The Dutch club’s most famous son has come back, but will his famously huge ego get in the way of success?
Johan Cruyff’s name is synonymous with Ajax. After all, the Dutch club’s two most successful periods began with Cruyff at the centre - as a player between 1964 and 1973 and then as manager between 1985 and 1987.
After a 23-year hiatus, the Dutch genius has finally taken up a formal role at Ajax by joining the club’s new supervisory board. Cruyff will oversee the restructuring of the club’s famous youth system and he will be integral to any policymaking. The new board also includes former Ajax and Juventus pitbull, Edgar Davids.
The return of El Salvador, as Cruyff was nicknamed when he played for Barcelona, has got the fans excited, but it has also caused tensions. During the initial talks earlier this year, Cruyff employed a new agent, after which the tone of his long-running attacks on the Ajax board worsened. The situation reached a climax in March when the Ajax board resigned, furious at Cruyff’s confrontational and brusque manner when trying to push through his desired changes. These included sacking several youth coaches, including academy director Jan Olde Riekerink, and replacing them with former players, something that would have cost over a million pounds in compensation.
The outgoing chairman, Uri Coronel, claimed to have saved every rude voicemail message he had received from Cruyff and to have recorded the proceedings of all their meetings. But it was impossible for Coronel and the rest of the supervisory board to remain when it emerged that they had conducted a smear campaign against Dennis Bergkamp, the Ajax legend whom Cruyff envisioned as academy director. Stories insinuating that Bergkamp, a Cruyff protégé, was mentally unfit for the role had been leaked to the press.
Coronel and his fellow board members were predominantly from the business world. They hardly stood a chance in winning a PR war against Dutch football’s most famous legend. Yet last month, Coronel couldn’t resist one last dig at Cruyff: ‘I’ve not seen him here since March. But it’s perhaps wise that I have nothing to add.’ Cruyff was conspicuously absent at the announcement of the new supervisory board at the Special Shareholders General Meeting. Coronel also warned that ‘the club is greater than the individual’ - an obvious reference to the massive Cruyffian shadow that hangs over the philosophy of Holland’s most successful club.
Cruyff is no stranger to controversy. In David Winner’s fantastic portrait of Dutch football, Brilliant Orange, Johnny Rep reflects on Cruyff’s influence during Ajax’s most successful period (1966-73), when they won six league titles and three European Cups in just seven years. Rep, who broke into the team in 1972, reflected on Cruyff’s famously big ego, which saw him lose the captaincy in 1973 to Piet Keizer: ‘It was not easy, not all the time. He said you must do this in a game, or you must do that. It was not easy for me to shut my mouth. He was always saying: more to the right, or to the left, or the centre. Always! If he gave a bad ball, it was not his fault. And he is always right! He is the best and all the time he is right. That was the problem with him for me.’
It’s become a tradition in England to sneer at clubs that have taken on foreign investment, such as Manchester City and Chelsea. City have won the FA Cup since being taken over by Abu Dhabi in 2008, while Chelsea have picked up three titles and several other domestic cups since the Russian Roman Abramovich assumed control in 2003. With both owners pumping close to a billion pounds each into their respective sides, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger has dismissed such investment as ‘financial doping’.
It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that pumping cash into such clubs has a greater effect in the English Premier League, where the wealth distribution from television deals is more evenly spread than elsewhere in Europe. With the UEFA Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules starting to kick in, however, perhaps this financial doping won’t be as effective in the future. Although this does look unlikely given Manchester City’s attempts to circumvent the financial restrictions.
While major monetary investment is more likely to reap rewards in the Premier League (when attempted sensibly, that is – see Portsmouth, West Ham and others are examples of how it can go badly wrong), it seems that in Spain’s La Liga, it could be the only way to break the eternal duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona. The exception was Rafael Benitez’s fantastic Valencia side, which won the title in 2002 and 2004.
Now, however, it seems almost unthinkable for a side other than the aforementioned duo to win the Spanish title. A large part of the Real-Barca dominance is due to the fact that 49 per cent of the television money is split between the two. The other 18 sides have to divvy up the remaining 51 per cent among them. In the modern game, it would be foolish to think sporting dominance isn’t supported by financial strength.
That is why the goings on at Malaga are intriguing. Bought last summer by Qatari sheikh Abdullah Bin Nassar Al-Thani for €36million (a price including the club’s debt), Malaga are laying the early foundations for a sustained challenge to the dominant duo.
First, the UAE footballer Awana Diab, who scored with a back-heeled penalty against Lebanon, was threatened with punishment for his creativity. Then, Manchester City’s Italian wild-child Mario Balotelli was hauled off by his manager Roberto Mancini for attempting a back-heeled finish when one-on-one against the goalkeeper. Diab was also substituted soon after his apparent crime.
This begs the question: is footballing innovation in danger of being classed as disrespect? Diab’s penalty was taken when the UAE were ahead by several goals. If anything, serious questions should be asked of the goalkeeper, who failed to react to a pretty poorly executed backheel, which lacked any pace or power. In fact, Roma legend Francesco Totti, attempted a much better one, albeit in training.
As for Balotelli’s finish, it’s clear that he would be lauded if he had pulled it off. Failure to execute the trick properly is his only crime, in my opinion. The context in which this back-heel was attempted is important to consider before we decide to berate the Italian and label him ‘troubled’. There are suggestions that the young striker felt he was offside, hence the nonchalant, unorthodox finish. It happened in a pre-season friendly against LA Galaxy, where the optimization of fitness is the most important thing, the result is completely irrelevant.
Amateur psychologists among us could even argue that Mancini felt pressure to act strongly in a public sphere against any critics, much like Phil Brown’s infamous half-time team-talk at Hull. For, it was he who brought Balotelli from Inter Milan last summer. It was under his management when Balotelli accumulated more cards than goals last season.
So by hauling off the youngster, and bringing on James Milner, a player devoid of any flair but always a hard worker, Mancini moved dangerously close to becoming the Italian catenaccio-worshipping managerial stereotype, rather than the brilliant striker who used to scored goals with the very flair and innovation he punished his own player for exhibiting.
Cutting down the late Ayrton Senna’s achievements at the pinnacle of motor racing into a 90-minute film was never going to be easy. There were around 15,000 hours worth of archive footage of the legendary Brazilian driver to use. Kapadia notes in a recent interview that ‘it took us four years’ to find the right combination of footage to represent Senna’s 10-year career in Formula One.
The extensive footage of F1, a sport saturated with television coverage, spliced with home-movie images of Senna with his family, provides a touching portrayal of the various aspects of Senna: driver, national hero, winner, philanthropist, family man.
The film begins at the scene of one of Senna’s finest drives, for the unheralded Toleman team at the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix. This performance, in only his sixth Grand Prix, typified his general brilliance in rainy conditions; he was only denied victory because the race was stopped due to torrential rain.
Kapadia swiftly passes over Senna’s development as a youthful kart driver back in his native Brazil, along with his exploits in Formula Three. Instead, the central narrative of Kapadia’s work is the rivalry between Senna and the four-time F1 winner, Frenchman Alain Prost.
There are touching moments between the two, who were team-mates at McLaren for two years during the 1988 and 1989 seasons. An early exchange between the two would fall under that much-despised term ‘banter’, though there is an underlying competitive tension in their words. Prost asks his team-mate, ‘Is it possible to be equal?’ to which Senna replies ‘No’. Prost amusingly concludes: ‘Shit.’
Yet, after spending so much time creating this piece, there is bound to be a partisanship from Kapadia towards Senna, with the dramatic arc seeming to cast Prost, almost unfairly, as the villain to Senna’s heroic protagonist in a simplistic representation of both drivers. Furthermore, the accusation that Prost was in bed with Jean-Marie Balestre - the French president of FIA, Formula One’s governing body - is disappointingly repeated by Kapadia. Whatever the relationship between the two may have been, Senna’s disdain for the politics that have engulfed F1 is made clear.