Simon Kuper pays a 50th birthday tribute to Dutch legend Johan Cruyff

This month the Dutch celebrate two birthdays. 30th April, the day that Juliana, the Queen Mother, Iights her candles is traditionally the main national holiday, with market stalls, beer and orange flags.

But the big day this year is 25th April, when the most remarkable living Dutchman turns 50. Almost every newspaper and magazine in the country is publishing a special ‘Johan Cruyff Supplement’, and The Maestro himself has been invited to hundreds of parties.

The celebrations will cover up a few national feelings of guilt. For the last 35 years Cruyff has been known to his fellow countrymen chiefly as The Money Wolf, The Little One, and Nose. Now, as he moves into semi-retirement after 35 years as a workaholic, it is dawning on the Dutch that he was not merely a great footballer but a pretty interesting character too.

They recall, for instance, his penalty on Saint Nicholas Day 1982 against Helmond Sport. You might think that there is only one way of taking a penalty: you run up to the ball and try to kick it past the goalkeeper. Not so. Against Helmond Sport, Cruyff ran up as usual but then, instead of shooting, passed the ball forward and to his left, where it was picked up by Jesper Olsen, running into the box. As the Helmond team and keeper watched transfixed, Olsen passed the ball back into the middle of the penalty area for Cruyff to tap it into the empty net.

Cruyff never stopped thinking. He could do everything, but he also did everything in a new way. As manager of Ajax, he hired an opera singer named Lo Bello to teach his players how to breathe. On the coach to away games, Cruyff would lecture them on the right way to play cards. He explained to them that the traffic lights in Amsterdam were in the wrong places, and that he, Cruyff, therefore had the right to drive through them. He invented total football. Interviews with him were fascinating. When you hear Ruud Gullit talking about football on the BBC, he is mostly reciting things he learned from Cruyff years ago.

All this turned Cruyff into the classic prophet without honour. “The worst thing,” he said, “is that you always knew everything better. It meant that you were always talking, always correcting.’’ (Unlike most great footballers, who talk about themselves in the third person, Cruyff uses the second person.)

Willem van Hanegem, another great Dutch player of the 1970s, describes Cruyff teaching him how to insert coins into a soft drink machine. Van Hanegem, who had spent minutes wrestling with the machine, was told to use “a short, dry throw” – and of course, the method worked. This, said Van Hanegem, was incredibly irritating.

Many of the rows Cruyff got into were his own fault. He believes that conflicts motivate people because they give everyone something to prove, and he can never admit that he is wrong. He still denies that he ruined Marco van Basten’s career and doomed him to a lifelong limp by making him play with a severe ankle injury. Cruyff has complex theories on medicine, and the surgeon who gave him a triple bypass had to debate the operation with his patient beforehand.

“You must die with your own ideas,” said Cruyff, and as a manager he sometimes suffered for his dogmatism. At Barcelona, he fielded a goalkeeper named Busquets who was manifestly not up to the job. When the press wrote that playing Busquets had been a mistake, Cruyff’s pride was fired and he insisted on keeping the poor man in the team for the rest of the season. He played his son Jordi too much, too, but that was because Cruyff is only human and a family man. Still shaken by his father’s death when he was only 12 years old, he obeys his wife Danny in every regard. And Danny, who is terrified that he will die young, now wants him to retire. Cruyff appears to agree.

It was clear in his last couple of years at Barcelona that he was losing his touch. “The tooth of time has done its work,” he admitted. Throughout his career he appeared quite nerveless, sometimes forgetting whether his team was winning or not. But the years of chainsmoking and forcing his body through pain barriers have ruined his health. He ran out of ideas and when Barcelona sacked him he discovered for the first time that not working can be fun, particularly if you are a multimillionaire with three lovely children.

This is a shame for English clubs, because Cruyff regrets never having managed a club here. An Anglophile, he comes from the generation of Dutchmen to whom England meant the BBC radio under the blankets during the war, Tommies with cigarettes, and the best football team in the world. Cruyff has spoken perfect English since his early teens, when the Ajax managers Keith Spurgeon and Vic Buckingham used to fatten him up with warm English lunches. On his first ever holiday, when he was 18, he and Michael van Praag, the present Ajax chairman, drove around England and stayed in Norwich with a boy Cruyff had met during a youth tournament.

Cruyff was tempted by last summer’s offer to manage Arsenal, and left to his own devices he would even consider Everton. But Danny wants them to stay in Barcelona, and Cruyff himself loves the city. He races around it on his motorbike, and entertains himself by fighting a vendetta against the Barca chairman, Josep Lluís Núñez. With Bobby Robson having got little further in Spanish than “mucho”, “muy” and “no”, and revealing little insight about soccer even when speaking English, the fans and the local press are pining for Cruyff.

It is hard to see him coming back, though. For the first time in his life he is looking rosy-cheeked and healthy, and with nothing left to prove, he has become charming. He commentates on television, using words that he often makes up himself, and spinning theories even when the microphone has been turned off. (Cruyff has never quite grasped how television works.)

“Cruyff sometimes talks nonsense,” wrote his fantastic biographer Nico Scheepmaker, “but it is always interesting nonsense.” Cruyff was a Shakespearean character, the Einstein of football, and a man who could hit 50-yard passes with the outside of his left foot. (He could place a teammate in front of goal so unexpectedly that the TV cameras sometimes failed to keep up.) The Dutch are already starting to miss him. Without Cruyff, Holland would have had no footballing tradition, and without a footballing tradition, not all that many people in the world would have heard of Holland.

From WSC 123 May 1997. What was happening this month

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