After suffering an early season groin injury, Johann Cruyff returned to first-team action with Ajax in an Eredivisie against PSV Eindhoven on 30 October 1970. In the 23-year-old’s absence his regular number nine shirt had gone to Gerrie Mühren. Legend has it that, on his return to the team, the shirt was offered to Cruyff. He declined however, passing it to Mühren. Cruyff then reached for the next shirt in the pile. He picked up number 14.
The iconic association between the player and the number on the shirts he would wear from that day would become almost as legendary as the exploits of the player himself. As well as collecting three Ballon d’Or trophies, acclaiming him as the outstanding player on the planet, together sumptuous displays of enthralling skill and numerous club titles, Cruyff would go on to define a style at Ajax, creating a legacy that endures to this day. The significance of this is illustrated in Jonathan Wilson’s quote from Cruyff himself in a 2016 article for Eurosport. “Winning is an important thing, but to have your own style, to have people copy you, to admire you, that is the greatest gift.”
Reflections on the history of football are full of the ‘what if’ conundrums. If circumstances had been different in the past, how would the fickle caprices of fate have played out over the years? Often, it’s difficult to perceive. On other occasions however, there seems to be a predestined combination of factors, conspiring to guide someone along a path that delivers us to a blessed outcome; a plan that renders, as obtuse, any gainsaying that a benevolent celestial guiding hand was shaping it. Such things cannot surely be assigned to the whims of mere chance. When a skinny ten-year-old Hendrik Johannes Cruyff joined the Ajax youth system in 1957, such a divine ploy was initiated. Had the youngster joined any other club, the history of football would have been unthinkably different, and such things were clearly not meant to be. If Johann Cruyff defined Ajax, then just as definitively, in an act of perfect symbiosis, Ajax created Johann Cruyff.
Whilst at the club Cruyff fell under the beneficial care of four coaches, each of whom would contribute to his development as player, and also, in perfect symmetry, add to a growing ethos at the club. The coach that first noticed the talents of the young lad kicking a ball in a playground near his house was, Ajax youth team coach Jany van der Veen, and it was he who took the nascent talent to the club. Although other coaches would also add immeasurably to his development, in ‘My Turn’, his autobiography, Cruyff would describe Van der Veen as being the “most important” and explain how the former Ajax and Netherlands international player had a specific training regime that formed the basis of the player’s footballing education. An emphasis on what Cruyff described as the “five basic fundamentals of football: shooting, heading, dribbling, passing and controlling the ball” taught him a lasting kinship with the ball.
Cruyff would also speak highly of the much-underrated Vic Buckingham, an English coach who gave the precocious 17-year-old Cruyff his first-team debut – a 3-1 defeat to Groningen in November 1964 with Cruyff netting the only Ajax goal. Years later, Buckingham would manage Barcelona, where he worked to change the restrictions on transfers to Spanish clubs so that he could take his protégé to Catalunya. His earnest efforts came to nought, but some years later, another former Ajax coach would succeed and reap the rewards that could so easily have fallen to Buckingham – and Barcelona – many years before.
To many, Buckingham was a coach ahead of his time, and one of the early advocates of the system that became known the world over as Totaalvoetbal. Interviewed in David Winner’s book ‘Brilliant Orange’ Buckingham explained his approach. “Possession football is the thing, not kick and rush,” he asserted. “Long-ball football is too risky. Most of the time what pays off is educated skills. If you’ve got the ball, keep it. The other side can’t score.” Although it was a belief that may have found few adherents in his home country at the time, it fitted perfectly for the impressionable Johann Cruyff, and indeed Dutch football at the time. Quoted in Jonathan Wilson’s ‘Inverting the Pyramid,’ Buckingham explains. “Their skills were different,” talking of the players at Ajax – Cruyff very much included. “Their intellect was different and they played proper football… I influenced them but they went on and did things above that which delighted me. For instance, two of them would go down the left side of the field passing to each other – just boom-boom-boom – and they’d go 30 yards, and two men would have cut out three defenders and created a vast acreage of space.”
Cruyff would speak highly of Buckingham and, another English Ajax coach, Keith Spurgeon, describing how they created the basis of his footballing philosophy, but his true mentor was someone else. Quoted in The Guardian in 2014, referring to Buckingham and Spurgeon, he related that, “They were open-minded but, tactically, you have to see where we were at that time. Football in Holland then was good but it was not really professional. They gave us some professionalism because they were much further down the road. But the tactical thinking came later with Michels. It started then.”
As with Van der Veen, Michels had also represented both club and country as a player, and for Cruyff, as mentioned in his autobiography, he was the coach with whom the player had a “special bond.” When Michels arrived, Ajax were anything but a potent force in Dutch football, labouring at the foot of the table, a force waiting to be awoken. Cruyff was 18 years old. His footballing education was about to progress from school to university, and he possessed a rapacious appetite to learn.
Diluting the metaphor a little though, Michels was no university lecturer. Instead, he saw Cruyff, still the youngest player in the team, as the key element in plans to promote his beliefs and take Ajax to a position of prominence. Cruyff recalls how the coach would take him aside after training to discuss tactics and how the team should play. It was a tutorial exclusively granted to the player who would become his disciple, trusted lieutenant and most ardent advocate, in a pivotal time for both player and club as the new manager launched them towards unheralded success. Shedding a chrysalis of mediocrity, Ajax would take flight with wings of vivid colours as their Totaalvoetbal was revealed in all its glory. Their play would illuminate Dutch football, then go on to scorch the pitches of Europe with a bright Oranje flame.
With Cruyff as Michels’ high priest, the coach would lead the club to three successive Eredivisie titles in 1965-66, 1966-67 and 1967-68, before adding a fourth in 1969-70. They would also take three KNVB Cups, and after a chastening defeat to AC Milan in 1969, they would come again in the 1971 final of the European Cup, taking possession of the continent’s premier club trophy; one which they would treasure jealously for three years whilst the football of Michels, Cruyff and Ajax reshaped the ethos of the game.
For all the success that was now flowing their way however, the Amsterdam club were hardly one of the financial powerhouses of Europe’s footballing elite, and Michels was seduced away by the siren Catalan calls emanating from Barcelona. At such times, clubs can easily stumble off in the wrong direction and see their new won progress melt away, but the appointment of Ștefan Kovács was ideal, and after a what now seems a strange period when he was almost removed by the club after perceived lapses of style, a player’s rebellion, led of course by Cruyff, put such ill-considered talk away, and Ajax prospered anew.
Many have considered that Kovács was merely following the existing template and his success was more down to what he didn’t do, than what he changed as coach, but that would be unfair. His ways were different, and there was a need to first conquer a belief amongst the squad that the new coach was worthy of the club and his exalted position as the heir to Michels. The Romanian was astute enough though to recognise that having Cruyff on his side was key, and he achieved that, making the club icon the centrepiece of his strategy. His plan prospered. Writing in The Guardian in 2008, Jonathan Wilson asserts that “Ajax almost certainly produced their most eye-catching football under Kovacs.” Cruyff would hardly demur from such an assertion. “The results show that Kovacs was not wrong,” as Wilson quotes Cruyff in ‘Inverting the Pyramid.’
If there had indeed been some deity influencing the liaison between Johann Cruyff and Ajax, they would receive heavenly reward in some glorious performances on the pitch as the player, touched by the grace of angels, blossomed when donned in the famous white shirt with the broad red band down its centre.
A double hat-trick for Cruyff in an 8-1 victory over AZ67 Alkmaar emphasised his capacity for qoals in quantity. That for quality was defined in another game. In his autobiography, Cruyff describes a goal scored in 1969, during a game against Den Haag. A clearance fell to him as he attempted to tie up a sock. The ball was spinning when it landed at his feet, and as he struck it towards goal – with the string of the sock tie still in his hand – it described a poetic arc and flew into the net. Poetry in motion indeed. In the 1974 World Cup Finals, with Cruyff in his pomp as he dominated the tournament, he revealed the move that gives its name to his autobiography; the turn that sent Swedish defender Jan Olsson so far the wrong way that not only did he need a ticket to get back into the stadium, he also had cause to hail a taxi to get him back there first.
The second European Cup victory was glorious, secured against the cloying defensive construction of Inter Milan. Cruyff scored both goals to inspire pundits to declare that such an obdurate interpretation of Catenaccio had now been banished by the all-cleansing new wave of Totaalvoetbal. Twelve months later, Calcio was again compelled to bend the knee as this time Turin’s ‘Old Lady’ was defeated in the final. It was Ajax’s third title in a row and a game which the International Hall of Fame website described as being “inspired one of the greatest 20-minute spells of football ever seen.”
Death and taxes are often quoted as the things inevitable in life, but perhaps the repeated propensity for Dutch footballing success to destroy itself could be added to that list. An Icarus-like fallibility to fly too close to the sun, inevitably leads to the melting of mortally conceived wings of wax. The 1974 World Cup is a case in point when, after Cruyff was tumbled for a penalty early on the Dutch chose to strut around admiring themselves in the mirror as West Germany stole the game from them.
And so it was with Ajax and Cruyff. Dispute, recriminations and clashes would lead to a parting of the ways between the club and its most celebrated player. With discord becoming the prevalent theme at Ajax, he left to join up again with his mentor at the Camp Nou. The departure was anything but harmonious, as related in Cruyff’s autobiography. “When it was clear that I was leaving Ajax [in 1973], I was sent all kinds of poisonous messages and lots more of that kind of nonsense. But the worst thing for me was that Ajax gave my mother, who had always done her best for the club, an inferior seat in the stadium. Behind a pole. That absolutely crushed me.”
Temper may be ephemeral, but love is possessive of a more sustaining grip on our emotions. After success in Spain, Cruyff would return to Amsterdam via a stint in the USA. The return, whilst not overly joyous for many reasons, was successful. Arriving with the club mired in mid-table, mediocrity, recovery ensued. Eredivisie championships followed in 1981-82 and 1982-83. The prodigal son had returned – but it would be a brief stay. Success on the field notwithstanding, after a perhaps all-too-familiar disagreement over money, the club decided against offering a new contract for the following season.
Given that he was now 39 years old, there’s perhaps logic to it but, as with the saying regarding women, there is perhaps no wrath like a Dutchman scorned. As Cruyff states in his autobiography, “Ajax was still my club.” The problem was with the people running it. Comments were leaked from the club about him being too old, overweight, or unfit. Allegations that his input into the success of the recent couple of seasons had been minimal, would also have stung. If such actions were meant to calm the concerns of Ajax fans troubled by the loss of their legendary player, they would also provoke the harshest of backlashes from the Cruyff.
Furious at what he perceived as an ungrateful snub, he hightailed it to Rotterdam, agreeing a deal with Ajax’s arch rivals Feyonoord. He would take De Club van Het Volk to their first Dutch championship in a decade, missing a single game in the entire league campaign, scoring 11 times in 33 appearances and belying any doubts about his age and ability to compete. Ajax would finish in third place six points adrift and lamenting their decision to tear asunder the relationship with their legend. Sated with the cold dish of revenge, Cruyff would then retire from playing before moving on to create a dynasty as the manager of Barcelona, as Ajax fell into relative decline. What had been a trial separation when Cruyff departed to Barcelona, was now the most acrimonious of divorces.
When discussing his General Theory of Relativity Albert Einstein, asserted that “God doesn’t play dice.” There’s surely an element of any validity in that statement applicable to Johann Cruyff and his relationship with Ajax. Such things were surely not merely a matter of chance. Had the young impressionable boy genius fallen under the spell of other coaches, the outcome for club and player – and even football as a whole – would surely have been less beneficial. A Cruyff brought up in Italy, or perhaps under a coach less “open-minded” and progressive as Vic Buckingham may well have prospered but surely the heights achieved by club and player would not have been of the same magnitude as achieved in Amsterdam.
Cruyff left Ajax twice, but he also left a legacy. No-one is bigger than any club, as the saying goes, but the ethos Johann Cruyff bequeathed to Ajax may mean the legendary player comes pretty close to disproving that old adage. Barry Hulshoff, the libero who shared so many of Ajax’s triumphs with Cruyff, including the three European Cup victories, quoted in ‘Brilliant Orange’ offers up an indication of that legacy. “We discussed space the whole time. Cruyff always talked about where people should run, where they should stand, where they should not be moving. It was all about making space and coming into space.” Cruyff himself should of course have the last word on such matters, though.
In the same book, Winner quotes him saying, “Football is a game you play with your brain. You have to be in the right place at the right moment, not too early, not too late.” For the benefit of Ajax, Johann Cruyff and all lovers of the truly beautiful game, it’s to our eternal benefit that “the right moment, not too early, not too late” came when that skinny kid joined the Amsterdam club. If the Gods had had not deemed it so, we would never have been able to rejoice in Nummer Veertien! – The legend and legacy of Johann Cruyff.