Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff – Frits Barend & Henk van Dorp

“You don’t have to understand. If I’d wanted you to understand I would have explained it better.” This well-known phrase of Cruyff’s, originally spoken in relation to contract negotiations to become Holland’s national coach before the 1994 World Cup, is often wheeled out to remind everyone how obstinate and single-minded Johan Cruyff was when it came to his principles. This phrase showed Cruyff—the visionary, the sublime tactician, and purveyor of beautiful football—at his indomitable best.

However, this phrase also reflects how intensely private Cruyff was of his personal affairs, and how unwilling he was to offer up a softer side of himself to journalists. Cruyff’s sad passing in 2016 ensured that little was left in the way of an autobiography (aside from the disappointing My Turn published posthumously in 2016), leaving the best accounts of his life’s work to the journalists who followed him closely. The best of these is undoubtedly Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff by Dutch journalists Frits Barend and Henk van Dorp. In this book, the many sides of Cruyff are laid bare in a series of fascinating interviews with the two journalists over a period of 25 years. The end result is not only a compelling, finely layered, and insightful character study, but also a ground-breaking piece of footballing long-form that straddled the line between traditional biography and cultured essay.

“I’ve been called a tactical genius. I’ve trained the first team, the C-team and also the youth teams. And practice has convinced me you don’t need a diploma for that. I only talk about technique and tactics. If Ajax has to train for physical condition, I just don’t join in. When I was young, I also hated running in the woods.” (pg. 35)

Cruyff speaking to ‘Vrij Nederland’ in March 1981 (pg. 35)

The interviews and articles follow Cruyff as player through his salad days at Ajax and Barcelona in the 1970s, and finishes with the end of his coaching stint at Barcelona in the mid-1990s. The content of specific interviews is wide-ranging, and rarely static. The dialogue between Barend, van Dorp, and Cruyff makes for stirring reading, and Cruyff’s Barcelona interviews (as coach) help to pin down many facets of Cruyff’s character. Gold dust lies between the footballing matters—Cruyff is often prompted on family life, religion and philosophy, and he mostly replies candidly. Elsewhere he shows his tempestuousness and exasperation, resulting in stand-offs between him and the journalists. Cruyff truly flows and rages like a river moving through rapids. His answers are often incomprehensible (even to the journalists) and evasive, but herein lies the humour and tension.

Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff is not a typical football biography. In format alone, it demands of the reader a basic knowledge of both Dutch footballing dominance in the 1970s and Cruyff’s footballing and coaching exploits. In the interests of providing context, the translators for this English edition (David Winner and Lex van Dam) include magazine and newspaper articles that did not feature in the Dutch edition. These additions are indispensable in painting a picture of Cruyff in the 1960s and 1970s. The very specific nature of the interviews especially caters to the football fan look wistfully at football in the 1980s and 1990s. As Barcelona coach, Cruyff waxes lyrical on the future of young Dutch tyros Aron Winter and Richard Witschge; he laments at the loss of Ronald Koeman and the laziness of Hristo Stoickhov; and he reflects upon his foreign contingent at Barcelona of Popescu, Kodro, Luis Figo, and Hagi post-Romario. The nostalgia trip is real.

“When you are 4-0 ahead with 10 minutes to go, it’s better to hit the post a couple of times so the crowd can go “oooh” and “aaaah” because if it’s 5-0 nil, it’s only for the score, it doesn’t affect the result.”

Cruyff on ‘Barend and Van Dorp’ in April 1997 on how football should be played beautifully (pg. 218)

Although Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff was first published in 1997, readers will appreciate this portrait of Cruyff more so than his recent autobiography My Turn. The transcripts in Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff show a dedicated family man (“I’m my daughter’s father”) who picks up the children from school; a philosopher who discusses social affairs and the existence of God; a man who sticks by his footballing principles even in the face of greater opportunity (“I could never work for AS Roma. They have a running track around their pitch. That’s the worst thing there is”); a maverick who never admits he is wrong (“If there was [a time I was wrong], I would never talk about it, never. I would put it away. That’s part of my character”); and a retired player-cum-coach who loves to get stuck in on the training pitch (“There are obviously a thousand and one problems a day here. My only distraction is the one and a half hours I’m on the pitch”). Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff is a warts and all depiction of Cruyff—it is far-removed from the self-serving and arrogant language of My Turn.

“Last Friday, Cruyff was given an ultimatum. ‘Why an ultimatum when we’re still in the middle of negotiations?’ Cruyff thought. How was he supposed to react to the combination of faxes from the KNVB lawyer Mr Utermark and from Staatsen, bearing in mind that it’s impossible to insult Cruyff more than by giving him an ultimatum. Cruyff might not be arrogant, but he happens to be the Sinatra of football trainers and it remains very Dutch to say that Cruyff shouldn’t think he is Cruyff. Think about it!”

On Cruyff’s contract negotiations with the KNVB, in ‘Nieuwe Revu’ in December 1993 (pg. 164)

The translation is seemingly faithful to the turn of phrase used by Cruyff and the interviewers. Some readers my find the translation jarring and inaccurate, yet knowing that Cruyff had a very distinctive speaking style (“Cruyff can be enigmatic and elliptical to the point of incomprehensibility”) it seems hardly fair to criticise the translation. As previously stated, the articles are very selective in time frame and context, and some may be disappointed that there is almost zero mention of his career in the United States to claw back his fortune following his disastrous decision to invest in a pig farming venture. This may be due to the journalists’ overt criticism of football in the US (“in the United States, where football or ‘soccer’, never was and never will be anything, Cruyff can walk the streets without being disturbed”). Where Cruyff describes his US experience as a defining time for his career and life in My Turn, Barend and van Dorp completely overlook this in Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff. Cruyff’s experience in the US deserves greater coverage, especially in long form. It is therefore a disappointing omission from an otherwise great book.

There will never be a character in the football world as enigmatic and forward-thinking as Johan Cruyff. Although much is written about his footballing ‘vision’, his tactics, and his immense contribution to the game that still resonates in the present day, there is less written about his life in sum—especially when Cruyff himself famously refused to dwell on his past. Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff is therefore an invaluable treasure for the footballing community. Despite its unorthodox style and it being twenty years since it was first published, this book is still the most objective and rounded impression of this football revolutionary and bona fide legend.


“We’ve listened to a lot of tapes of you. There’s a lot of verbal battles, because you always want to talk rubbish and then we say, Johan, be clear. And then you say: Let me talk, let me explain. As seen through out interviews, your life is one big war. You’ve been active for about 35 years in professional football, and for almost 35 years it’s been a war. Why is that?” Cruyff: “War? Arguments!”

Cruyff on his so-called ‘war’, on ‘Barend and Van Dorp’ in April 1997 (pg. 248)

STARS: 4.5/5

UNDER 20: A series of revealing articles and interviews with Johan Cruyff contribute to a stunning character study of the legend.

FULL-TIME SCORE: The indomitable coach adopts his trademark fluid, attacking display to great effect in a fully-fledged team performance resulting in a 4-0 win (with a last-minute shot against the bar to make the crowd go oooh and aaaah).

RELATED READING: Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner (2000); My Turn by Johan Cruyff (2016)

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My Turn – Johan Cruyff

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 [1974] 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)

STARS: 2.5/5

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)

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Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football – David Winner

The Dutch style of football, typically characterised by Ajax and Dutch national teams playing ‘Total Football’ in the 1960s and 1970s, is more complicated than the sum of its parts. Any book investigating the roots of the Dutch style needs an author who can tease out elements of history, society, culture, and politics that went into the making of the Dutch style. David Winner, in his masterpiece Brilliant Orange, succeeds in picking apart the Dutch style and analyses it with an expert and loving eye. So successful is his quest that Brilliant Orange can be read as a love letter to, eulogy to, or debriefing of the great enigma that was—and arguably still is—the Dutch style of football.

So, what is the Dutch style? Perhaps it can be popularly summed up through three elements: the tactics of ‘Total Football’; the late and great Johan Cruyff; and the 1974 World Cup Final. David Winner, however, takes a deep dive into the Dutch psyche and resurfaces with anecdotes from multiple spheres, sources, and spectrums to explain the Dutch brand of football. The Dutch style, Winner argues, is not just a product of Rinus Michels’ disciplinarian and manipulative tactics on and off the pitch. It is influenced by the progressive politics of the 60s, flexibility in architecture, the Dutch penchant for making open space from crawlspace, and collective trauma. By no means is this a definitive list—Brilliant Orange is far too storied to adequately describe it in bullet points.

“Barry Hulshoff explains the principle: ‘Total Football means that a player in attack can play in defence—only that he can do this, that is all. Everything starts simply. The defender must first think defensively, but he must also think offensively. For an attacker it is the other way around. Somewhere they meet.’”

Barry Hulshoff on ‘Total Football’ (pg. 26)

The usual malaises of the Dutch style are skilfully covered, including the heartbreaks of the 1974 and 1978 World Cup Finals, and continued underperformance and failure at national level. As well as drawing upon anecdotes from wide-ranging sources, Winner also interviews players, managers, journalists, psychologists, and artists to bring together a narrative. Every poke and prod he makes pushes out a further question. We read a thrilling interview with the enigma and former glamour boy Johnny Rep which reads like a tug-of-war between him and Winner. Where Rep is unforthcoming and cheekily evasive, Gerrie Muhren is serene, open and engaging. The pragmatic coach Leo Beenhakker talks about how he both “hates” and “loves” the Dutch style of the end-to-end excitement of attacking play. We learn about the man who played in Johan Cruyff’s shadow (and was possibly on par with him skill-wise), and how a captain’s ballot and swimming pool party helped bring down Camelot. Or, according to one source, how West Germany “murdered innocence.”

Although Winner and the reader may not be any close to an answer on why the Dutch style—perhaps the most stylistically revolutionary of all styles—fell to bits where it mattered, the poetry, as Jan Mulder implies, lies in the failure of the enterprise.

“But we are talking about the great team that lost because they lost. If they’d won, it would be less interesting, much less romantic. So we are in the same room as Puskas and the great Hungarians—we are together with the best team in the history of football. Second but imperial! Unforgettable seconds! Better seconds!”

Jan Mulder on being second (pg. 115)

Some of the, well, more brilliant parts of Brilliant Orange lie in the historical, societal, and artistic insights. Winner bookmarks these insights in the first- and final-thirds of the book. Everything in between is equally illuminating and a treat to read. The structure and chapters of Brilliant Orange can be seen as representative of the theory of total football, in fact—it is total in its scope and content, forever intertwined, and more than the sum of its parts. David Winner, in writing Brilliant Orange, is like an engineer devotedly describing each part of a finely-tuned engine. Such is the quality of writing, and such is the quality of product. And although Brilliant Orange was originally published in 2000, it retains a timelessness and whimsical yearning. The updated version also covers the infamous 2010 World Cup Final.

The best football books come from a longing from within, a need to explain oneself through the content. This comes out through well-known and touching autobiographies, most notably Paul McGrath’s Back from the Brink. However, the gold standard of football long-form also contains that ephemeral delight that can only come from an author’s hobbyhorse. Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is perfectly representative of this, and in turn shows what great football writing is. David Winner’s Brilliant Orange comes from the same streets, and is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest football books ever written. Brilliant Orange is a must-read for every football fan.


“When we lose, it’s always because of “brutal force”. We never think we lose because of the elegance or creativity of another team. No, it’s because they used brutal force, which is simply not relevant to us because we are playing a different, better, higher game, which the referee also happens not to understand. We won’t lower ourselves to your level, but if it makes you happy to destroy our elegance, then go ahead!”

Political scientist Paul Scheffer on elegance vs brutal force (pg. 203)

STARS: 5/5

UNDER 20: A mesmeric and thrilling investigation into one of the most glorious football movements and set of players in history.

FULL-TIME SCORE: A glorious 4-0 win that enchants with bold, attacking, and fearsome play. It is very rare to see a team play this cohesively, this magically, and this memorably.

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