Three Monkeys Online

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Ajax Barcelona Cruyff – the ABC of an Obstinate Maestro by Frits Barend and Henk Van Dorp

“Football is a game you play with your brains” – Johan Cruyff

It is remarkable that so many of the true giants of world football were, as youngsters, dismissed as being too small in stature to make any significant impression at the top level: At Rockmount, Roy Keane was a pencil-thin waif; George Best was a nine-stone weakling when he arrived at Manchester United. In their own ways, both have made monstrous contributions to the history of the game, but it is arguable that no player in has so imperiously mocked the notion that size matters than Hendrik Johannes Cruyff, who, with the recent passing of the legendary coach Rinus Michels, now stands alone as the godfather of Dutch football, that most bewildering and bewitching of institutions.

As a tiny, willowy 17-year-old, Cruyff made his debut for Ajax and, for the next 20 years, his elusive running, his appreciation of space, his limitless imagination and ability to torment teammates and opponents alike, seemed perfectly to represent all that was enchanting and perplexing about Dutch football. The national team now seems contractually obliged to implode at some stage of every international competition; the politicking behind closed doors carrying unpleasant undertones of racism and cronyism, but for Cruyff – an arrogant politician trapped in the body of a craftsman sublimely gifted at a such a simple game – it was as much about off-the-field issues as it was about putting the ball in the net. Such a complex, difficult man – a man who has said “if I wanted you to understand, I would have explained it better“ – may on the surface be the perfect candidate for a sporting biography, but Cruyff’s aloofness is matched only by his elusiveness, and attempts to capture his complexities have, on the whole, been disappointing. Five works were published to mark his 50th birthday in 1997; only one receieved his authorization. Ajax Barcelona Cruyff – the ABC of an Obstinate Maestro, by Frits Barend and Henk Van Dorp, is a rich collection of articles and interviews that demonstrate – if ever it needed demonstrating – that Cruyff’s microscopic, often ridiculous, understanding of the mechanics of the game is as profound as the repertoire of skills he had at his feet.

This book should be required reading for any football coach, with Cruyff’s pro-winger, pro-attacking philosophy driven home again and again to fascinating effect. Taking as its start-off point Cruyff’s debut and moving stylishly through a glittering career, the book generously explores Cruyff’s impact at Ajax and on to his time at Barcelona, the great love of his life. The collection of articles based on his playing career are interesting as period pieces – reminders of his colossal influence on football at the time – but it is in the interviews with Cruyff himself that the book asserts itself as something outside of the norm and paints its subject as one of the greatest characters in football.

After his playing career was over, Cruyff became technical director at Ajax in 1985, a barren, ugly time when attacking football was regarded as total naivety. The perception was that the counter attack and the massed defence were the epitome of sophisticated European football: The Italian side of Gaetano Scirea and a youthful Giuseppe Bergomi were world champions and Maradona was singlehandedly winning matches for a woefully negative Napoli side. Cruyff cared little for prevailing footballing trends, and, while knives were sharpened when his theories did not immediately bear fruit, he stubbornly stuck to his principles. Cruyff’s system has the goalkeeper as a part-time sweeper and covers the four corners of the field. Two defenders patrol the flanks and wingers (Cruyff is obsessed with wingers) stay as close to the touchline as possible. In the middle are two controlling players: self-sacrificing central midfielders such as Jan Wouters and Arnold Muhren represented the perfect controlling player in Cruyff’s world. The strikers must stay close to the central midfielders in order to eliminate the possibility of a swift counter-attack, and, in the shape of current Dutch national coach Marco Van Basten, Cruyff had the perfect modern striker. Indeed, Van Basten’s own take on Cruyff is as accurate as a stopwatch: “Johan is so technically perfect that even as a boy he stopped being interested in that aspect of the game. That’s why he’s 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 would be played.” But even a footballing master such as Cruyff can make footballing mistakes, and it is interesting here to note how wrong he could be. With the benefit of hindsight, he may not have earmarked the flaky, ineffectual Aron Winter as a future great of world football, and would perhaps admit now that Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard were definitely something more than “reasonable to good” players.

Barend and Van Dorp have interviewed Cruyff so many times throughout his career that the interviews in this book – covering the glory years at Barcelona and the often tiresome politics of Dutch football – are sometimes hectoring, sometimes sycophantic, but always affectionate. In this unmissable compendium, the duo – famed footballing pundits in the Netherlands – have lifted the lid on a remarkable man, and what they reveal is someone who so mastered the game as player and coach one gets the impression he is almost bored by it all. As Cruyff himself puts it: When you are 4-0 ahead with ten minutes to go, it’s better to hit the post a couple of times so the crowd can go ‘oooh!’.

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