‘My Turn’ by Johan Cruyff

Contrary to popular opinion, Johan Cruyff had two signature moves. His autobiography, written as he was dying from cancer and published in October 2016 by Macmillan, spends two sentences on one and 200 pages on the other.

In a 1974 World Cup group stage match, Cruyff controls a long ball out on the Dutch left wing – badly, which is ironic given how many times in the book he emphasises the importance of the first touch – and is faced up by Swedish defender Jan Olsson. With his back to goal and Olsson clinging to him closer than a horny puppy, Cruyff feints to play the ball backwards, infield, with his right foot. Rather than pass Cruyff continued the fluid movement by dragging the ball inside his own standing foot and pivoting 180 degrees towards goal. Olsson, whom Wikipedia describes as ‘the first victim of the Cruyff turn’, bought the dummy so completely and comprehensively that he did not realise that Cruyff had gone in the opposite direction until the second week of April, 1975.

With that, the Cruyff Turn was born. Being only three at the time of its conception your author learned of it from a library book whilst at school aged about 12, carrying it out at regular intervals for the rest of my career (never as spectacularly as one game during first break at school. Rather than a 180 degree movement, I swivelled–pirouetted–corkscrewed–through at least 720 degrees in a manner so completely that even my school trousers were unable to keep up with me, splitting the inside hem from knee to crotch. Luckily I had woodwork with Mr Clay straight after break when my apron covered my modesty).

That was the second of Cruyff’s signature moves. The first was demonstrated to the general public on 6th November 1966 when Cruyff became the first player to be sent off whilst playing for the Netherlands. In ‘My Turn’, Cruyff says that he was kicked whenever he received the ball without so much as a foul being awarded. When he remonstrated with the referee for not doing his job properly, the referee sent him off (media reports suggest that he slapped the referee but the book says nothing of that). Nevertheless, this incident demonstrates that Cruyff’s signature move is not the eponymous turn; rather, it is remonstrating with someone that he feels is not performing their job to the standard that Cruyff expects. The turn is mentioned in passing, once, but fall-outs with people not doing their job up to Cruyff’s high standards is really the central theme in the book.

As a player and manager, Cruyff and his teams were known for grace, fluidity and economy. Unfortunately his ghost writer, journalist Jaap de Groot, shares only the last of these traits. The prose is economical and direct to the point of being staccato.This does give the reader the impression of being very authentic and one can imagine that it sounds exactly the way that Cruyff talked, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into the best reading experience. There are some sections that sound little more than stream of consciousness rants or self-justifications and here the prose works against the reader in trying to decipher them.

The other main criticism I have – well, perhaps it’s less a criticism than a regret – is that so many of the anecdotes are about arguments and fall-outs. Very few of them are about football matches. An example: in the 1966 European Cup, the 19 year old Cruyff scored as Ajax thrashed Bill Shankly’s Liverpool 5-1 in Amsterdam (Shankly dismissed the result as ‘a freak’ saying they would win the return leg 7-0. The actual result was a 2-2 draw). Liverpool had reached the semi-finals of the European Cup and the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in the previous two seasons and were amongst the favourites to win the trophy. The 5-1 defeat remains Liverpool’s record defeat in Europe. But the match is used as an example of how the methods that Rinus Michels employed, that Cruyff so utterly believed in, were vindicated and represented such an improvement on what had gone before at Ajax. There’s nothing personal from Cruyff, no intimate recollection of the game as a teenager playing against players who had won the World Cup six months earlier.

It’s interesting how much time is spent discussing his roles as a coach or administrator. Clearly the young Cruyff was interested in all aspects of running a football club from top to bottom, and you learn a lot more about his philosophy for running a club than playing the game. In fact, in terms of tactical insights, there are surprisingly few and what is there is surprisingly basic. If you saw Mourinho’s first Chelsea team play, then you saw the epitome of the Cruyff blueprint – hardly surprising, given Mourinho’s CV. There’s an argument that Mourinho is perhaps a truer disciple of the Cruyff school than Pep Guardiola – there’s no mention of the false number 2 role than Pablo Zabaleta has been deployed in during recent Manchester City games.

The book is littered with fallings-out that caused Cruyff to move on. Ajax, as a player, twice and then as a technical director or administrator at least half a dozen times; Barca, as a player, as a manager, and even as honorary president; Los Angeles Aztecs in the nascent NASL; even as a pig farmer.

All of this might make you think that I didn’t enjoy the book, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I unwrapped it on Christmas Day morning, spent half of the day visiting relatives and still managed to finish it in time to start this review by 9:30 pm. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and whilst I was in the house, I almost literally did not put it down (the exception being when I went to fetch cheese and biscuits). I did not want to stop reading it and my one true complaint is that I wanted it to be longer.

There were a few revelations and anecdotes that made me smile. One was when Cruyff admitted he fell out with the Ajax board because he wanted them to sign Cyrille Regis from West Brom; they told him that they were exploring the possibility but he chose to sign a new contract at WBA and Ajax could no longer afford him. Another was the time, after leaving the US, that he almost signed for Leicester.

Then, whilst manager of Barcelona, they suffered a cup final defeat which Cruyff put down to ‘an accumulation of small errors’. That match was the 1994 European Cup Final when they were beaten 4-0 by AC Milan in one of the finest club performances of all time. No credit to the Rossoneri; the defeat was down to what Barca had done wrong in Cruyff’s eyes.

I think that a lot of what Cruyff says comes across as extremely egotistical, but that’s not fair. It is not ego, but a supreme confidence in hard work – his own and his team’s – being enough to achieve his goals. Eric Cantona once said that a victory in which he didn’t score was a hollow victory and there’s something very similar in Cruyff. A number of times he mentions the duty to entertain the spectators. To him, a victory without entertainment would be a hollow victory.

In the end, for me personally, it comes down to a question of legacy. How will we remember these great footballers? Maradona we may remember for cheating at a World Cup, unpaid taxes, fake goods and shooting at reporters. Pele, mens’ erection problems. Johan Cruyff has an entire branch of football philosophy, both on and off the field, in his name and that is an achievement that may never be matched.

A footnote

Whilst thinking about the book I was trying to think about whether England ever came close to producing a footballer that matched not only Cruyff’s skill but also his vision for how the game should be played. The answer of course is that we did, but only one, and in international football terms we treated him like a dog, criticising him for not making enough tackles or working hard enough instead of building a team around him for a decade. I refer of course to the one and only Glenn Hoddle.

In what way would you like to disagree with me?

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