The Netherlands are celebrating their first christmas without Cruyff. The start of the post-Cruyff era. Our biggest football player ever, our national icon. It might be a coincidence, but without him controversy and division has been bigger than ever in our football nation. Without any directions, opinions fly around like blanks (or Tiju comments).
Cruyff admirer, ex-Oranje striker and ex-team mate and currently author and football analyst Jan Mulder thinks the nerve system of Cruyff worked exactly opposite to that of other mortal beings. In his farewell story, Mulder wrote that “with Cruyffie, the feet were in charges of the brain and not the other way around”. He was the first man on Earth (and yes Messi is one of his disciples) who first thought with his feet, and a nano second later, the brain followed.
Football was a game of intuitive flashes and ideas, for the legendary Number 14. He basically was the heir of Spinoza (1632-1677) the philosopher who believed intuition was the highest form of knolwedge. The player trusted his instincts totally, both on and off the pitch.
“Before I make a mistake, I recognise I’m making a mistake, so I won’t make the mistake,” said Cruyff famously. Cruyff didn’t think rationally, but more instinctive. He trusted his feeling and as a result was hardly ever in doubt.
And here is the national identity crisis of Dutch football explained and magnified in the last months, the era post-Cruyff, the founder and guardian of our national football identity. The unfathomable cacophony of opinions about the future of Dutch football. All the arguments and counter arguments. All the scepsis and cynicism. The debilitating debates about every comma, with lots of yelling and not a lot of listening.
Mind you, Cruyff didn’t listen well either. But he did lead. He was the navigator, the captain who said: follow me. Trust me. I know and have seen what lies beyond. And he was one who, even when he did lead us on a road to nowhere, he still didn’t doubt himself. And sure thing: the faithful followers boarded his ship, leaving the sceptics on the quay.
Did we have less discussion and less shenanigans without him? No, certainly not. His trust in intuition also led to controversy, in particular if his intuition clashed with the ratio of others.
The Velvet Revolution at Ajax. A more intense tribal war will never be fought in our football world. The victims and enemies of El Salvador won’t say it out loud, but some will think: nice and quiet now at Christmas time… The power he wielded, the influence he had, sometimes it work paralysing. It sometimes brought complete institutions – Ajax, KNVB, Barcelona even – in a spastic cramp.
But, he did act as a beacon. He led from the front even if he didn’t want to. Because his disciples would simply lift him up and use him as a shield. If it concerned friends, however, Johan could find conflict between his intuition and loyalty. Loyalty, in his network, was everything. Former Ajax left winger and mentor to Cruyff said: “With Johan, loyalty was more important that pure quality.”
Cruyff’s best buddy, Rolf Grootenboer, explains how he and Jopie (Johan’s pet name as a kid) were ball boys at the Europe Cup Finals in 1962, between Real Madrid and Benfica. After the finals, Cruyff would sneak into the dressing room and mingle amongst the world’s top players to have a conversation. About football of course. Using his hands and feet and his best English. Grootenboer felt that anecdote describes Cruyff’s boldness best.
The word “bold” is the best word to summarize what Cruyff taught us. He dared us to be bold, to be adventurous and to believe in yourself. Don’t worry about opponents, they’re irrelevant. Follow your intuition and dribble till the cows come home.
The only player we have today with that kind of mentality is Arjen Robben. He is the only one who has that boldness and maybe the only one with the quality to do it. The church of Cruyff today is more based on coaches preaching attractive and dominant play, like Peter Bosz of Ajax.
It’s the older generation of coaches – like Wim Jansen – who still use those old foundation cornerstones in their approach. For them, football hasn’t changed in 50 years.
Louis van Gaal doesn’t work at the moment. He is analysing games on tv and makes big trips with his partner Truus. Cruyff’s most illustrious rival will not have a lot of contribution in the current debates. Ronald Koeman is one of the few Cruyff disciples left, working on European top level. He was a beloved friend and protege but their football vision does differ. Koeman is not an idealist and not a free-flowing football coach. He is a pragmatic man, focused on winning. Frank Rijkaard retired. Marco van Basten has become a desk-jockey. Van ‘t Schip is active in the Australian competition.
We need more physical and mental development, they say. No! We need to work on football skills. We need to play on small pitches. No we don’t, we need to teach them to work with space. Hans van Breukelen’s mission is to connect and unite but his work is only making the division bigger. This club wants this, the other club wants that. And the KNVB is deciding whether they’re the UN or the US in all this mayhem, while being targeted from all angles themselves.
So where are our leaders? Danny Blind leads the Oranje squad and has his hands full. Marco is leading within a corporate institution. Ruud Gullit does what Ruud Gullit wants. Guus Hiddink is a good people manager but not a visionary. Co Adriaanse is semi retired and talks on telly about football. Bert van Marwijk – also not a great innovator – is raking up dollars in a country where human rights don’t exist.
Frank de Boer might have been the prodigal son but his Internazionale adventure will have damaged him.
Oh sure, there a report…written by a number of big names in Dutch football, but some of these names are quickly distancing from that report.
Without Cruyff, every opinion feels like a blank. Winners of yesterday, losers of tomorrow or the other way around. Cruyff never took a role to structurally change our football.But at least he served as the guardian of our spontaneity, trust your instincts, be bold, believe in yourself.With Cruyff’s passing in 2016, we may have lost our intuition…
The only living legend amongst us is Willem van Hanegem. Partner in crime of Cruyff in the Oranje 1974 team. The only player who could think and feel as quick and similar to JC. And typically for De Kromme, not really Johan’s friend off the pitch. Unmeasurable respect for one another. And a bond for life. But where Johan was ruthless, Willem was soft. Always on the look out for the underdog.
But when Johan had just died, every Dutch player, ex-player or coach fought their way on to tv to tell Cruyff anecdotes. Not Willem. Suspiciously absent with his comments. Only weeks later, when he finally appeared on tv in a sports program, he couldn’t avoid the question: “Willem, you didn’t come on tv to talk about Johan’s passing? Why not?” And when Willem stuttered “It was too hard for me to talk about it”, the rough and robust midfielder broke down and cried for minutes on live television.
Such was their bond. Willem never followed Johan. He didn’t have to. They shared the same football DNA.
He is the last of the Mohicans and we should cherish him while we can…