If you’re a Toronto FC fan, chances are you’ve heard the name ‘Ajax’ bandied about quite a lot at BMO Field these days. And no, I’m not talking about the Durham region suburb east of Toronto, but the Dutch Eredivisie club where many football historians believe the famous tactical system commonly known as ‘Total Football’ was born under Rinus Michels in the early 1970s. Ajax and Holland’s famous footballing system has many disciples, including TFC manager Aron Winters, but there is perhaps no player, manager or technical director who more symbolizes the aesthetic of possession football than Dutch legend Johan Cruyff.
Cruyff’s influence spans decades. Unlike many former international stars who go on after retirement to either wear a suit and join FIFA or UEFA or enter a broadcast booth, Cruyff can’t seem to stay away from football, both as a manager and now as an advisor. And it’s not a negligible influence either; it wouldn’t be a stretch to attribute Spanish football’s meteoric rise in the last five years—the tiki-taka success of the national team in winning the World Cup and Euro 2008, and FC Barcelona—to Cruyff’s stint as manager at Barca beginning in the late 1980s and continuing to 1996, where he laid the foundations for technically adept, possession football.
The problem of course is that Cruyff has always been, well, Cruyff. In one of the great contradictions of football history, the man who came to symbolize the Dutch tactical system based on balanced interplay between players and positions was also the most independent-minded player of his generation. Cruyff famously wore only two stripes on his Holland kit in the 1974 World Cup instead of the Adidas three because he had a personal sponsorship deal with Puma, something quite novel at the time. He said losing the World Cup final to Germany meant nothing to him, and he refused to travel with Holland to Argentina for the 1978 World Cup under mysterious circumstances (apparently he was the subject of a failed kidnapping attempt).
His independent streak continued through his managerial and advisory career. Cruyff left Barca as manager under less-than pleasant circumstances in 1996, and despite his importance to the club’s present fortunes, club president Sandro Rossell stripped Cruyff of his honorary president title this past July. Cruyff was also touted in 2008 as a future technical director of the Ajax youth set-up, only to turn down the position after a conflict with then Ajax manager Marco van Basten.
And now, the entire Ajax board of directors has resigned in response to Cruyff’s calls for costly, wide-ranging changes in personnel at the club (he’s a technical advisor there). Said board chairman Uri Coronel in response to the weight of Cruyff’s influence in the boardroom (in what may be the quote of the week), “Johan Cruyff is not just anyone. He’s a demi-god here, or maybe a whole god.”
You can see why. Cruyff’ football philosophy was honed under Rinus Michels at Ajax, and it’s where he first managed after retiring as a player in 1985. He never really left the club despite his perpetual involvement at Barca, and growing tension over Ajax’s lack of recent success in both Europe and at home—they are title-less since 2004 in Holland and won the Champions League in 1995—led to Cruyff’s recent desire to wipe the slate clean. The ‘whole god’ of Dutch football is angry and demands sacrifice.
The problem is that while Cruyff may be a madman, his methods are in some sense justified by his legacy. His demands for change at Ajax, hiring on Dennis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk for example, are drastic, financially damaging, and certainly not guaranteed to bring success. But it’s hard to say no to a ‘god,’ certainly one whose footballing philosophy is in vogue now not only in Catalonia, but BMO Field. Easier for the board to resign and flee the scene, leaving Cruyff, who’s already been linked with a future presidential role at Ajax, to shoulder all the blame should his methods fail.