there were practically no other on-field conductors like Cruyff, it was almost impossible for anyone else to replicate Cruyffian soccer.
Yet the Dutch did a pretty good job of just that. The great Dutch coaches of Cruyff's generation, notably Van Gaal and Guus Hiddink, played "Hollandse school" soccer. Personally, Van Gaal and Cruyff didn't get on. While Cruyff was turning Ajax into the world's best team, Van Gaal was the cerebral but slow playmaker of Ajax's reserves -- a wannabe Cruyff. Years later the two men fell out, apparently over a Dutch St Nicholas party gone wrong at Cruyff's mansion in Barcelona. But for all their mutual carping, they thought almost identically about soccer.
After Cruyff's two retirements -- the first in 1978, the second in 1984 -- the Dutch started missing tournaments. They had forgotten the style he had taught them. Kees Rijvers, Holland's manager in the early 1980s, even said at one point that the Dutch should aim to play like "the Brazilians of Europe".
But in 1985 Cruyff became manager of Ajax, while Michels coached the national team, and pretty soon the Dutch were playing like the Dutch again. The great players who won Holland's only ever trophy, Euro 1988 -- Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Ronald Koeman and Ruud Gullit -- had all played alongside Cruyff. Their coach was Michels. Cruyff's constant criticism got up their noses (he just couldn't stop talking), but these players were his spiritual sons.
As manager of Ajax, Cruyff turned the club's academy into a Cruyffian production line. The kids spent training sessions playing five-against-two piggy-in-the-middle. All of soccer was in that simple exercise, Cruyff said. The result was the generation of Dennis Bergkamp, the De Boer twins and Patrick Kluivert. Cruyff spent the 1998 World Cup working as a pundit for Dutch TV, and he watched most games standing on a gantry overlooking the stadium. From below he could be seen in silhouette -- that slight little figure with the long nose -- and to the orange-clad fans in the stands, it felt as if the father of Dutch soccer was overseeing his creation.
His influence on Dutch soccer was total, but it wasn't entirely good. Cruyff loved quarrelling, and he developed a theory that conflicts inside a team were good because they gave everyone something to prove. "The conflictmodel," he called it. The conflictmodel became a guiding principle of Dutch teams. Even Cruyff once complained, "As soon as you open your mouth to breathe, Dutch players shout, 'Yes, but....!'" At the 1990 World Cup and Euro 96, the conflictmodel tore the Dutch apart.
His disdain for penalties hurt Holland too. Cruyff considered the penalty so simple and brutal as to be uninteresting. Famously, in 1982, he took a spot-kick in two with Jesper Olsen -- Cruyff was always reinventing soccer -- but he scarcely bothered thinking about the penalty hit straight at goal. (He didn't have a very hard shot, and almost never took penalties himself.) Holland's Cruyffian incompetence at penalties got them eliminated from tournament after tournament.
Fatally too, Cruyff didn't care hugely about winning. He said that as a coach sitting in a dugout watching a match, he sometimes forgot the score. He was more interested in the game itself. He always said that Holland had "really" won the World Cup of 1974. How so? Well, Cruyff explained, hardly anyone remembered the West German world champions, but soccer lovers still talked about the great Dutch team. That was the victory that mattered to him. Especially at the World Cup 1998, Holland went home defeated but boasting that they had been the best. That attitude probably cost them trophies.
Almost no great thinker remains a great thinker all his life. After being sacked by Barcelona in 1996, Cruyff stopped thinking hard about soccer. His enormous influence over his home country, purveyed through journalists who acted as his mouthpieces, began to work against the Dutch. Cruyff helped to freeze them in time, insisting that soccer in the 1970s was perfection. He said a right-footer should play right wing and a left-footer left wing, not the other way round as most modern coaches preferred.
Crucially, his focus on brain prompted him to undervalue power. He didn't care that modern players ran 12 kilometers a game, three times more than in his day. "Are they running in the right direction?" he asked. The Dutch pundit Rene van der Gijp retorted that if we wanted to win, we ought to tell the foreigners to stop running so much.
Cruyff also disdained the physical training that has revolutionized international soccer in recent years. Unfortunately the Dutch still listened to him. Consequently, when Dutch teams play foreigners now, they often look like Teletubbies taking on bodybuilders. Cruyff invented Dutch soccer, but he also helped bring it to its present low. The national team will miss Euro 2016, and Dutch club soccer has become too desperate even to think about.
Another symptom of the Dutch malaise: Van Gaal's struggles with Manchester United. The soccer that Van Gaal always had in his head no longer works, and he's still looking for Plan B. It was Cruyff's Spanish disciple Pep Guardiola who understood that the Cruyffian game needed constant updating. The Barcelona that Pep built, and his Bayern today, have done something the Dutch could not: renovate Cruyffianism for the 21st century.
But now that the Dutch have hit bottom, expect them to behave like true heirs of Cruyff: reject all tradition and reinvent their game from scratch, just as that bigmouthed Amsterdam teenager did 50 years ago.
Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.