Interview: Johan Cruyff

IT WAS 30 years ago yesterday that Johan Cruyff played his last match in the European Cup, the three-times winner and four-times finalist bringing the curtain down on one of the great odysseys of the game in Amsterdam against, of all teams, Celtic. Not that the man himself knows, of course.

Frankly, he hasn’t a clue. “My last game in the European Cup?” he ponders. “Was that the one? Against Celtic? But I played for Feyenoord the next season. Oh, but we didn’t qualify. Celtic was the last one? I didn’t know it.”

You try to jog his memory. First round, first leg – Celtic 2 Ajax 2, Charlie Nicholas and Frank McGarvey the home team’s scorers, Jesper Olsen and Soren Lerby for the visitors. “Er, yes,” he says. David Moyes played for Celtic that night. “David Moyes? Really!” First round, second leg – it’s Ajax 1 Celtic 1 after 88 minutes and Cruyff’s team is on its way into round two. He’s substituted. A minute later George McCluskey scores the winner and Ajax are out. “Now I remember. Yes, a late goal. I was an old man at the stage, in my second spell at Ajax. I’d been to Barcelona and to America and I was what, 35 years old, something like that? Glasgow Celtic, a great team. Glasgow Rangers, too. I played them years earlier.”

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He did and he was in his prime. It was January 1973, the winners of the European Cup playing against the winners of the Cup Winners’ Cup for something called the Super Cup. Only it wasn’t the Super Cup because UEFA wouldn’t sanction it on account of Rangers’ ban from Europe. So it became a Rangers centenary match and Ajax won it 6-3 on aggregate, an Ajax of Cruyff and Krol and Haan and Rep and Muhren and Suurbier, an Ajax that had been champions of Europe for the two previous years and would be champions again for a third time only a few months later.

“And now I have a question for you,” says Cruyff. “What has happened to Rangers?” We are talking in advance of this week’s Alfred Dunhill Links championship at St Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns, an event that Cruyff is playing in once more. What is happening at Rangers? You tell him that to hear the full story he would need to cancel the golf and spend the week in a darkened room instead of on the links.

“I have read things. I can’t say I know the full story but the news travelled around the world, for sure. I spend time in Mexico [he is a consultant with the club Chivas de Guadalajara] and the news was in Mexico. This is so, so sad. People for their whole lives support this club and then some sort of idiot, whoever it is, ruins the whole thing. They had great financial problems and they’re out of the top league. I know there is more to it, but it’s incredible. Who was in charge? Not sports people, for sure. Not football people. It was business people.

“This is the great crisis in football now. It’s not just Rangers, it’s a lot of clubs. Big clubs always create more debt despite the huge income they have. It’s almost an achievement, isn’t it? They make so much money and yet still their debts rise and rise and rise. How does that happen? It’s absurd. Totally absurd. You hurt a lot of people. You see it at Rangers. One year ago they were up there battling to win things. A few years before they were in a European final. Great supporters defending their club, but what is there to defend? There’s nothing left. So sad.

“The mistakes made by the people who were in charge of Rangers are mistakes repeated all over football. We had the same thing with Ajax. We had to clean up the whole thing and start all over again. Ajax was spending too much money, they were buying players that were too expensive. If you get 100 per cent you can’t spend 120 per cent. It’s quite easy. It hurt me, but not just me. Like Rangers, many, many people were hurt by what happened at Ajax. We are now together with Dennis Bergkamp, Wim Jonk, Marc Overmars and myself and other former sports people that are all good at something. We all have strengths and where we are weak we bring in expertise. But at its heart, the football club is run and understood by football people who won’t let anything bad happen to it again.”

Cruyff may not be in the frontline of the game any more, but he is never far away. He is an adviser at Chivas, he keeps his hand in at Ajax, he has a presence at Barcelona, the place he revolutionised, the club whose ethos he created in his remarkable years at Camp Nou as player and manager and icon for all times. He runs his Foundation, an organisation dedicated to helping children with disabilities better themselves through sport. He’s talking about this with a passion that is impossible to miss.

“We promote disabled sport and through sport we help these kids get more independence in their own lives. I was at the Paralympics as a guest of Sebastian Coe. It was amazing. Watching these athletes gives you so much energy. It looks like you help them but basically they help you because, if you have a headache, you say ‘I can’t do it today I’ve got a headache’, but they... they never stop. For me, the most impressive thing was the swimming. What we saw there, unbelievable, unbelievable. The most inspirational sport you will ever see.”

And he’s known inspiration in his time. He’s provided a chunk of it himself for posterity. If there is one man who knows about greatness, it is Cruyff. And that brings us to Barcelona and Lionel Messi, the player who makes him smile more than any other. “I look at Messi and he makes me laugh. A beautiful footballer who is still like a kid. A world superstar, but still a kid. Innocent, you know. He just plays.”

Of course, Barcelona will face Celtic in the Champions League next month, an impossible job at Camp Nou many would say. “Barcelona are much better than Celtic, but the great achievement of the best sports people is that they believe that on their day they can beat anybody and, if Celtic believe that, then you never know. If they’re organised and their players are OK with the occasion, it’s possible. I just think it’s sad to see the champions of Scotland having to play two rounds to get into the Champions League.”

Cruyff talks about last season’s tournament and the triumph of defence over attack, the victory of Chelsea over Barcelona, in particular. “It’s good that the Chelsea system of last season is part of football but then there are too many people who like to copy the wrong things and the wrong thing is defending over attacking. To create is the most beautiful thing in the game. It’s artistic and so, yes, it’s good that Chelsea won but hopefully nobody will ever copy them because I wouldn’t like to see that style of football.”

On the face of it, Barcelona haven’t skipped a beat since Pep Guardiola moved on and Tito Vilanova moved up. They’re top of La Liga with an eight-point advantage over Real Madrid. Cruyff isn’t so sure, though. He’s reluctant to go into detail but, apparently, he’s not sold on some of the elements of Vilanova’s regime. He says: “Pep has left now and he was wonderful. A lot of the things in the youth system in Barcelona are changing and I don’t think for the best. It always takes a few years before things come out. Why not for the best? There’s a few things in the knowledge of the game, in the knowledge of the physical preparation that have changed that I’m not so sure about. You have to be innovative all the time.

“When he was there, Pep was innovative, he was great. Very intelligent. But they are ahead of Real Madrid, so that’s good. Real Madrid haven’t started so well. It happens all the time, it happens everywhere. People need to play with their heart, people have to want to be there and be part of something and money is a nice thing but it’s not everything. Everybody could use the money but you don’t play for it, you play with your heart and that’s a big difference you see in Barcelona. Everybody wants to play there, everybody wants to enjoy themselves. It’s maybe a small percentage but maybe it’s the difference.”

A criticism of Real, then? Sparked, perhaps, by Cristiano Ronaldo’s “sadness”? “He’s sad. I don’t know the reason. Is something in his life that people should have seen? Is it a personal matter or is it a question of money. I mean, if it’s a question of money, it’s not sadness.”

Cruyff touches down in Scotland any day now. For a week, golf will consume him. For once, he’s not in control. “One day good, one day awful,” he says about his game. And then he laughs. “I used to know what to do with a ball once,” he says.