Johan Cruijff: A mortal with the potential of a superman

As the final tangible remnants of World War II were being cleared to pave way for a new start for Netherlands, Hendrik Johannes was born in a public hospital in Linnaeusstraat, to Manus and Nel Cruijff. The future footballing icon was born to grocery store owners who lived a stone’s throw away from de Middenweg, where the sprawling frame of Ajax’s De Meer stadium rose among the rows of houses, where his genius would be developed and revealed.

According to anecdotes, young Cruijff was a typical football-fanatic. In a documentary commemorating his 50th birthday, former Ajax player and family friend Arend van der Wel recollected that wherever Johan went, he was always prepared for an impromptu kick about: “It was Johan and the ball, the ball and Johan”.

As a child, Cruijff’s biggest idol was Faas Wilkes; he was starstruck by the legendary fleet-footed Dutch forward of the ’50’s. Coupled with the fact that he was born in an equally football-loving family, it was only natural that Cruijff wanted to make his passion his livelihood. His mother reportedly knitted him a white onesie with a single bold red band down the middle, reproducing Ajax’s iconic jersey. In a rare interview with Raket magazine in 1967, the young phenomenon, who would pick up his first Dutch Footballer of the Year trophy the following year, was asked what he would have been if he was not a footballer. Cruijff seemed startled in his response; the idea of devoting his life to anything else had never occurred to him.

Not that there was much reason to, given the fact he had already started making a name for himself in his neighbourhood of Betondorp. He, along with a friend called Wim van Laar, considered school an intermission between football-playing time. Rain or shine, it did not matter; football was his only constant. Cruijff is known for being irreligious, but he did religiously practise his skills on those streets, dancing about with his big, brown, leather ball.

Het Parool’s Auke Kok explored the area in 1994 to trace Cruijff’s roots and tracked down his former partner-in-crime up front in the Ajax youth teams, Gerrie Splinter, who credited Cruijff’s eminence to his unwavering commitment to the game. “Johan was very studious. He used to sit and listen to the coach,” he reminisced. “Whatever he was, he was interwoven with the club. After training, I would go to Leidseplein to have some fun, but he just stayed there.”

Cruijff and his friends would frequent a ‘playground’ in their neighbourhood – a sandy piece of land that Ajax youth coach Jany van der Veen’s house overlooked. In the same Het Parool interview, Van der Veen gushed about the skinny little boy he spotted out his window and decided to offer a place at Ajax without a trial: “He always played football with older boys, and he had bossed them. It seemed like he was fused with the ball.”

Van der Veen had been a part of Ajax through the Holocaust years, and even played alongside Rinus Michels as they became champions in 1946-47. A year later, his career ended through injury, but his contributions extended off the field, as he identified players such as Wim Suurbier and Barry Hulshoff, in addition to Cruijff, who passed through the youth teams before becoming club legends.

A few years after his Ajax debut, Cruijff attributed van der Veen as one of the key people behind his success. The gratitude that he felt for the scout eventually also materialised in the form of van der Veen being given a crucial role under Cruijff when he reformed Ajax and their methods as manager.

In 1959, Cruijff was at the end of primary school education and one day accompanied his mother to the hospital to visit his ailing maternal grandmother. However, they were soon informed that his father had suffered a heart attack at home and unfortunately, by the time they rushed back, Manus had passed away.

That loss remained significant in Cruijff’s mentality for a long time. His family was extremely close-knit, and they meant the world to him. In his biography, it is mentioned that young Johan would frequent the burial site at Oosterbegraafplaats and talk to him. His mother eventually remarried and they relocated to Weidestraat, just a few blocks away, as she also took up a job as a cleaner at Ajax.

In a working-class family in the east of Amsterdam, growing up without his father made Cruijff develop a strong personality. He gained the courage to look after himself and came to realise the value of money and being self-sufficient.

The former trait expressed itself in his talkative, opinionated persona, where even as a relatively inexperienced, junior member of the dressing room, he was never hesitant to speak up. Klaas Nunninga admired that the bold and precocious talent could already think about the game at the age of 17, stating: “He was sometimes annoying, but we still considered him as our younger brother.”

In typical fight-or-flight situations, Cruijff’s adrenaline went straight to his cerebral process and in those scenarios, his reflex was neither fight nor flight; it was thought. He was well aware of his shortcomings in physique and he never had much of a hard shot, so in situations where attackers would typically ‘fight’ the defenders, Cruijff would think and the sheer speed with which his thought translated to a swift, swanlike action was an art-form in its own regard.

His self-sufficiency manifested itself in his pioneering of the fight for players to be paid reasonable wages that could sustain their livelihood. Rinus Michels spearheaded this, as he wanted players who were fully committed to the game and did not have their minds fixed on their ‘daytime jobs’ as shopkeepers and messengers. Cruijff took it a step further, when he demanded the KNVB pay players for international appearances too, as Karel Gablers detailed in David Winner’s Brilliant Orange. He famously said in the 70’s: “When my career ends, I cannot go to the baker and say, ‘I’m Johan Cruijff, give me some bread.'” While he could have easily acquired free bread when he did end his career, this was testament to Cruijff’s strong sense of his roots and where he came from.

Cruijff’s upbringing was not comfortable, but he was aware that his background provided him with that which he cherished in life: winning, football and Ajax. And thus, his family always came first.

The legendary No.14 never liked publicity all that much. When asked about it as a 20-year-old, he quipped, in the typical paradox-prone language of Cruijffiaans: “Fantastic, yet I also don’t like it. Of course everybody knows you, but hey, what will that give you? I think it’s nice.”

He found joy in simplicity, which is relevant to what is perhaps, his most famous Cruijff-ism. In a Q&A on his website, he lists his grandchildren as one of his greatest sources of joy and his children as his principal source of pride. He may have been domineering and sometimes egotistical in the dressing room, but off the pitch and out of football, Cruijff did not live by pretence or the affectation of being a superstar or an influential icon. His gesture to name his son adorn his son ‘Jordi’ — a Catalan name — was originally, according to him, not born out of a desire to make a political statement about the region he now  called home, but simply because they liked the name. And once his family had decided on it, he was not going to give in to authorities renaming his only son.

Cruijff considered his wife, Danny, the most important part of his life, and subscribed to the view — again, in typical Cruijffiaans — that “Men and women will always be equals, but they will also be different.” He has never been hesitant in acknowledging that without her, he would have been prone to many pitfalls in his life; quietly, but firmly, she kept him focused, and she provided the balance he needed. They would have celebrated their golden jubilee as a married couple, in 2018.

Cruijff was a product of the Ajax Academy and the notion of youth football was very much ingrained in his mentality. Of course, he ‘mentored’ the young Ruud Gullit at Feyenoord and then handed chances to many youth system products at Ajax and Barcelona, but his influence on the younger generation does not stop there, and likely will not cease for a long time to come.

While still a footballer in the United States, Cruijff was determined to set up a foundation to educate and cultivate a positive culture of football in children. Apparently, Cruijff had a neighbour, a child with Down Syndrome, who did not feel comfortable playing outside with the rest, and the Dutchman took a special interest in this child, teaching him football and forming a close relationship with him. And so, as he turned 50, Cruijff, who had recently left Barcelona, took it upon himself to start the foundation, which has now grown significantly and received well-deserved accolades. The initiative of Cruijff Courts in particular, is remarkable as it recognises the multi-faceted influence sport has on the psychosocial and physical development of children and, on a macro-scale, society. Cruijff’s intentions are well-spelt in the 14 Rules that govern every Cruijff Court and aim to instil values that not only underlie his ethos in football, but are transferable to life too. This is telling of a man who loved children, as Scottish football journalist Graham Hunter beautifully recollected how he responded with glee and offered biscuits when he had to bring his child and her friend over as he came to the Cruijff household to interview the three-time Ballon d’Or winner.

Originality does not exist in isolation; our innovations come about by standing on the shoulders of savants that came before us, and probing further into and beyond their work. He was a rather spindly, lanky player, but figuratively, Cruijff’s are extremely broad shoulders, that have and will continue to support the footballing endeavours of many to come.

For example, the Millennial generation (oh, that much-maligned word), which I am a part of, has never seen Cruijff play, nor have most of us even seen him actively hog the touchline, nibbling absent-mindedly at a cigarette/lollipop, as a manager (apart from that short stint as Catalonia head coach). But the first ‘skill’ I ever learnt as a child was the drop-shoulder-and-change-direction feint. Also known, of course, as the Cruijff turn. The 4-3-3 was the first formation I played in; I was always told, in drills, to move into ‘space’ and receive the ball, and not stick rigidly to my position.

Save the occasional testimonial like Sjaak Swart’s or Dennis Bergkamp’s I have never seen Cruijff play live; most of my knowledge comes from some fortunate recordings my friends’ parents had made and Internet videos. However, I have been lucky enough to see Barcelona’s continuing era of domination through attacking football. I have had the honour watching Lionel Messi, who might go down as the best footballer ever. I have been lucky enough to watch the meteoric rise of Spain, despite my heartbreak in the 2010 World Cup. I have been able to watch Ajax complete a four-peat of the Eredivisie, with ex-players at the helm. None of this would have been possible without Cruijff.

There are, at the same time, too many and too little words to say about him. Like David Bowie earlier this year, it seems as though people like Cruijff are so iconic, and the expanse of their influence on the world as we know it stretches so far and wide, that we never fully contemplate their mortality. We are always unprepared for their passing and it always feels like they leave us too early, too soon.

Perhaps a line from Bowie’s Quicksand paints a nice silhouette of Cruijff — a mortal with the potential of a superman. It is perhaps, suffice to say, while the influence of Cruijff will never fail to be felt in football, the world is definitely worse off, with the loss of a remarkable human being.

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