By David Hall
The recent World Cup may have left soccer fans feeling short-changed of classic games, but for seasoned Cruyff-watchers, it was fascinating. This article examines what Johan was up to in his widely-reported press statements, arguing that ultimately, he wants to manage the Dutch national team, but only on his own terms. What happened in the World Cup Final played straight into his hands, and we should not be surprised to find him installed as coach within the next eighteen months, with a reputation-restoring brief.
Cruyff (photo) is written about a lot, but usually in clichés. Of all the tired epithets applied to his name, ‘Dutch Master’ is surely the most exhausted. Yet, as Ruud Van Nistelroy once conceded, “it matters what he says”. Why? Because Cruyff is that rarity in any walk of life: the big-talker who can back it up. It isn’t just because of the medals he can put on the table from his years with Ajax and Barcelona; it is because he was a spaceman of a player, as well as a great coach.
Before the World Cup final, when the outcome was still in doubt, Cruyff’s widely-reported prediction was that “It is Spain’s game to lose”. To which he added: “but I will take intense joy if they win it.” Reaction to this last remark dwelt, rightly, on Cruyff’s time in Spain as a player and a manager, and on the influence there of the ‘total football’ which captivated the football world in the 1970s. Like anything highly successful, its authorship is disputed, but Cruyff can fairly claim to have been its leading exponent on the field.
For the ninety minutes of the 2010 final, Cruyff, like everyone else, was at the mercy of events. Granted, he anticipated their likely outcome, but had Arjen Robben converted the chance Sneijder offered him in the 62nd minute, it would have been hard to see past a 1-0 victory for Holland and the slamming of the Dutch manager’s door in Cruyff’s face. The style-results debate would have seemed academic, as Van Marwijk’s Holland would have succeeded in doing what more stylish predecessors had failed to do: win.
But they didn’t win. They lost, and they lost badly. They were dirty, cynical, petulant and self-deceiving (Howard Webb’s fault, Arjen? No: yours, for missing a sitter). It looked bad – to a global audience of seven hundred million – and it was bad. In the immediate aftermath, when the Dutch team and its manager were still reproaching the referee, Cruyff spoke again: “This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style, yes it served the Dutch to unsettle Spain. If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they ended up losing. They were playing anti-football.” Not “total football”, not even football, but its antithesis.
On the field, Cruyff was often described as a chess-player, thinking two or three moves ahead. It is a cliché, but life is often like a cliché. Here, we see him thinking beyond the post-match excuse-making and finger-pointing, to the time when Holland will prove capable of looking at itself to identify what went wrong. When it does, there is every chance that the pendulum that has swung so far away from ‘total football’ may swing back towards the strong desire for an updated version of it. Cruyff is currently the manager of the Catalonian national team, but he is a virtual deity in Catalonia; were he to break contract to accept the post as coach of the Dutch team, his worshippers would understand his decision.
Regarding Cruyff’s public statements both pre-and-post the World Cup Final, commentators are surely right to point out as a motivating factor his desire to draw attention to and consolidate his legacy as a player and a coach in Spain. Cruyff is inviting us to draw the correct conclusion that Spain’s victory was, to an extent, his. What commentators have missed is Cruyff’s sense of unfinished business, of ambition unachieved, of fulfillment through winning as a manager what should never have eluded him as a player.