How he shaped Ajax, Barcelona, world soccer
This piece first ran on ESPN FC on March 24, 2021
Written underneath the statue of Johan Cruyff outside Barcelona‘s Camp Nou stadium is the phrase “Salid y disfrutad” (“go out and enjoy”). It’s what Cruyff told his Barcelona side as manager ahead of their victorious 1992 European Cup final against Sampdoria, the triumph that earned them the title of “The Dream Team.”
Cruyff died five years ago on March 24, 2016, following a lengthy battle with cancer, and that statue in Barcelona is just the first hint at a legacy stretching far beyond a single club. He lives on through his Foundation, which benefits over 200,000 children worldwide. Then there are the educational hubs: five Cruyff Institutes, three Cruyff Academies and four Cruyff Colleges across Mexico, Peru, Spain and the Netherlands. There’s also the successful Cruyff clothing and shoe range as well as Cruyff Football, a coaching portal focused on spreading and teaching his philosophy of how to play soccer. In short, it’s a footballing religion.
Watch the top teams in Europe these days and you’ll see elements of Cruyff’s philosophy continuing to flourish. The flowing football of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City — still on course for a quadruple in England and Europe — is an evolved version of what he played under Cruyff at Barcelona. There are elements of Cruyffism in how Jurgen Klopp’s high press works at Liverpool. Bayern Munich‘s Joshua Kimmich is your archetypal Cruyff player, with his ability to effortlessly change positions. For all the debates about style vs. substance, about playing beautiful vs. playing to win, Cruyff married success and style in a way that most elite teams aspire to emulate.
His DNA and ideas course through the legendary Dutch club Ajax, too — he helped the club reboot their academy in 2012, which helped nurture stars like Juventus defender Matthijs de Ligt and Barcelona midfielder Frenkie De Jong — as well as Spain’s golden generation of 2008 to 2014, in which they won the 2010 World Cup in between a remarkable two European Championships, the only national team to repeat as continental champions. He also played a profound role in influencing some of the world’s best coaches like Pep Guardiola (Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester City) and Arsenal‘s longest-serving manager, Arsene Wenger.
“Johan Cruyff painted the chapel,” Guardiola said. “And Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it.”
Cruyff is to soccer what John Wooden is to basketball, or Bill Walsh is to American football. Perhaps a modern-day incarnation is Bill Belichick’s dynasty at the New England Patriots. “The influence of Johan Cruyff was huge,” Guardiola said. “He changed the mentality of Ajax and Barcelona. His influence is not comparable. He is the most influential person in the world of football in the last of 50, 60 years. Nobody can compare with him.”
Mention “Cruyff,” “Cruyffism” or the “Cruyff philosophy” to Barcelona fans, and they associate it with winning. He brought success as a player and returned as manager to bring silverware (four straight La Liga titles and that European Cup win), hone a style of ruthless attack and establish a clear pathway for homegrown young players to follow from the academy through to the first-team. Staunch Cruyffistas are unapologetic in their championing of him, and his ideals have led to boardroom splits, presidents overturned, and managers hired and fired.
In 2021, Barcelona are doing all they can to use Cruyff’s inspiration to return to the top of European football. Their returning president, Joan Laporta, was close friends with Cruyff, and the foundation of his election manifesto was to restore Cruyff’s ideas to the core of a club in search of an identity.
Without him, there would be no Barcelona talent factory at La Masia, arguably no Guardiola, nor Lionel Messi and not the Barcelona we know now. On the fifth anniversary of his death, the Cruyffian philosophy and legacy is still incredibly important to Barcelona, and to the game.
Cruyff the player: “He was a rebel for the board of directors”
Johan’s son, Jordi, is talking over Zoom from China, where he’s managing Chinese Super League side Shenzhen. He knows the power of his surname and the doors it can unlock, but is forging his own path in football. But there’s no nepotism as he describes Johan as one of football’s “immortals.”
“He is one of the special ones, he really put his stamp on football as a player and coach in a revolutionary way,” Jordi tells ESPN. “He had a different mindset. When everybody went to the right, he’d go to the left.”
Cruyff’s legacy is mainly split between those who remember him for how he revolutionised Dutch football in the 1970s, and those who cherish the memories of his success at Barcelona as a manager from 1988-1996.
Johan pioneered the Netherlands’ golden decade in the 1970s. Though Cruyff’s mentor, Rinus Michels, (voted FIFA’s Coach of the Century in 1999, he guided Ajax to four Eredivisie titles in the 1960s and the Netherlands to the 1988 European Championship) was the brains behind the game-changing style of “Total Football,” Cruyff personified it. In a sport previously defined by rigid positioning and man-marking, the Dutch turned the tactical view of the game on its head.
They lined up in a 4-3-3 instead of the typical 3-5-2, with positional fluidity for all 10 outfield players. They would seamlessly cover each other’s roles in mid-game to confuse opponents; if a midfielder charged forward to attack, the defender behind him would step up. They also favoured aggressive pressing on the ball and possession, but above all, they were told to entertain.
“For me, football is emotional,” Cruyff wrote in his post-humous autobiography, “My Turn.” “I have always said that football should be played beautifully, in an attacking way. It must be a spectacle. Football is a game you play with your brains. You have to be in the right place at the right moment, not too early, not too late.”
As its enigmatic playmaker, Cruyff and the Dutch team reached the final of the 1974 World Cup and though they lost to Franz Beckenbauer’s Germany 2-1, they are still regarded as one of the world’s greatest-ever sides.
He also had a signature move, the “Cruyff Turn” — now a staple of the game — spotlighted when, in the 1974 World Cup group stage, he was being pressed by Sweden defender Jan Olsson, but evaded him by dragging the ball back past his standing leg to make a 180-degree turn. “For me, the most important thing is what he did with the ball,” ex-Netherlands international Ronald de Boer tells ESPN. “It was something new that a lot of people didn’t see prior to him doing it: the acceleration, the Cruyff turn, his way of playing, his on-field demand of his teammates and the relentless pressing football.”
“I used to provoke him a lot,” says Jordi. “I’d say ‘Papa, you didn’t win the final. You got all the compliments but not the gold medal,” Jordi says. “And he would respond, never changing his answer, ‘but you know what, from 1974 people remember the losing team, that’s how much of an impact we made. Nobody remembers the winner, but the revolution we made and that is a bigger prize, bigger than the colour of the medal: that is legacy.”
“My father came through in the 1970s in the Netherlands where life was changing a little bit,” Jordi tells ESPN. “The hippie, the gold chains and the long hair and all that, it was a different moment, and my father was at the front. His philosophy was to entertain, he saw it as not only ‘win’ or ‘lose’, but to entertain.
“He had a convincing power, and charisma that people followed. He was a rebel for the board of directors. He would have said it otherwise, but he was a real pain in the ass for them. I don’t think he had many friends [at the club’s executive level], but he stood up for his principles, always for the security of the players.”
With the Netherlands, he also confronted the established order by helping usher in player insurance and image rights: adidas made him a special kit for the 1974 World Cup with two stripes instead of the brand’s three-stripe design due to his contract with Puma.
“He was a kind of James Dean of football at that time you know,” ex-Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger said in 2017. “I’ve seen him in Strasbourg an hour before kick-off eating a sandwich, go on the pitch and be the best player. He was that kind of expression of freedom in the way he behaved.”
Cruyff carried this freedom into his coaching career. When he returned to Ajax as their manager in 1984, he didn’t have the necessary qualifications to formally coach, so he created the role of “technical director” to circumnavigate the rules. After Cruyff’s death in 2016, Ajax renamed their stadium the Johan Cruyff Arena in spite of his complicated relationship with his boyhood club.
When Cruyff left Ajax for the first time in 1973, they agreed to sell him to Real Madrid. He refused that move and instead signed for Barcelona — the message was that he controlled his destiny, not a club. In 2010, he wrote a scathing article in Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, criticising Ajax after they had lost 2-0 to Real Madrid. His essay kickstarted the “Velvet Revolution” at Ajax, whereby Cruyff and some other former players returned to the club, overthrowing those in charge and vowing to return them to the top of European football. Cruyff himself would focus on the renovations of Ajax’s youth academy, known as “De Toekomst” (Dutch for “the Future”).
“Johan ruffled some feathers; I think that was his life,” Ajax CEO Edwin van der Sar tells ESPN. “He was outspoken. He had a big influence in 2010 and that started the emphasis on better, younger players.”
“He was independent,” Jordi says. “He could just say what he wanted to say, he didn’t care if people liked it or not; he wouldn’t go to hurt anybody’s feelings, but he would just say what he really thought.”
The Barcelona legacy: “Barcelona are missing the Cruyff DNA”
“Cruyff is the most important person in the success of FC Barcelona, without any doubt,” Barcelona legend Xavi told ESPN.
“I think Johan would not be happy with what’s happened there in the past few years: too many signings, a lot of money spent and the few youngsters coming through,” said De Boer, who played for Ajax and Barcelona in the 1999-00 season. “The youth academy should be more closely involved. Barcelona are missing the Cruyff DNA.”
The Dutchman took Barcelona’s coaching reins in 1988 and in his eight-year spell, he oversaw an era of unparalleled success as they won four straight La Liga titles at the start of the 90s and the 1992 Champions League.
The Barcelona team Cruyff inherited in 1988 was in disarray, similar to how Barcelona find themselves in 2021. They were in debt, attendances were in decline, they’d won one La Liga title since 1974 and the players were feuding with club president Josep Lluis Nunez. When Cruyff took over, all but 10 players were shipped out and in their place came a bunch of players who would help shape Barcelona on and off the pitch over the next 30 years: namely Ernesto Valverde (who’d go on to coach Barca to two league titles), Txiki Begiristain (who is now shaping Manchester City’s dominant era) and Eusebio. By 1989, Cruyff had signed Ronald Koeman (now Barca’s manager) and shifted him from defensive midfield to centre-back; a year later, he promoted Guardiola to their first team.
Guardiola’s promotion symbolised the sea-change Cruyff had instigated in Barcelona. Under previous coaches, Guardiola would have most likely been cast aside as he fell under their minimum height requirement of 1.80m. Cruyff scoffed at those principles, arguing a smaller, more technical player can be as effective as his more physical counterparts. While La Masia, Barca’s youth academy, was re-shaped in the late 1970s with a fresh focus on recruiting youngsters living close to Barcelona, it bore fruit under Cruyff.
“When he arrived at Barcelona, all the youth teams of the club started to play like the first team, so when we came into the first team we were used to his style and it was much easier to play for him,” Oscar Garcia, who graduated from the academy to the first team in 1993, tells ESPN.
After other managers took the club on post-Cruyff, Guardiola was appointed B Team coach in 2007 and took over the top job in 2008. Like Cruyff did in 1988, Guardiola wiped the slate clean at Barcelona and like his mentor did, he backed the talent emerging from La Masia: his team was based around graduates Xavi, Carles Puyol, Pedro, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Victor Valdes, Andres Iniesta and Messi. The club experienced incredible success, winning three straight La Liga titles, including their historic treble in 2009 which saw them crowned Barcelona’s second ‘Dream Team” era.
“Cruyff has had the biggest influence on football coaching as we know it now,” Greece manager and ex-Ajax player John van’t Schip tells ESPN. He points to his various tactical choices ahead of the curve: Cruyff’s use of Stanley Menzo as a ‘sweeper keeper’ at Ajax, how he used interchangeable wingers to allow them to cut inside or stay on the outside to cross with their strongest foot. He argues ‘gegenpressing’, a system used by Jurgen Klopp and Ralf Rangnick, had similarities in the 1974 ‘Total Football’ style as that Dutch side relentlessly pressured opponents into giving up the ball.
“It’s probably not a coincidence that so many players that played under my father have actually become coaches. There are a lot of disciples [in management],” Jordi says. “They have their own football view — they are not copying my father — but they found an inspiration with many of my father’s ideas. They go their own path, but they all share the same language as my father’s footballing philosophy.”
“For me, Guardiola was Cruyff’s most prominent disciple,” Van t’Schip says.
“Without him I wouldn’t be here,” Guardiola said in 2016. “I know for sure this is why I am, right now, the manager of Manchester City and before that Bayern Munich and Barcelona. Before he came we didn’t have a cathedral of football, this beautiful church, at Barcelona. We needed something new. And now it is something that has lasted. It was built by one man, by Johan Cruyff, stone by stone. That’s why he was special.”
While the La Masia production line had dried up in recent seasons, there are signs that the Barca academy is again gaining prominence. Ansu Fati, Oscar Mingueza, Riqui Puig, Ilaix Moriba and Konrad de la Fuente are all in and around the first-team, while Alex Balde is pencilled in as a possible left-back option for next season. Pedri is another youngster in the first-team, though developed at Las Palmas, while Ronald Araujo had two seasons in the B-Team, having joined from Uruguay‘s Boston River.
All three presidential candidates that ran in 2021 — Joan Laporta, Victor Font and Toni Freixa — had the rejuvenation of La Masia as a priority in their manifestos. As the winner of that race, Laporta, embarks on his second stint as Barca president, Cruyff was clearly central to Laporta’s vision. “Cruyff was a genius. I completely identify with his way of seeing football and we will have him present in our thoughts when it comes to making decisions,” Laporta said in January 2021. “I will dedicate every game that we play spectacularly in to him, just as he liked to play.”
Yet it’s one thing to pay lip service to Cruyff, and another to implement his ideas.
“If you want to impress somebody, you say ‘we’re going to do the Johan Cruyff style of football’,” De Boer says. “It was all sun, the way they played football. But it’s a political, tactically smart way of using his name.”
The future: “Johan this is from everyone, not only us”
Perhaps the truest embodiment of Cruyff’s values, five years after his passing, is found in his Institute and Foundation. Jordi says the Cruyff Foundation was like another child to his late father and the inspiration behind both organizations came from Johan’s own experiences. Johan never finished school, but he was adamant that his children and others would not make the same decision.
“He even took me out of football at the age of 15 or 16 for a month and would not let me go back until my studies improved,” Jordi says. “I was a youth player at Barcelona at the time, and I would say to him ‘why are you pushing me to study when you didn’t study yourself?” He said: ‘It is not about what I did, you need to be prepared for the day after football’.”
The Institute has five postgraduate centres the world over alongside three academies and two colleges. The Foundation, which has helped thousands of children through sport, came from Johan’s belief that sport can help heal society. Jordi remembers when, in America, they lived next door to a boy called John-John, who had Down’s syndrome. John-John wanted to play football with the other children on the street but was left out. So Johan started to “train on the street, only with John-John,” Jordi says. “When he came back from two away games, he saw the other children now playing football with John-John. He made the foundation after that.
“A lot of things always come from happenings that he had in his own life, and he did things because there was like a scar inside of him – something had made an impact, and he reacted on that.”
Cruyff Football — another arm of the “World of Johan Cruyff” body that brings it all together — is focused on teaching his football methods and is run by ex-Barcelona academy coach Albert Capellas. Then there is Volendam — the second-division Dutch side where former Ajax players Wim Jonk and Ruben Jongkind took charge in April 2019 — still living and breathing Cruyff’s philosophy in life, society and football.
Jongkind is one of Cruyff’s most evangelical disciples and was close to Johan through to his death from lung cancer that had metastasized to his brain in early 2016.
“He said to me a few weeks before he died, ‘Well if they don’t want it [Cruyff Plan] at Ajax, they will want it somewhere else’,” Jongkind says. “I think he would have said ‘Okay we will do what we did at Ajax, but even better, without resistance at Barcelona and La Masia. We will create a La Masia 2.0.’ He wanted to bring back the culture and Catalan energy to Barcelona.”
Cruyff’s legacy still permeates through football and remains both the philosophy and culture Barcelona fans still pine after.
“A lot of players that were in his charts, hands, his mind, in his passion… most of them now are coaches,” said Guardiola. “And his tribute… we can never re-pay what he has done for us. Never.”
When Johan died on March 24, 2016, his family held a private funeral while Barcelona put together a memorial for their supporters, which saw thousands flock through paying their tributes to the man who made Barcelona the club we know today.
“I remember giving a press conference at the Barcelona stadium just after he passed, and wow… no matter how many times you try to prepare yourself, you know all things you have in your head, but when you speak, you don’t remember,” Jordi says. “I put down some notes, but in the end, all I could think of was ‘Johan, this is from everyone, not only us [the family]. That’s why we had to open up the funeral so everyone could say goodbye.
“We could not close the door and say, ‘no Johan Cruyff is our father’ — no, he is everyone’s. And that is probably the biggest truth I have said about my father in a long time, and the best way to summarise who Johan Cruyff was.”
Barcelona face a defining year. Laporta knows Cruyff and his legacy will not be far from their thoughts, nor the supporters’ expectations, as they attempt to keep Lionel Messi with the only club he’s ever known while building another winning team around him.
“There is a very thin line between being crazy, or a genius,” Jordi says. “At Barcelona he created a winning mentality and turned pessimism into a winners’ club. People still remember that moment of change and awakening. As a son, I can only be proud of his legacy.
“There are not many people who have statues at Ajax and Barcelona, and to have two stadiums in his name. That’s something for the special ones, and he’s one of them.”