Johan Cruyff was the maverick who never stuck to the script
'It's OK," Johan Cruyff said, patting me reassuringly on the arm. We sat on a small couch at the old Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam in September 2014. "I don't do many of these long ones any more," Cruyff murmured after I had offered a small apology for making him endure yet another interview. The 67-year-old was in his home town for the day, having flown in from Barcelona. He shrugged nonchalantly. "We will do this one properly. I can see you have lots of questions."
Cruyff pointed at my stained sheet of paper, over which I had spilt a cup of coffee a few hours earlier, and looked quizzically at my spidery scrawl. I had written down 42 questions. "42?" Cruyff said. "You know I have a flight to catch back to Barcelona tonight?"
I knew he was joking and so I turned over the page to reveal another six questions on the back. "Oh . . . so now it's 48?" Cruyff said, grinning. "Let's see if we have enough time for the first page."
Of course neither of us knew then that in 18 months Cruyff would be dead. When I heard the news on Thursday I dug out our interview. I liked hearing the way in which, after our comic start, Cruyff ignored convention. As the interviewee, he began by asking me a question. Had I enjoyed the day?
I had spent the morning following Cruyff around the faded arena as he played a series of games of mini-tennis or volleyball, basketball or five-a-side football, with hundreds of disabled children who benefited from his foundation. Normally the idea of "shadowing" a former sportsman would hold little appeal. But a chance to spend time with Cruyff, a mesmeric footballer and the most influential thinker in the modern game as a coach for Ajax and, especially, Barcelona was different.
There were times when he seemed bored or weary, particularly when he was being cuddled by a grown man dressed up as a 'Cruyffie' mascot. Moving from one game to the next he would be surrounded by children or their beaming parents wanting to shake his hand or have their photograph taken alongside him. But Cruyff remained in good humour even when he netted a backhand in a gentle game of tennis. He stared at his racquet in disbelief - as if he could not understand why it seemed so clumsy in his hand compared with the way a ball felt at his feet.
So I could answer positively and say that, yes, I had enjoyed myself. Cruyff nodded and then spoke for five unstoppable minutes about the lessons we could all learn from disabled children. "It's beautiful and the crazy thing is that I am trying to help them but they are helping me. The president of the Paralympics once told me the difference between able-bodied and disabled people. He said: 'Disabled people don't think about what they don't have. They just think about what they do have.' If only we could all learn to think like this. They always surprise me. If you see what they can do and how they can develop as a person, you learn so many things."
Needing to start with my list of questions, I forced my way into his monologue, like a lumbering defender hacking down the balletic Cruyff in full flight. Cruyff understood that part of my task was to steer him in the direction of addressing the position of Louis van Gaal, his old enemy who had been working as Manchester United's manager for only a few months. He was reluctant to start another spat with the "militaristic" Van Gaal and so I asked Cruyff to expand on their contrasting perceptions of football.
"Now this is more interesting than me just saying Van Gaal is going to do a bad job," Cruyff said. "I don't care too much about that. We're both Dutch but there is a big difference between us. I always think of being in charge of the speed and of the ball. Maybe he knows more than me but I always want control. When I don't have control of the ball what do I do? I press to get it back. It's a way of defending. But more important is that I like to have the ball. That's why I believe in individual coaching sessions to prepare players properly. You have to take care of the individual for the benefit of the team - as our work with Pep Guardiola showed."
I put aside my list of questions then. It seemed more important to listen to Cruyff and react to the conversation rather than sticking to a prescribed set of queries. Cruyff had become animated. "I am happy if my players start thinking. Guardiola is a good example. As a player, he was tactically perfect but he said he can't defend. I said: 'I agree - in a limited way. You're a bad defender if you have to cover this whole area. But if you have to defend this one small area, then you're the best. Take care that there are people to cover the other areas. As long as you do that you can be a very good defender.' And he did become very good."
Cruyff did not give me a killer quote deriding Van Gaal as an idiot doomed to fail at Old Trafford but I liked the way he moved from talking about Guardiola to the English coaches, Keith Spurgeon and Vic Buckingham, who had shaped his early career. They instilled discipline into Cruyff's maverick brilliance and Buckingham had picked him for his Ajax debut in November 1964 - and coached him at Barcelona.
"Keith and Vic gave us some professionalism because they were much further down the road than we were in Holland. But the tactical thinking came later with Rinus Michels."
I did not press Cruyff into rehashing all that he and Michels had achieved with their successful innovations of Total Football. He did not seem a sentimental or nostalgic man. I did not write about it at the time but Cruyff was also more interested in the fact that "I still feel football is quite far behind other sports".
"If you take golf, you have a teacher for the drive, a teacher for the approach play and a teacher for the putt. That's three specialist coaches for one player. In football one coach looks after 25 players. You can't compare a centre-forward with an outside right or a midfield player. Their own game needs many different qualities and physical skills. That's why I believe in individual coaching sessions. You have to take care of the individual."
He became elegiac only when addressing how money had eroded football's purity. "Football is now all about money. There are problems with the values within the game. This is sad because football is the most beautiful game. We can play it in the street. We can play it everywhere. Everyone can play it whether you're tall or small, fat or thin. But those values are being lost. We have to bring them back."
There were surprises, too, as Cruyff hailed Roberto Martinez's work at Everton. The previous season Everton had finished just outside the Champions League positions and Cruyff said: "If you see how Martinez did - and Roberto is a good friend of mine - you will see a story of success. OK, he didn't win the league but everyone was happy."
That might not be the word anyone would use to describe the mood at Goodison Park under Martinez today. Cruyff also expressed uncertainty as to how three great players in Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez might gel together in the same Barcelona forward line. I now like to think one of the pleasures of the last months of Cruyff's life would have been watching the shimmering, subtle menace of Barcelona's three-pronged attack.
Cruyff was human - whether netting a backhand on a makeshift court or, last week, succumbing to the ravages of cancer. But on a cloudy September day in 2014 he seemed full of life. He became tired only when he told me why he needed to return to Barcelona that night. "Tomorrow I have a meeting with UEFA, with [Michel] Platini and all the sponsors."
His disgruntled expression spoke volumes. Cruyff was happier talking more philosophically. "It's like everything in football - and life. You need to look, you need to think, you need to move, you need to find space, you need to help others. It's very simple in the end."
Even after a reminder that he soon had to present some prizes at the end of a long day he kept chatting. Where was I from? South Africa?
As soon as I confirmed that truth he was away on a new topic. We spoke about football in Africa before I tried to convey what it meant when, after television was unbanned under apartheid, the first televised sporting event we saw in South Africa was the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. Holland lost in the final, to the hosts.
As a schoolboy, I was entranced enough to regret the fact we had not seen the previous World Cup when an even better Dutch team, with Cruyff at his peak, had also lost in the final to West Germany. Cruyff looked at me intently.
"Yeah, but maybe we were the real winners in the end," he said, his close-set eyes suddenly flaring. "I think the world remembers our team more."
It was a flash of the driven man Cruyff had been as a footballer and a coach. He relaxed again and switched into his home language, asking if I could understand Dutch. I replied in Afrikaans, saying "only a little". It was enough to get by when, again in Dutch, he asked me if I was happy with the interview. Did I have enough to write?
When I nodded and thanked him he reached out to offer his hand. "We didn't answer all 48 questions," Cruyff said. "But maybe it's better this way? A conversation is more interesting than an interview."
Sunday Indo Sport