Back at Ajax: the Cruyff re-turn
The Dutch club’s most famous son has come back, but will his famously huge ego get in the way of success?
Johan Cruyff’s name is synonymous with Ajax. After all, the Dutch club’s two most successful periods began with Cruyff at the centre – as a player between 1964 and 1973 and then as manager between 1985 and 1987.
After a 23-year hiatus, the Dutch genius has finally taken up a formal role at Ajax by joining the club’s new supervisory board. Cruyff will oversee the restructuring of the club’s famous youth system and he will be integral to any policymaking. The new board also includes former Ajax and Juventus pitbull, Edgar Davids.
The return of El Salvador, as Cruyff was nicknamed when he played for Barcelona, has got the fans excited, but it has also caused tensions. During the initial talks earlier this year, Cruyff employed a new agent, after which the tone of his long-running attacks on the Ajax board worsened. The situation reached a climax in March when the Ajax board resigned, furious at Cruyff’s confrontational and brusque manner when trying to push through his desired changes. These included sacking several youth coaches, including academy director Jan Olde Riekerink, and replacing them with former players, something that would have cost over a million pounds in compensation.
The outgoing chairman, Uri Coronel, claimed to have saved every rude voicemail message he had received from Cruyff and to have recorded the proceedings of all their meetings. But it was impossible for Coronel and the rest of the supervisory board to remain when it emerged that they had conducted a smear campaign against Dennis Bergkamp, the Ajax legend whom Cruyff envisioned as academy director. Stories insinuating that Bergkamp, a Cruyff protégé, was mentally unfit for the role had been leaked to the press.
Coronel and his fellow board members were predominantly from the business world. They hardly stood a chance in winning a PR war against Dutch football’s most famous legend. Yet last month, Coronel couldn’t resist one last dig at Cruyff: ‘I’ve not seen him here since March. But it’s perhaps wise that I have nothing to add.’ Cruyff was conspicuously absent at the announcement of the new supervisory board at the Special Shareholders General Meeting. Coronel also warned that ‘the club is greater than the individual’ – an obvious reference to the massive Cruyffian shadow that hangs over the philosophy of Holland’s most successful club.
Cruyff is no stranger to controversy. In David Winner’s fantastic portrait of Dutch football, Brilliant Orange, Johnny Rep reflects on Cruyff’s influence during Ajax’s most successful period (1966-73), when they won six league titles and three European Cups in just seven years. Rep, who broke into the team in 1972, reflected on Cruyff’s famously big ego, which saw him lose the captaincy in 1973 to Piet Keizer: ‘It was not easy, not all the time. He said you must do this in a game, or you must do that. It was not easy for me to shut my mouth. He was always saying: more to the right, or to the left, or the centre. Always! If he gave a bad ball, it was not his fault. And he is always right! He is the best and all the time he is right. That was the problem with him for me.’
When Cruyff lost the captaincy it was the beginning of the end of Ajax’s golden era. The star player moved immediately to Barcelona, and eventually other key players departed, too. Ajax entered a dark period that lasted until 1980, when Cruyff returned after an eight-year spell in Spain and the USA. In November that year, when Ajax were 11 points behind runaway leaders AZ Alkmaar, coach Leo Beenhakker was informed by chairman Ton Harmsen that he could now rely on the returning Cruyff for technical advice.
Cruyff’s input, much like his coup d’état this summer, was implemented in a bold and even disrespectful manner. During Ajax’s next home game at De Meer stadium against Twente, the opposition were 3-1 up after half an hour. Cruyff left his seat in the stands and made his way to the dugout, where he began directing the game, moving certain players into different positions. The full-time score was 5-3 to Ajax.
But Cruyff needed money. He wasn’t being paid for providing technical advice at Ajax. He decided to return to playing, having lost everything (some $2.4million) in 1979, when persuaded by a dodgy business partner to invest in a ruinous pig-breeding venture in Spain. After an unsuccessful spell at Levante in Spain, aged 34, he returned to Ajax in the summer of 1981. The old maestro led Ajax to the title, before helping them to a league and cup double the following season (during which the famous short-pass penalty was also revived).
But the Ajax board members were unconvinced of Cruyff’s ability to pull the crowds, and they were unhappy with his cut of the gate receipts. In a ruthless reaction, a betrayed Cruyff joined Ajax’s arch-rivals Feyenoord. Despite a humiliating 8-2 loss against Ajax, where a young Marco Van Basten ran riot, Feyenoord won the league in Cruyff’s final season as a player.
Cruyff returned as Ajax manager between 1985 and 1987, winning two Dutch Cups and the 1987 European Cup Winners’ Cup. He left in acrimony once again, this time to Barcelona, after star striker Marco Van Basten was sold to AC Milan against his wishes. When Louis Van Gaal restored Ajax among the European elite in the 1990s, he was the target of harsh, unfounded criticism from Cruyff. It is thought Cruyff was jealous of the level of support Van Gaal received from the board, something he never felt he received.
Succeeding coaches have also felt the wrath of Cruyff’s tongue, from Morten Olsen to Jacobus ‘Co’ Adriaanse. It is surprising that Cruyff did not decide to take on a formal role sooner rather than using his media cronies (Jaap de Groot from De Telegraaf, Voetbal International magazine’s Johan Derksen and Frits Barend of RTL) to criticise the club he loves. But after suffering a heart attack and undergoing serious surgery in 1991 (and consequently replacing cigarettes with lollipops), Cruyff’s wife Danny was reluctant to allow him to take on a formal role with Ajax.
Despite the board struggles and politicking upstairs, on the pitch Ajax won the league last season, under Cruyff disciple Frank De Boer, for the first time since 2004. The former Rangers defender is also a staunch advocate of the 4-3-3 system, pressing the opposition high up the pitch, using wide wingers, and constant movement with and without the ball.
Cruyff’s vision sees a throwback to the academy system at Ajax 20 years ago, very much in the mould once set by totaalvoetbal pioneer Rinus Michels in terms of long-term team building and an emphasis on coaching individual technique. Cruyff will look at the current Barcelona side as the prototype, so that when a first-team player departs, he can, in theory, be replaced by a younger, better player with, theoretically at least, the only deficit being the loss of experience.
To counter the threat of the financial power of the bigger foreign leagues, Cruyff has sought to bring back several Ajax old boys (Bergkamp, Davids, Frank De Boer, Jaap Stam etc), who are steeped in the tradition of the club. The line of thought behind this move is that youngsters will be less likely to want to move if they can learn all the tricks of the trade from their idols.
After a tumultuous year, it seems Cruyff has finally gotten his way. Ajax have signed promising Icelandic striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Dutch international Theo Janssen from rivals FC Twente. Goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg is the only major departure, but most of the players that De Boer wants have stayed. The side lost 2-1 in the opening game of the Dutch season – the Johan Cruyff Shield – against FC Twente, but the season ahead looks promising.
In 2008 Cruyff attempted to return to Ajax as technical director, with former player Marco Van Basten as manager, but the pace at which he wanted changes implemented seemed too fast for Van Basten. Cruyff left soon after. Ajax fans will be hoping history doesn’t repeat itself.