Lots of smart and knowledgeable people have chimed in on Johan Cruyff, the Dutch soccer legend who recently passed away. Yet, as pointed out by Brian Phillips on Twitter, nobody has noted or observed or come to grips with the fact he was an asshole. Like all geniuses, Cruyff was difficult to work with as a player, a coach, and even an executive. He had ideas, the ideas were black and white, and you were with Cruyff or against him. When I saw Cruyff was an asshole, it is a compliment. Lots of people are assholes and forgotten, but to truly be an asshole and beloved is arguably the pinnacle of humanity.
Everybody loved Cruyff except the people who he detested and criticized constantly, and even they left flowers at his homage at the Camp Nou.
From an anecdotal standpoint, writing and researching Johan Cruyff the player and coach for my eBook was a goldmine. Sadly, he passed away from lung cancer in his sixties, but decades earlier he kicked his smoking habit, started to suck on lollipops as a coach during games, and filmed a pretty cool anti-smoking commercial. Most anti-smoking campaigns are lame – a nurse tells you it will kill you, a washed up celebrity says it’s “not cool,” or a policeman you don’t trust and a cute yet professionally trained dog comes to an assembly at your school but nobody pays attention. Cruyff kicking a pack of cigarettes was cool before all these young kids starting juggling chewed gum which is grosser than cool.
Cruyff’s assholery, of course, came down to set ideas. Yet with clear ideas come compromise. Brazilian star striker Romario once begged to be allowed to attend Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. Cruyff the coach realized this “cultural event” was important to his playboy all-star striker, yet needed Romario for a La Liga game. He made a funny pact: once Romario had scored two goals, he could go to Rio. As a coach, you say these things half-assed and in jest to show you care about a player. But when Romario scored two goals in under twenty minutes, Cruyff subbed him off so he could catch a flight. Assholes can be the nicest people.
One of the puzzles of Cruyff’s playing career was why he chose not to attend the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. Holland just may have won the thing. Fans speculated – some said he protested the dictatorship, others said he had objections to some vague national team thing or another, and lastly many said his wife was to blame. Allegedly after the 1974 tournament, she read in tabloids about Dutch players being in a pool with models and gave Cruyff hell.
In my eBook, I tried to avoid these gray areas and stick to facts. But this very idea that a professional player can make a decision inclusive of his wife, cede to her desires, and that’s bad – is pretty sexist bullshit. Why would Ms. Cruyff be the “needy and demanding wife?” Pretty sure wives of pro footballers know that some of the dudes are man-skanks; you just gotta trust yours isn’t. The publisher of Carles Rexach’s book – and Mr. Rexach – should be ashamed. Cruyff cleared the air in a 2008 interview – his family were victims of a kidnapping attempt and this made him appreciate family and the big picture more. Case closed (probably).
So Cruyff could be kind to his players if they performed well and valued his family relations over football. What asshole, you say? Well, let’s do a Google Search in Spanish for “Cruyff critica…”
When you click “enter”, the fun starts. Pages and pages of results appear. My favorite aspect, though, is that Holland reached the finals of the 2010 World Cup and the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup. Most countries would cherish those results and recall those tournaments fondly. Cruyff? He thrashed both coaches and teams savagely – the 2010 edition played a slanted 4-4-2 with two holding midfielders, one too many for Cruyff. The 2014 team played a very defensive and counterattacking 3-5-2 that relied on an old Dirk Kuyt and not-fast Daley Blend (who is now a centerback) for creativity. Was Cruyff an asshole? Or was he right?
Both. During his playing days in Barcelona, Cruyff named a son “Jordi”, a Catalan name that was banned in Spain by the Franco regime. He did this to basically say “fuck you” every time he flew out and back into the country. He played the role of the heroic migrant, protected by wealth and status and international diplomacy but staring down a brutal dictator the only way he could.
As a player, I love Cruyff because he yelled at his teammates to run off the ball so that he could walk. When he played on the wing, he stood stuck to the sidelines and grew petulant and irate when his teammates didn’t find him often enough with accurate passes. We’ve seen lots of other players try to do both those things and their careers normally end quickly. When you lack talent and do those things, you are a lazy scallywag who ruins the atmosphere in the locker room. When you are Johan Cruyff, you are “the team’s conductor.”
You are an asshole, but you are right. And you will be missed. Descanse en Paz.