Johan Cruyff is regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all time, yet he was also incredibly successful in his post-playing career. In addition to his many honours and accolades, he contributed immensely to the tactical side of football, so much so that the modern game is heavily rooted in the ideas that Cruyff espoused. As such, the European patron saint of ‘beautiful football’ may well go down as football’s single-most influential figure.
Cruyff’s autobiography My Turn, finished shortly before his death at the age of 68, is a typically Cruyffian and frank account of his body of work. Like any man who has truly earned the right to own the soapbox, he writes without filter and without humility. His writing is often illuminating, prophetic, divisive, idealistic, and rooted in that wonderful arrogance that made him such an iconoclast. This is by no means a by-the-numbers autobiography—it is rather a manifest, a thesis defence, and a rallying cry. It is truly his turn.
“The good player is the player who touches the ball just once and knows where to run; that is what Dutch football is about. I have always said that football should be played beautifully, and in an attacking way. It must be a spectacle.”Cruyff on how football should be played (pg. 29)
My Turn also reads like a mournful eulogy. Cruyff wrote My Turn whilst battling lung cancer, and although there is one mention of this in his book, his health is a subject that he was always highly conscious of. He remarks upon his previous heart problems with a certain casualness, having realised at a young age that his health problems would eventuate. Cruyff’s quiet acceptance of this flows through his writing, and read posthumously My Turn is an incredibly personal recounting of a man who lived and died for football. Even his often-disengaged style is somewhat endearing and displays that brilliant single-mindedness endemic in genius.
Fervent adherents to Cruyff’s philosophy will undoubtedly gain a great insight into his thoughts on Total Football and his turbulent relationship with the Ajax board in his later years. His honesty ranges from brutal, particularly in reference to his failed personal relationships (“That’s happened to me often if my life—people I had a special bond with suddenly letting me down. Like with Michels, but also with Piet Keizer, Carles Rexach and later Marco van Basten…When I think about it, I’ve learned a lot from them all, but they’ve never been willing to learn from me. I think that’s a very telling difference.”); to the tragic, encapsulated by his reasons for refusing to be part of the Dutch national team for the 1978 World Cup and in his description of son Jordi’s injury-plagued career. My Turn is the work of an idealist with unshakeable principles who refuses to be caught up with the material and transient—he merely regards medals and honours as things to put in his “grandchildren’s toy box” and he writes that the past is “not something that I think too much about”.
“In the end, the time will surely come when the club [Ajax] realizes things need to change…At any rate, it’ll happen when the right people start being listened to. People who hold the club in their hearts and who know what Ajax represents. If that happens, our struggle will not have been in vain.”Lamenting the situation at Ajax (pg. 239)
However, his self-serving style of writing and what he chooses to focus on (and omit) will invite criticism and polarise readers. It may be a great loss to football history that he glosses over his magnificent playing career, and his dismissal of the greatest of the great losses—the 1974 World Cup Final loss—is infuriating in its blitheness (“That said, I got over it quickly enough. In fact it wasn’t much of a blow. Much more important was the vast amount of positivity and admiration for our play that our performances had generated all over the world.” (pg. 60)). He defends himself from the many criticisms levelled at him, including the standing-over of then-Ajax coach Leo Beenhakker and his insensitive remarks to Edgar Davids by claiming that what he did was for Ajax’s betterment. He writes his disdain for the ‘gutter press’, yet used his column to kickstart a war of attrition against the Ajax board. His frequent use of imperatives (“we must”, “we have to”) and arrogant language (“I’ve never been driven by rancour”; “I’m a very idealistic person who knows what he’s talking about”; “I looked in the mirror and came to the conclusion that I should be the model for this”) can make for some difficult reading.
Yet this is what made Cruyff essentially Cruyff—an unshakeable belief in his own ideology, and his determination to make the game ‘beautiful’ to watch, where winning is merely derived from spectacle. Therefore, My Turn cannot possibly encapsulate the depth of Cruyff’s ideology, and it reads much like an unpolished draft. As such, there are some grating contradictions. He writes “You can’t be a top sportsman unless you are intelligent” and later writes that “information is more important than intelligence”. He claimed to have an affinity with numbers and numerology, yet flexes that he doesn’t know how much money he has (“I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Not a clue. Let me know if there are any problems. I don’t live in that world. It’s not my thing.”) It all comes across as conceited, and to a fan who struggles to pay for a ticket to watch a game—let alone the beautiful game—such remarks are insulting and out of touch. Several chapters, especially his meandering descriptions about his battles with the Ajax powers-that-be, are heavily unedited and may have been an effort by the publisher to maintain Cruyff’s ‘voice’.
My Turn ends with a touch of lament. Cruyff bemoans the state of his beloved Ajax, writing that “It’s incredibly sad that, at the age of sixteen, I was there for the beginning of the ascendancy, and now, at nearly seventy, I have to witness the decline. No one wants to listen. Or rather, hardly anyone wants to listen. Everyone has his own agenda.” It would have been unlike Cruyff to question his own relevancy at any time, but to admit his sadness shows a man taking stock near the end of his life. Readers may even pick up some regret in his refusal to even acknowledge the ’74 World Cup loss as a failure in his footballing life, despite bemoaning the circumstances involving his self-exclusion from the ’78 World Cup tilt (that they may have won had he played) and his dejection in not being able to coach the Dutch national team in the 1990 World Cup (Michels “cocked it up”).
Perhaps the charm of My Turn lies in the obstinacy, the inconsistencies, and the unanswered questions. Cruyff set himself high standards, and expected the same of others. His autobiography is written in the same vein—he writes assuming that the reader already understands. In a way, My Turn is engaging in its combativeness and self-importance, for Cruyff certainly earned the right to be unashamedly forthright. However, My Turn is a tragic missed opportunity by Cruyff and his publisher to leave behind a final, unforgettable testimony of one of football’s greatest personalities. We, as football fans, are worse off for what has been omitted, ignored, or downplayed.
“The World Cup  turned us into cult figures around the globe. People warmed to our image of gritty bravura. Our strength lay in our honesty. We weren’t acting; that was really how we were. Dutchmen by birth, and definitely Amsterdammers by nature.”Remarks upon the 1974 World Cup (pg. 62)
UNDER 20: A disappointing and uneven autobiography by a bona fide footballing legend at the end of his wonderful life.
FULL-TIME SCORE: The undoubted star of the team dictates play, but his end product is unusually lacking in a bore 1-1 draw against a more pragmatic team.
RELATED READING: Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner (2000)