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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 April 2019

Johan Cruyff's legacy still lives on in football and across Barcelona

Veterans match played every week in Sitges among the tributes paid to the Dutchman, while the Cruyff Foundation goes from strength to strength

Former Barcelona player Ronaldinho at the opening of a Cruyff Foundation court at Roquetas. Image courtesy of Cruyff Foundation
Former Barcelona player Ronaldinho at the opening of a Cruyff Foundation court at Roquetas. Image courtesy of Cruyff Foundation

Johan Cruyff died three years ago but his legacy remains strong, nowhere more than in Catalonia and his native Netherlands.

The style of football which Barcelona will play against Manchester United on Tuesday is still essentially that which Cruyff inculcated when he became their manager in 1988.

The Dutchman’s coaching philosophy has inspired many, from Sir Alex Ferguson to Josep Guardiola. Crucially, it was successful too. Barca won one La Liga title between 1974-1991, in 1985 under Terry Venables.

Cruyff’s Dream Team won four successive titles between 1991-94.

On the outskirts of Barcelona, the striking red 6,000 seater Estadi Johan Cruyff is nearing completion. It will stage games for Barca’s B team who flit between Spain’s second and third divisions, plus showcasing youth matches. Cruyff’s heart was always in youth development.

Cruyff shone as a player on the wing for Barcelona and Ajax and the home of the Dutch giants has been renamed the Johan Cruijff ArenA.

“My father had a big presence and I miss him and think about him a lot, but I always listened intently to him and I often think what he’d do in the same situation as me,” his son Jordi recently told this writer. “He once told me ‘when you have a doubt, always take the decision first of all as a person.’”

Jordi enjoys collecting football shirts that his father wore. He recently found one from Johan’s farewell game at Ajax.

“My father gave everything away, so I’m trying to get stuff back. I’ve lent a few pieces to Barca’s museum.”

In Sitges, the beachside town 30 kilometres south of Barcelona, friends of Cruyff still play football at 9am every single Saturday of the year.

Two teams of players wearing Cruyff’s number 14 shirts are made up of players from 20 to 75. They include members of Cruyff’s family. Cruyff came to Barcelona in 1973 and made his permanent family home there.

Johan’s last game on a football field took place in Sitges overlooking the Mediterranean on 14 November 2014 with this group and against members of that Barca dream team who he led to their first European Cup.

“He was like a second father to me,” explained Toni Lloria, 58, who proudly showed me pictures of Cruyff at his wedding.

“He played with us a lot, even when he was coach of Barca. None of us could get the ball off him and he scored some magnificent goals.”

Cruyff was born into a working class background in war-damaged Netherlands, something he never forgot.

“When people talk of the legacy of Johan Cruyff it’s usually the football legacy,” says Sander Waare, a Dutchman who has long lived in Catalonia and works for the Cruyff Foundation.

“That’s was a very big part of his life, but for the final years of his when he stopped being Barcelona’s trainer he focused on the Cruyff Foundation and the Cruyff Institute, an academic and social partnership. He felt that as an icon of the football world, he had a responsibility to return something to society.”

Cruyff’s idea came to him when he was in the United States as a player in the late 1970s.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, left, at one of the Cruyff Foundation events. Image courtesy of Cruyff Foundation
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, left, at one of the Cruyff Foundation events. Image courtesy of Cruyff Foundation

“He was living next to a boy with Down Syndrome and he noticed that the boy, Jon Jon, was not playing with the other children,” explains Waare.

“Johan started to practice with him in the garden – then he saw that Jon Jon would then play with the other kids. He saw power in sport in helping children integrate.”

Cruyff’s foundation, which celebrates its 25th anniversary next year, has offices in Barcelona and Amsterdam, helps 50,000 disabled children annually.

It also helps improve schoolyards so that they are more attractive for kids to play in, but the foundation is best known for their Cruyff courts.

These are 42 x 28 metres artificial grass courts, enclosed with fences so the ball bounces back from the fence. The orange goals are integrated into the pitch. The idea is to encourage free play, to be a neighbourhood facility used for football and other sports.

Cruyff learned his football on the streets of Amsterdam and wanted to protect that in a world where fewer children play on the streets either because they’re playing in more structured teams, spending more time doing other things like computer gaming or struggling to find the spaces in inner city areas because they’re gentrifying and sold off for property development.

Most of the courts are in working class areas and each has 14 rules displayed, including: to accomplish things, you have to do it together; dare to try something new; take good care of things as if it was your own; sports develops the body and soul; try to learn something new every day or involve others in your activities.

Over 250 have been installed in 20 countries, most of them in the Netherlands but also in Spain, Brazil, England, Argentina and Japan. Denis Law has opened one in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Xavi, Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta, Carlos Puyol all have courts in their hometowns. Real Betis’ captain Joaquin Sanchez has one in Andalusia.

All the players opened the courts in person. Close to Sitges, one of the most recent courts to be opened, by Ronaldinho, was in Roquetas, a working class area.

The money for the courts in Spain comes from Bara’s foundation and the La Caixa banking foundation. Each court is free to use.

The final contract which Cruyff signed in his life was to make sure that the work of his foundation, that can be found on @fundacioncruyff ) continues.

That was his final wish, that his social legacy would continue. With the help of Barca players past and present including Cruyff’s finest student Pep Guardiola, that’s exactly what is happening.

Updated: April 15, 2019 07:13 PM

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