Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
Dutch football blogger Mohamed Moallim looks back at the past of Ajax hero Johann Cruyff to decipher whether his latest return to Amsterdam is likely to end in tears of anguish or joy...
In the space of little over a week the velvet revolution led by Johan Cruyff and his cohorts was in danger of turning into a reign of terror, with Cruyff assuming the Maximilien Robespierre role.
Last Wednesday the Ajax supervisory board, appointed as a result of an internal investigation conducted the last time the Amsterdam club were as deeply embroiled in crisis back in 2008, resigned.
Club Chairman Uri Coronel cited the ongoing turmoil at the club as the reason for their departure, and reasoned that Cruyff’s god-like status at the club had made it impossible for them to win the hearts and minds of the vastly disgruntled fans, despite attempting what Cruyff labelled had a smear campaign.
At first it seemed as though the rumblings behind the scenes could affect the players on the pitch, chants of ‘Johan’ grew throughout the home game against Heracles on Sunday as the home team struggled to break down their opponents.
The tetchy atmosphere was quelled in the 58th minute when a fortunate Oleguer goal broke the deadlock before Siem de Jong’s quickly added his eight of the season.
By that stage, Ajax looked settled and grabbed a third from Araz Özbiliz, his first for the club. The heralded the impressive début of Danish teenager Nicolai Boilesen - playing at left-back coming on for the injured Daley Blind, although a centre-back by trade. He gave a virtuoso performance that could see him as a permanent fixture in the not-too-distant future.
Cruyff, for all his greatness, is no stranger to turmoil at the club. As a young player was often at loggerheads with his more experienced team mates, sometimes lambasting them for something as simple as losing possession. He also famously went against the power-brokers at Ajax and won more player freedom at the club, demanding full-time contracts at a time when players were no more than semi-pros.
However in 1973, after 10 successful years, Cruyff left the club in somewhat unceremonious circumstances - even today nobody knows the full truth behind his departure, although it is widely speculated to be at least partly down to him losing the captaincy. Despite his great presence on the field of play and the artistry and imagination that captivated his audiences, Cruyff had a contradictory side.
A winner by any definition, Cruyff insisted on the highest of standards from his team mates, although he did at times seem to have difficulty owning up to his own shortcomings. Whenever he lost possession, it wasn’t his fault - it would be the player who passed the ball. If his pass to a team mate didn’t reach its target then it would be that team mate who was to blame.
After eight years split across spells at four clubs in Spain and the United States, Cruyff returned to Ajax in 1981, although not before handing out a piece of unwanted advice from the stands to then boss Leo Beenhakker.
Cruyff was in the stands for a match against FC Twente, and ambled down to the dug-out to lectured the manager on where exactly he was going wrong and how to correct it. And, as if this wasn’t unhelpful enough, it was caught live by national television cameras.
Ajax, who at the time was losing 3-1, managed to turn things around on the basis of Cruyff’s advice - winning the game 5-3. Beenhakker was humiliated, what should have been his finest moment was overshadowed (highlights below).
Beenhakker later muttered that he “should have socked Jopie (Cruyff‘s nickname in his homeland) on the jaw then and there. Live on telly. The smug little b*st*rd….”
Despite being in the twilight of his career, there was still time for another falling out with the club he loved. After three successful years back in Amsterdam, it was time to negotiate a new contract.
The board, at the time lead by chairman Ton Harmsen, were reluctant to match Cruyff’s demands. They reasoned that Cruyff wasn’t getting any younger and wouldn’t be value for money - this no doubt dismayed the player and in an act that could best be described as typically Cruyff, he signed for fierce rivals Feyenoord, proving the Ajax board wrong by helping secure a league and cup double for the Rotterdam club.
But, true to form, Cruyff soon reconciled with Ajax, taking over as coach in 1985, with the Dutch FA turning a blind eye to his lack of qualifications.
In the first three seasons in the dugout, Ajax won two Dutch Cups and a Cup Winners’ Cup in 1987, but things quickly took a turn for the worse. First a training ground bust-up with Frank Rijkaard, who later vowed to never play under the coach again.
The straw that broke them camel’s back came when the board sold captain Marco van Basten to AC Milan, Cruyff putting it politely blew a gasket and that was that, his last official position at Ajax ended, he moved to FC Barcelona where he gained unparalleled success, but his story with Ajax didn’t stop here.
As Louis van Gaal began to put Ajax back on the map in the mid 1990’s, an irrational and personal vendetta from Cruyff towards Van Gaal began to surface. Some say it was down to jealousy, speculating that the legendary No.14 felt he didn’t enjoy the same support from the boardroom as Van Gaal during his own tenure in the dugout.
This feud continued when Van Gaal became coach at Barcelona, with Cruyff often be overcritical of his compatriot’s coaching methods when talking to the press - something Van Gaal has yet to forgive him for to this day.
But it didn’t just stop at Van Gaal – Cruyff would continue to pick away at a string of Ajax coaches over the next decade, including Morten Olsen and Co Adriaanse.
The patern had finally looked like ending in 2008, when Marco van Basten, one of Cruyff’s disciples, signed to become coach after leaving the national team (a role the Dutch FA gave after persuading by Cruyff).
Shortly later it was announced Cruyff would be returning to the club as technical director in the wake of the departure of the previous board. Cruyff said shortly after “Nobody has ever – and I mean ever – said, ‘You fix it’.”
“They don’t dare ask. Because if I have to do it, I will fix it, but I’ll do it in a way many people won’t like. That’s why they keep me at arm’s length.”
However things turned sooner even sooner than was expected, when a month later Cruyff pulled out of the proposed return citing “professional difference of opinion” between him and Van Basten, who complained that Cruyff’s plans were “going too fast.”
And now, fast forward to 2011, when it seemed a brave new world would be ushered in, many are wondering if it’s yet more uncertain times.
When now he is expected to be a unifying force he’s already become the opposite. His admission that he wouldn’t assume an official role has left many fans questioning his inability to place himself in a position of responsibility for the club that he clearly loves.
Instead he’d rather stay on as an advisor to Wim Jonk, Dennis Bergkamp and Frank de Boer. His plan is for all three to get actively involved in training youth players, focusing more on their individual skills than on team play at the early stages of their development.
His plan will see Bergkamp become head of the youth academy (De Toekomst), Jonk head of scouting and De Boer remaining as first team coach. "It's clear what has to happen," he said after leaving the meeting last Wednesday. "We are ready."
His legacy of embracing the club’s philosophy and as a pioneer of the brand of football with which Ajax became synonymous means it’s hard for the club to say no to him – despite his disruptive past.
After all, the groundwork he laid at Barcelona didn’t leave the Catalan club on too bad a footing...
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