24th March 2017 will mark exactly one year since football lost one of it’s greatest icons and innovators. Johan Cruyff had privately been battling lung cancer in the final months of his life, a fight his son Jordi said he wished to keep out of the public eye. This was a wish that was granted, with the Dutch hero’s death coming as a great shock to many when it was announced days later.
When he passed, his family acknowledged a need for him to be remembered in the public domain. Jordi stated as much, writing in the programme notes of a memorial service at Camp Nou, Barcelona;
“Johan belonged to everyone and was a source of inspiration to many. That is also how he should be remembered.”
Johan Cruyff died in March 2016 after a secret battle with lung cancer
What followed was an immense outpouring of social grief, remembrance and appreciation for a man whom, many feel, had a greater impact on the sport of football than any other individual in its’ history. I penned my own tribute around the time in a piece called Johan Cruyff – A Game Once Graced, Forever Changed.
But the chance to hear Cruyff’s own thoughts and feelings on his impact and legacy was one I couldn’t pass up, which lead to my devouring of his self-written autobiography, My Turn, first published in October 2016. It would give any followers of Cruyff a chance to cut through all the emotion, hyperbole and and sometimes self-serving expressions of grief that can follow an icon’s passing. In reading his own words, readers were afforded the opportunity to hear the various messages Cruyff tried to share with the world from the man himself, with no filter.
The bright orange cover of the book speaks very much to Cruyff’s character. Bold, bombastic and unmistakably Dutch. But it’s one of the many quotes to adorn the cover that excited me most when I took delivery of the hardback from the postman on the day of its’ release. A former player under Cruyff and, now, one of the most innovative managers of his generation, Pep Guardiola’s quote has the honour of being the only one to appear on the front of the book. “I knew nothing about football before knowing Cruyff,” he says in a statement that is as self-deprecating as it is unambiguous. Whether entirely true or slightly exaggerated, there’s no doubt Guardiola’s words prove a mouth-watering invitation for any football lover. The chance to hear Cruyff’s thoughts and opinions on how the beautiful game should be played was the main reason I bought the book. My perception of him as a totally novel thinker when it comes to how to play the game provides the foundation of my admiration for him and so, naturally, I couldn’t wait to read those very insights.
Cruyff was a tactical innovator and his autobiography only helped confirm that
If an appreciation for the workings of the mind of a football genius is what you’re after, you will not be disappointed. Much of My Turn serves as a gospel to the religion of Cruyff’s famed Total Football philosophy. From his time as a player with Ajax and Feyenoord through to his management of Ajax and the famous Dream Team at Barcelona in the early 1990s, Cruyff explains in detail the principles behind his ideal approach to football. At it’s heart, he explains that it is a simple concept. Players should know how to do the basics well all over the pitch. They should stick to a few elementary ideals, such as minimising the distance between team mates and maximising the distance of the ball from their own goal, to improve the chance of obtaining optimal results.
Nevertheless, even amongst the simplicity and logic, there are odd sprinkles of Cruyff genius. He takes great pride in turning footballing convention on it’s head to bamboozle opponents. One such example occurred during Cruyff’s time as a player at Barcelona. The management team were lamenting the ability of opposing Atletico Madrid striker José Eulogio Gárate to be able to create multiple chances for himself every time the Catalans faced him. With Barca sticking rigidly to a tactical plan to tightly man-mark the Spanish forward, how did he keep finding space to create goal-scoring opportunities?
Cruyff, however, saw how such a plan could be playing to Gárate’s strengths. The Spaniard was familiar with being marked tightly in every game and, therefore, used it to his advantage. He was able to lure his marker close before quickly shaking them off, providing himself the space to create chances to score. But when Cruyff suggested to stop man-marking Gárate, in a move that defied footballing convention, it proved successful. “Without an opponent he didn’t know what to do,” says Cruyff, “He had lost his bearings because the man marker turned out to be his reference point. We’d solved that by thinking differently.”
The principles of Total Football are explained in detail in ‘My Turn’ and were a vital part of Cruyff’s domestic and international careers
If Cruyff’s tactical acumen were in any doubt, consumption of My Turn erases those doubts. As a follower of Cruyff in the footballing sense, that element of the book satiated me immensely. What I didn’t expect was to gain as much satisfaction from reading about his non-footballing exploits. Cruyff is entirely unambiguous in voicing his opinions. Whether he’s discussing the direction of football in his native Holland or his sometimes strained relationships with mentor Rinus Michels and those in charge at both Ajax and FC Barcelona, Cruyff states his feelings in the same forthright and straightforward manner for which he had become known throughout his life.
Cruyff was as much of an innovator off the pitch as he was on it. Amongst his achievements was the work he did in developing a players’ union in Holland and, with the help of father-in-law Cor Coster, the first recognised pension scheme for professional footballers in the country’s history.
He describes great pride in helping create organisations such as the Cruyff Foundation and the Cruyff Institute, designed to help benefit the lives of disabled and disadvantaged young people throughout the world. It was an area Cruyff became involved in after being invited to work on an initiative as part of the Special Olympics during his time playing for the Washington Diplomats in the USA. The way in which Cruyff speaks with such passion about the projects, the need to push oneself to try new things and defy conventional thought, delivers a powerful message that can provide inspiration in any walk of life.
Cruyff used his immense profile to create organisations for the betterment of those less fortunate
I found myself nearing the end of the book with a feeling that was somewhere between immense grief and sheer elation. The grief, though partly due to the knowledge that Cruyff is no longer here to share his wisdom, was also due to the ending of a autobiography that had brought hours of entertainment. A book that provided messages applicable, I felt, to my own life. Messages about working hard, both as part of a team and individually for the betterment of society in general. Football can often be eulogised and given a social standing it sometimes doesn’t earn but in Cruyff, you find yourself utterly mesmerised by a man who speaks with authority on how sport truly can provide the foundations for a happy and healthy life overall. If you’re a football fan looking to improve your knowledge of the game or simply someone looking for inspiration in your life, My Turn is an absolutely unmissable read.
Cruyff’s closing remark embodies everything about his character. It’s contradictory in a sense, acknowledging his own confidence and awareness of his abilities, while appreciating he couldn’t achieve all he did without the help of others. There’s no better way to end this piece than to leave the last word to a man who will be as missed in 50 years as he remains today. Read it, smile and remember Johan Cruyff – the greatest football influencer who ever lived.
“I haven’t always been understood. As a footballer, as a coach and also for what I did after all that. But OK, Rembrandt and van Gogh weren’t understood either. That’s what you learn: people go on bothering you until you’re a genius.”