FP Exclusive: David Winner on The Johan Cruyff Democracy, Myth, Method and Madness

We travel to ancient Greece to unravel the myth, method and madness of Johan Cruyff’s democracy with an interview with Brilliant Orange author David Winner.


“You play football with your head; your legs are there to help you.”

– Johan Cruyff

One moment he comes this close to insulting his rivals, the next he has them eating out of his hand. Depending on who you believe, he is either an idealist or a schemer. If there’s one thing that every statement would confirm is that he was a lot of things, and he was better at them than most will ever be. You wouldn’t be wrong to think that it’s Johan Cruyff that I’m writing about.

John Berger, one of the leading visionaries on the subject of critical thinking – may he rest in peace – once had his cataract removed. He said, “the removal of cataracts of the eyes is comparable with the removal of a particular kind of forgetfulness…The eyes begin to remember first times (of everything). And the two eyes, again and again, register surprise.” The study of history has a similar prognosis. It teaches us “how images turn to stories and paintings become narratives.” Very few did it better than tender-sounding, everyone’s favourite uncle, John Berger.

We look leaning on the shoulder of giants like David Winner, the author of Brilliant Orange. And the more we look, the more our eyes are filled with surprise. Again, and again. This time, we look to ancient Greece to profile our star player from about a hundred histories ago. He was a man who was much like Johan, a revolutionary statesman who built his legacy that will last centuries on turns of phrases.

Act 1 – Dissent and Democracy

Ancient Greece was wild marjoram, scented thyme, olive groves nesting between chirping rivulets and streams that suckle them. Trek down along the sprays of velvet moss on gleaming marbles on the hills and valleys of nodding daffodils, and onto the ports and you’d hear squawks of the seagulls and of merchants: “By the name of Apollo! Figs! Wild honey!”, “Nevermind, figs, here’s the latest model of waterclocks! And may Zeus strike me down if it doesn’t tell you the time by the hour!” Take a right from the smell of wild honey and follow the trail of molasses, and you’ll find the amphoraes, elegantly painted jugs with two handles and a narrow neck depicting tender exchanges between lovers Orpheus and Eurydice, a goose (Zeus) and his muse, revolutions and their smitten lovers. The vase of Cleisthenes, of house Alcmaeonids, son of Megacles, the heir to Peisistratos should be standing somewhere right in the front row.


As far as the eyes could see, there was the din of rebuilding. The streets were lined with brickwork for grand temples and grander whore-houses. Corners were littered with spice sellers, potters, opium merchants and silk from the far corners of newly drawn up maps. Ships carrying kings and scholars would swarm to this honeypot which offers the nectar of opulence and eternity. However, it was yet to be the 5th century and it was yet to be the centre of the universe.

Athens was still struggling through the light. Councilmen and the aristos born swaddled in gold and silk, in fear of the rabble under their rules, would rather dabble into the omens of the past and exile dissenters than reform taxes and representation. It was 509 BC – a time to look into the future, but instead they revisited and recrafted myths of the past and passed them off as the norm or an obligation. Before Cleisthenes came along, there were only tyrants saving fellow Greeks from tyrants. Athens was yet to be the locus of the Western freethinking world as the Netherlands came to be in the 1970s. The parallels begin here.

In the Netherlands, one such tyrant was Karel Lotsy, the chairman of KNVB, one of the aristos set in the ways of old entitlement. The former trainer of the Netherlands team demanded players turn up for the national team, citing past conventions and duty, and forgo fair remuneration. “You have to remember that the first professional was at Ajax, there was no professionalism in Holland at all before 1954,” David Winner points out. “That’s why Faas Wilkes was exiled from the national team. There was a much older argument between amateurs and professionals right from the very beginning of the Football League, where you had working-class professionals doing it – they had no other means of support. And they are up against aristocrats who are rich and can play without being paid, as they don’t need the money – they already got lots of money. In the 19th century English context, they positioned themselves as morally pure, and only doing it for the love of the game, while the working-class guys in the Midlands and the North and so on, and the new professional clubs were thought to be doing it for the money. It’s a class conflict, essentially.

Karel Lotsy.

“With the Royal Netherlands Football Association, the players weren’t even getting paid for playing for the national team, nor were they insured. Cruyff was cross about it, and well within his rights to be. It offended his natural sense of justice and he wouldn’t accept it. He comes along challenging the system, and, with one sweep, destabilises the hierarchy.”

Choose the best player for every position, and you’ll end up not with a strong XI, but with 11 strong 1’s.

– Johan Cruyff

Cleisthenes, through his measured dialogue, drove the dagger of the Athenian citizens’ assembly through the heart of nobility, thusly exorcising the ghosts of the past. And lo, democracy was born. He may have watered the thought of democracy, and it may have flowered on the grave of aristocracy under his care, but the seed was planted well before by Peisistratus.


Peisistratus was a war hero who ruled like a general; he was first to give equal representation to the struggling. His iron hand kept the aristos at bay and made for a more effective governance of Athens by touring the poorest parts of the country and passing justice so that they may be spared the burden of bureaucracy.

Ex-serviceman of the Royal Netherlands Army during the 2nd World War, Rinus Michels was well-known for his fair but military style of management. Michels, in his second season as manager at Ajax (1966), persuaded the club council of Jaap van Praag and patron Maup Caransa to allocate wages and alleviate the financial ails of his men at Ajax.

“Michels’ vision was to make it more effective. You’ll be a better footballer if you’re concentrating on football, and not working in the printers or the sweet shop, delivering newspapers or sweeping in a factory. It was part of Michels’ plan to turn the club into a force that wins things and play better football while they are at it.”

Peisistratus, like Michels, was a pragmatist. And since he was from a time where history mingles freely with hearsay, people believed that he took over the state of affairs favoured by the Goddess Athena. What historians tell us is that he paid a snowy skinned country woman, who was as tall as little trees, to dress up in the golden armour of the Goddess as he rode back into Athens. The virtues of Athena and other Greek Gods were personifications of the ancients’ ancient’s thinking process. People saw what they wanted. For the match-going Mokummer (Amsterdammer), Cruyff was the apotheosis of wisdom and craft of the 1970s, and for others, a symbol of the changes that have happened and yet to come. Michels’ ascension from Ajax to the manager of Barcelona and then of Netherlands, all happened with Cruyff by his side.

Act 2 – Myth and Madness

Cleisthenes, like Cruyff, was a different kind of leader than Peisistratus. A tactful savant, he was a dispenser of dramatic discourse, a superb articulator of ideas who preferred pointing the way. He believed in micromanagement.

Players that aren’t true leaders but try to be, always bash other players after a mistake. True leaders on the pitch already assume others will make mistakes.

– Johan Cruyff

“The most abiding image of Cruyff is not him scoring goals, running or tackling,” wrote David Winner in Brilliant Orange, “but of him pointing – like a conductor directing a symphony.” Does that sum up Johan Cruyff the player?

“Well, there are other things too, but that’s a very striking image of him,” acknowledges David Winner. “Dennis Bergkamp said, no, you couldn’t do that these days. You wouldn’t have time to stand around and point. There was a chapter on Captaincy and Leading in Stillness and Speed, where he spins off from Johan doing that and then arrives at Tony Adam’s clenched fist – a rather military way of inspiring people, and all the differing types of leadership.

(L-R) Bayern Munich's Franz Beckenbauer and Ajax's Johan Cruyff appear to be making the same point to their teammates
(L-R) Bayern Munich’s Franz Beckenbauer and Ajax’s Johan Cruyff appear to be making the same point to their teammates

But yes, that was him and it speaks for his measured approach. However, it’s not the only image I have of him.. if I’m trying to tell somebody who has never heard of Cruyff – I’ll refer them to Johan Cruyff is Art, a 14 minute video which showcases his individual actions, the sheer beauty of his movements, precise and economical, the way he controls the ball and in the way van Dantzig describes – all dramatic and beautiful…And there’s a lot of pointing in there as well, you know. It catches the charisma and the grace, and his intelligence – like Dennis Bergkamp, you can see him thinking, premeditating everything.”

Technique is not being able to juggle a ball 1000 times. Anyone can do that by practicing. Then you can work in the circus. Technique is passing the ball with one touch, with the right speed, at the right foot of your team mate.

– Johan Cruyff

Cleisthenes was not always elegant nor agreeable. Cruyff shared Cleisthenes’ irreverent, confrontational outlook which consistently bordered on the beliefs of meritocracy and individualism. With being gifted, there comes a certain kind of ego. A hero without an ego is a hero without a quest, and he would be no hero. In the words of Eduardo Galeano, “Cruyff, when he made his debut, played superbly, scored a goal then knocked the referee out with one punch... From that from that day on, Cruyff kept his reputation for being tempestuous, hardworking and talented.”

“Cruyff was obsessively competitive, aggressive in many of his personal dealings. Any competition, he’s is going to come out on top. He’s tough, he’s hard,” notes David Winner.

“We were talking about that earlier, that’s an integral part of being good at football. Without that fanaticism, that kind of dedication is the difference between them and the plethora of talented players who never make it. Injuries also account for a lot of those failures. The greats all have this insatiable drive – Cristiano Ronaldo is all drive, and has far fewer natural gifts than Messi, but he’s as effective. His extraordinary, sculpted body, the obsessive practicing. Then, there arises this interesting question – why is he doing all this? Is he making up for some lack?”

Obsession is the bordello of neurosis. Amsterdam had them in plenty – the neuroses, the obsessions and the harems. For all the cultured, calculated, curated aspect of its landscape, all the city planning, there was an element of madness hiding in plain sight – a practice of devilish arts among the Olympian, godly disciplined geometry of the city.

In December 1962 Amsterdam witnessed its first ‘happening’, poet Simon Vinkenoog’s ‘Open the Grave’ event in which he prophesied that ‘the victory over the old ways begins in Magic Centre Amsterdam’.

The street around the Lievertje is partly pedestrianised now, but in 1965 it was one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Each Saturday night Grootveld, the Provos and crowds of youngsters gathered near the Cruyffish statue and attempted to perform ludiek magic on it. Magic had a magnetic appeal in a city that was so busy with practical matters, building flats and ramming poles into the ground…something was blowing in the wind, and the rickety garage-Temple was full every week,’ wrote Geert Mak in Amsterdam, his history of the city.

Jasper Grootveld, dressed as a shaman, performed weird anti-smoking rituals while the crowd chanted ‘Bram bram! Ugga ugga! Bram bram! Ugga ugga!’. Regulars at the K-Temple include Johnny the Selfkicker, who talked himself into a trance and threw himself from high places, and a ‘half doctor’ called Bart Huges, who tried to achieve a state of higher consciousness by drilling a hole in his forehead to create a ‘third eye’. On the streets, mysterious graffiti began to appear: Warning!

– David Winner, Brilliant Orange.

The Netherlands subconsciously took from the Greek occult-mathematical philosophies of Theosophy – the belief on the sanctity of universality and the perfection of geometric form achieved by it. It’s seen in their art, architecture, landscaping and the way they play football. De Stijl formed around the abstraction, reducing components into primary shape or colour – as did the football.

Mythology tells us Athens was believed to be conceived from a discarded rag of Athena. History tells us, the Netherlands was built by dykes and neither people mind drawing their lineage from nothing.

If you have the ball you must make the field as big as possible, and if you don’t have the ball you must make it as small as possible.

– Johan Cruyff

Plato, Jan Benthem, Rinus Michels, Cruyff among others, believe the ultimate geometric form was the triangle. Plato says it embroiders constellations of the sky. The Dutch architects and football managers believed it to be the strongest form. David Winner notes the architect, Jan Benthem, say how it is the ‘strongest form you can think of in a building: the lightest form with the biggest strength.’

Ajax trained relentlessly in triangular formations to hone their rapid-fire passing and movement. ‘The system needed passing over short distances inside the opposition half where space was limited. We trained in triangles, passing and kicking in triangles, with very short control and a lot of movement between three players. From a fixed situation, this created a lot of possibilities. We trained endlessly, endlessly in small spaces.’

‘Part of the art was that the triangles get smaller all time because the space was already so small and everyone was testing each other. It started out with gaps of twelve metres. Then eleven metres. Then ten, and so on. At one point the triangles were only eight-by-eight metres, which was incredible with such a high speed of ball. Really incredible! But the ball-speed always had to be functional.’

David Winner talking to Van der Lem, Van Gaal’s right-hand man at Ajax and Barcelona.

Immaculately carved in marble the words, “Let no destitute of geometry enter my doors,” hang over The Academy Plato in Athens like a guillotine. Yet two hours away, the frenzied old virgins of the Pythia of Delphi breathed in toxic fumes of the serpent and performed prophecies that shaped the affairs of the state: It was believed that the Sun God Apollo slew a serpent and it baked under the hot sun. It is there where the temple of the Oracle was built over the exhuming earth. The Greeks sought reason in madness, because it so often exhibits the signs of brilliance or divinity. They believed it is only through the mutual understanding of the two states of mind that humanity can strive forward. Johan Cruyff was the figure of balance in the duality of the Apollonian and Dionysiac Amsterdam.

David Winner elaborates, “I wouldn’t say he’s completely balanced. He’s got obsessions, he bears grudges. His autobiography – part of it is quite nice- has entire pages and chapters go by with this boring settling of old scores that everybody else has already forgotten about.  Simon Kuper’s review of that book, very accurate, said you see all of Cruyff’s faults magnified. He’s dying of cancer during that book, not around for the writing, just the interviews and then he passes away; Jaap de Groot does the writing without reference to Johan – presumably, he spoke to his family about it. The autobiography is very disappointing- reading it, you’ll think he was not balanced at all, and slightly mad. But I think he was better than the book.

“He was naïve with his business and lost all his money to a con man – ironically, from which we all benefitted — he came back into football. Without that pig farm fiasco, we would never have had Gullit, Rijkaard, Van Basten, Bergkamp – he might have just had gone off pig farming or something!

“Yes, perhaps had he been more fanatic and less well-balanced he’d been an even better player. Cruyff’s family life was pretty admirable compared to a lot of other stars. He kept his marriage together, when few of that team did, for Ajax or for Holland. His polar opposite would be George Best – the famous libertine, who was more interested in merrymaking than football, and then regretted it till the end of his life.”

History notes that at the height of rebuilding and at the peak of their influence, both Cleisthenes and Cruyff mysteriously went on a self-imposed exile, to the bemusement of his supporters: Cleisthenes smack in the middle of the magisterial elections against Isagoras, and Cruyff in the midst of the World Cup – both, perhaps, fearing for their lives, and to distance themselves from the effects of a looming presence on the east. For the Greeks, it was the Persians: an unashamedly militaristic race that influenced their culture in subtle and brutal ways. For the Netherlands, it was the Germans (more on this in the next issue, The Fog of War).

“It’s still a mystery about why Cruyff didn’t go to the 1978 World Cup,” David Winner confesses. “He said he didn’t go because he couldn’t leave his family, because they had been kidnapped. Paul Breitner, the German midfielder, a well-known Maoist didn’t go because there was a Fascist regime in Argentina – a reason that was sometimes attributed to Cruyff’s absence.”

When Gods offer us prophecies, they ask us to choose. “You will go, you will return, not in war you shall die,” and “you will go, you will return not, in war you will die” are two different prophecies. One of the charges levelled at Cleisthenes was that he fixed the prophecies. He paid the priest to make Pythia pause for breath in the right places.

On the sacred day of Panathenaea, a sacrificial goat was showered with ice water; the way it reacted to it would tell whether the signs were favourable for a prophecy. If the signs were misread or forced, bad fortune would befall them. Greek mythology shows through the ages that the misreading of these signs has often contributed to hamartia – a fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero or heroine.

Before I make a mistake, I don’t make that mistake.

– Johan Cruyff

The indomitable Ajax falls into his sword, Orpheus looks back, Jason of the mighty Argonauts faces down harpies, dragons and sirens, but dies in grief for his unfaithful wife. Johan’s fault is that he got one such prophecy wrong, a mistake that the Netherlands have been cursed to repeat.

Having slain the chimaera, Bellerophon’s fame grew until he became convinced that he was not a mortal but a god. He tried to ride Pegasus to Mount Olympus, which so enraged Zeus that he caused Bellerophon to fall to earth and die.

I ask David Winner, “How far-reaching and dangerous did Cruyff’s comments on penalties turn out to be? Did he believe penalties were below him?”

“Yes,” says David. “He wasn’t particularly good with them; he didn’t take them very often and didn’t have a hard shot compared to his teammates. Penalties did not interest him.

“His attitude wass symptomatic of the Dutch failures of penalties during the 90s – 4 tournaments they go out on the penalties they didn’t take seriously, and lost in ‘92, ‘96, ‘98 and 2000.

“People like Ben Lyttleton (Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty Kick) blame Cruyff for that mentality. The Dutch generally won or lost games well before the end, so there was no theory of penalties in their game; the players took their cue from Cruyff, and didn’t take penalties as seriously either. Rensenbrink did. He and Gerrie Muhren were wonderful penalty-takers. Cruyff didn’t take the penalties for Ajax either. First it was Velibor Vasovic and then Muhren or Neeskens.”

“That famous one with Jesper Olsen in 1982, vs Helmond Sport, where he passes instead of shooting at goal to the player who draws the keeper and Cruyff taps it in- something which Messi and Suarez did a tribute to- that shows his disdain.”

Final Act – Legacy

There was a return from exile for both our protagonists to assume power in their respective disciplines and see their bold enterprise come to life. Relying on the strength of many, Cleisthenes’ reforms brought on a revolution.

There’s only one moment in which you can arrive in time. If you’re not there, you’re either too early or too late.

– Johan Cruyff

Around the time after Ajax’s 2-0 defeat against Real Madrid, Cruyff declared – “This isn’t Ajax anymore.” The rallying cry was heard and in 2011 he and former players mounted a takeover.

“Ah, the Cruyff coup!” David exclaims. “The club has been changed by a lot. There were two waves of civil war that followed – one was the Van Gaal people vs the Cruyff people, which got very ugly. Lawyers were involved, and lifelong friendships, broken. Cruyff supporters fell out amongst themselves – with Wim Jonk, essentially, on one side and Van der Saar, Overmars and Bergkamp on the other. It ended with Jonk getting sacked and got rather bitter and upsetting for everybody involved. Before he died, Cruyff, from his illness, made peace with Bergkamp, probably with Overmars and Van der Saar also. There was a large outpouring of emotion, and nobody wanted to talk about the unpleasant side of the Cruyff revolution – that it didn’t appear to be doing the things he wanted it to be doing.“

John Berger noted in the BBC’s The Ways of Seeing that, “Somehow, when you consider Picasso, it is the spirit of the man than one single piece of work which dominates and is so striking.”

David Winner resonates that feeling, “We can now see that some of the changes that he brought in were quite effective. One of the other Cruyff elements in this Ajax setup is that footballers, former players run the club, with football ingrained at every level, and not just businessmen encroaching functionality.

Every professional golfer has a seperate coach for his drives, for approaches, for putting. In football we have one coach for 15 players. This is absurd.

– Johan Cruyff

“You also have great old players coaching potentially great new players. He didn’t play well in the final, but Kasper Dolberg is quite a talent – and he’s getting a personal, intensive coaching from Dennis Bergkamp- there’s probably nobody in the world you can learn better or more from- he is able to communicate his ideas articulately, and is deeply thoughtful as well as a great past player. Maradona didn’t appear to be a good coach at all. So one of the reasons that Kasper Dolberg has suddenly burst into the scene is this.There’s a lot of good experience in the club – a bit like the Bayern Munich model, where wonderful former players stick around and help the next generation to come through, leveraging their knowhow and experience.

Gerd and Johan.

“Gerd Muller, who was probably their greatest forward of all time, is an example, but then he had Alzheimer’s – there wasn’t a proper job that he was doing but the club felt it was important for them to help him. Bayern are stacked with these incredible players and a lot of them are hanging around, or they come back and run it. I think Johan was thinking of that.”

“If you sit in the café in De Toekomst (Ajax’s academy) all of these characters are just wandering through –  ooh, look, there’s Sjaak Swart –  so, there’s just drifting through all the time, it’s brilliant! In a very low-key way – kids mingling, and mums coming to pick them up, and these great-old players are sitting around and having coffee, chatting! It’s nice. It’s sort of a club house. That’s where people gather, not the head offices and not in the stadium. So, you can say that Johan Cruyff had settled the score, as he always would, naturally, since he’s much the greater character.”

I find it terrible when talents are rejected based on computer stats. Based on the criteria at Ajax now I would have been rejected. When I was 15, I couldn’t kick a ball 15 meters with my left and maybe 20 with my right. My qualities technique and vision, are not detectable by a computer.

– Johan Cruyff

Football democracies rise and fall, but they all unfailingly build monuments in our protagonists’ image long after they left the centre stage.

“There are two different strands in Ajax’s history – Michels’s idea of system and tactics, and the Cruyff’s, about giving exceptional players the creative freedom to be more exceptional, and the others were sort of water-carriers, there to supply. There’s a lot of overlap here- the respect for passing, movement and space is common to both sides. Generations upon generations of football managers will look to their models.”

Just as the appeal of the mandala and the perfect ideal lies in its ephemeral nature, so does the romance of the Ajax team.

“It depends on what happens to the team now. I expect the best players to be picked off by richer clubs – partly as Simon Kuper argues in his column in ESPN, because they aren’t paying them enough. Their salaries are relatively low and Simon blames Overmars. I don’t know what the situation is in the club, and the policies of the club.

“But, you know, it’s a second-level league – it’s clearly behind Spain, England, Italy, Germany, but maybe on level with Portugal, and the Portuguese do slightly better. Ajax have 100mE in the bank, and that’s quite a lot of money – it is Arsenal level of credit! So, they can definitely afford to pay a bit more, but I don’t know why they pay relatively low. So they will probably lose Davinson Sanchez and Davy Klassen (has since left for Everton). It’d be nice if they could hold onto them and this team could mature a bit together – that’d be great, but it probably won’t happen.”

“If I try to sum up the transformed experience of looking, I’d say it was suddenly finding oneself in a scene painted by Vermeer. As if the surface of everything you’re looking at is covered with a dew of light.”

– John Berger

Reading history is like a visual renaissance. It’s all about firsts and all that has been carried over. Divided by centuries and united by principles, generations will try to better what transpired at Amsterdam and Athens and fail, but they will try. As I write this, there are 123 democracies in the world and 206  football-playing nations. That should tell you all you need to know.

Giacometti’s Pointing Man.

Looking for the essence of Johan Cruyff is thus similar to the conclusion John Berger came upon when researching the artist Giacometti. The act of looking is in the form of a prayer,  looking for triangles, understanding shapes and glimpsing at the absolute. This is what this was…a glimpse.

I’m ex-player, ex-technical director, ex-coach, ex-manager, ex-honorary president. A nice list that once again shows that everything comes to an end.

– Johan Cruyff

David Winner is best-known for Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football which was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2000. He writes for The Guardian among many other esteemed publications. His taste for the eclectic doesn’t stop at football – his travel book Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome was described by Pen Vogler in The Observer, as being “like a fusion of Coleridge’s Table Talk and Marinetti’s The Futurist Cookbook, peopled with eccentric film-makers, anorexic saints and wafer-making nuns”. Follow @dwinnera on Twitter.
Srijandeep Das

Srijandeep is Football Paradise's number 8. The all-action, box-to-box midfielder of football writers. He's a Sports essayist, Subkultur journalist, Electronic producer, Digital artist, Stand-up comedian. He's also (justifiably) full of himself.