Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Football Men: Up Close with the Giants of the Modern Game by Simon Kuper (Simon & Schuster 2011)

When Cruijff returned to Ajax in 1981, the Dutch were sceptical. The Calvinist Holland of the time distrusted anyone who thought he was special. Cruijff had never been very popular in his own country, where he was known as ‘Nose’ or ‘the Money Wolf’. By now he was thirty-four, with a broken body. Surely he was just coming back for the money?

He made his Second Coming in an Ajax–Haarlem game. Early in the first half, he turned two defenders and lobbed the keeper, who was barely off his line. For the next three years, Dutch stadiums sold out wherever Cruijff played, as people flocked to see him one last time. He gave us 30-yard passes with the outside of his foot that put teammates in front of the keeper so unexpectedly that sometimes the TV cameras couldn’t keep up.

But what he did on the field was only the half of it. The older Cruijff was the most interesting speaker on football I have ever heard. ‘Until I was thirty I did everything on feeling,’ Cruijff said. ‘After thirty I began to understand why I did the things I did.’ In 1981 I was twelve, living in Holland, and for the rest of my teens I imbibed everything he said about football. It was as if you could read a lucid conversation with Einstein in the paper every day or two.

Cruijff said things you could use at any level of football: don’t give a square ball, because if it’s intercepted the opposition has immediately beaten two men, you and the player you were passing to. Don’t pass to a teammate’s feet, but a yard in front of him, so he has to run on to the ball, which ups the pace of the game. If you’re having a bad game, just do simple things. Trap the ball and pass it to your nearest teammate. Do this a few times, and the feeling that you’re doing things right will restore your confidence. His wisdoms directly or indirectly improved almost every player in Holland. ‘That’s logical’ – the phrase he used to clinch arguments – became a Dutch cliché.

Cruijff had opinions on everything. He advised the golfer Ian Woosnam on his swing. He said the traffic lights in Amsterdam were in the wrong places, which gave him the right to ignore them. His old teammate Willem van Hanegem recalls Cruijff teaching him how to insert coins into a soft-drinks machine. Van Hanegem had been wrestling with the machine until Cruijff told him to use ‘a short, dry throw’. Maddeningly, the method worked.

(from 'Johan Cruijff - May 2009')

1 comment:

Darren said...

The best article in the book by a country mile.