My Turn

A Life of Total Football


By Johan Cruyff

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The autobiography of Dutch soccer legend Johan Cruyff, whose remarkable life and impeccable style have influenced star players and clubs for decades

Johan Cruyff embodied a footballing philosophy that now dominates coaching and playing styles in all the leading club sides around the world. You can dispute whether Cruyff was the greatest player ever — he was certainly one of the top three — but he is undoubtedly the player who single-handedly changed the nature of the game.

My Turn tells the story of Cruyff’s remarkable career, built on the techniques he learned playing in the streets of postwar Amsterdam while hoping to be noticed by the city’s famous club, Ajax. He would eventually inspire that team to eight league championships and three European cups. He won his first of three Ballons d’Or at twenty-four in 1971. In 1973, Cruyff was sold to Barcelona for a world-record transfer fee. He led the Catalans to victory in La Liga for the first time since 1960, and went on to leave a lasting mark on Spanish soccer. In the 1974 World Cup, Cruyff propelled the Dutch team to the final for the first time.

Cruyff’s lasting influence, however, is not in the medals he won, but in the style of play he epitomized and then applied to the Barcelona and Ajax teams he coached. His vision of “Total Football” transformed the way soccer was played, and its dazzling fluidity became the basis of the most admired sides around the world. He was the sport’s uncompromising genius on and off the field of play.




Everything I have done has been done with a view to the future, concentrating on progress, which means that the past is not something that I think about too much. For me, this is completely natural. Details of the matches I have played in have been written about better by other people elsewhere; what I am interested in is the idea of football. Continually looking forward means that I can concentrate on getting better at whatever I am doing, and I only really look back in order to gauge what I can learn from mistakes. Those lessons can be taken from different points in your life, and you don’t necessarily see how connected everything is until later. So while I always move forward, I can’t always look at what’s gone before as a straight line. At the heart of what I have learned as a player is that, above all else, you need four things: good grass, clean changing rooms, players who clean their own boots and tight goal nets.

Everything else – skills and speed, technique and goals, will come later. This is the philosophy that defines my feeling for football and for life. I’ve translated that into everything I’ve done, whether that is with Total Football on the pitch, with my family or the Cruyff Foundation – it has always been about progress and never ever stopping getting better.

Football has been my life from the beginning. My parents owned a greengrocer’s shop in Betondorp, a few hundred metres away from Ajax’s De Meer Stadion in Amsterdam, so it was inevitable. My father never missed an Ajax game and, though I may not have inherited my talent from my father, he did pass on his unconditional love for the club. In fact, where my talent for football originates is a mystery. I clearly didn’t learn it from my father or grandfather, as I never saw them play themselves. My uncle, Gerrit Draaijer, my mother’s brother, did play a few matches at outside left for Ajax’s first team, but that was in the 1950s, when Ajax were not one of Europe’s well-known sides.

My father told me about players like Alfredo Di Stéfano, who understood everything about how to use space on the pitch, as well as Faas Wilkes, who was a phenomenal dribbler of the ball. He would start in midfield and dribble past four or five people. Incredible. Wilkes played for Xerxes Rotterdam, before going to Inter Milan, Torino and Valencia, returning to Holland later in his career. That was when I realized what a Dutch man could achieve on the pitch. But we didn’t have a TV and didn’t see many foreign teams, so for most of his career I could only watch him occasionally. As for Di Stéfano, it was not until 1962, when he came to Amsterdam with Real Madrid for the European Cup final, that I was able to see him with my own eyes.

Everything for me started in the street. The area where I lived was nicknamed the ‘Concrete Village’, an experiment in building cheap housing after the First World War. It was working class, and as kids we spent as much time out of the house as possible; from as early as I can remember we played football everywhere we could. It was here I learned to think about how to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. You see that the kerb isn’t actually an obstacle, but that you can turn it into a teammate for a one–two. So thanks to the kerb I was able to work on my technique. When the ball bounces off different surfaces at odd angles, you have to adjust in an instant. Throughout my career people would often be surprised that I shot or passed from an angle they weren’t expecting, but that’s because of how I grew up. The same thing is true of balancing. When you fall on the concrete, it hurts, and, of course, you don’t want to get hurt. So when playing football, you’re also busy trying not to fall. It was learning to play like this, when you had to react to the situation all the time, that taught me my skills as a footballer. That’s why I’m a great advocate of making young people play football without studs. They miss the hours I had in the street, the hours practising how not to fall. Give them flat soles and help them keep their balance better.

At home, life was pretty basic, but I didn’t care. I grew up in a warm family home. I slept in the same room as my brother Hennie, who is two and a half years older than me. When you’re very young that’s a big difference. But I was out playing football as often as I could, so he had his own life and so did I.

I’m very much a mixture of my parents. I get my social side from my mother, my cunning from my father, because I’m definitely cunning. I’m always on the lookout for the best advantage, just like my father, Manus. My father was a joker. He had a glass eye and bet people five cents to see who could stare into the sun for longest. He would put his hand on his good eye, look at the sun for a minute and pick up his money. My mother, Nel, was very sociable. For her, everything revolved around the family. She had nine brothers and sisters, so in addition to nine uncles and aunts, I also had dozens of cousins. The great thing was that if anything bad happened there was always someone who could help you. One of them knew about heating stoves, another was good at drawing, so there was always someone whose door you could knock on if there was a problem. But when it came to football, I was on my own – the interest in it I had seemed to have passed them all by.

I went to the Groen van Prinsterer School in Amsterdam, which was a Christian school, even though I wasn’t brought up in the faith and there were also secular schools nearby. I only ever went into a church to deliver an order for my father, and when I asked my father why I had to go to the school with the Bible in my bag, he said: ‘Johan, they tell good stories there. I’m trying to give you as much as possible in that way, and later you can decide for yourself about what to do with it.’

Even at school I wanted to play football, and from a very young age I was soon well known as the boy with the ball. Every day I took my ball into class with me, placed it under my desk and passed it between my feet throughout the lesson. Sometimes the teacher sent me outside because I was too much of a nuisance. I was doing it so instinctively that I wasn’t even aware that I was busy kicking the ball from left foot to right. Apart from that, I didn’t really get much out of my time at school, although what I do remember above all from my schooldays is that I never bunked off. Even though I wasn’t wild about learning, I understood it was something I had to do, and I stuck with it until I was old enough to decide for myself that I didn’t want that any more.

In contrast, I remember the first time I went to Ajax as if it was yesterday. It was 1952, I think, so I was about five. My father asked if I wanted to go with him to deliver baskets of fruit for the players who were sick or injured, so I rode my bike with him down the road to the club, so excited to be able to walk through its doors for the first time, and not just sit in the stands. It was then that I met Henk Angel, a friend of my father who was working as a groundsman there. Henk asked me if I wanted to give him a hand, and I started the very next day. So, at the age of five, my life with Ajax began. I think back on my childhood with great fondness. I’ve known nothing but love. At home, but also at Ajax. It was thanks to Uncle Henk, who let me do all kinds of odd jobs in the stadium when the pitches had just been laid or were unplayable in winter, that I spent so much time at the club. As a reward, I was allowed to play football in the hall or in the main stands. I also spent time during the summer holidays at the home of Arend van der Wel, an Ajax forward who had become a family friend. He had just moved from Ajax to Sportclub Enschede, and had a nice life in the countryside. It was there that I had my first driving lessons, aged seven or eight, sitting on Arend’s lap behind the wheel. It was also at Sportclub Enschede that I met Abe Lenstra, the brilliant forward who had just moved there from Heerenveen. He was a complete icon in those days. I even kicked a ball about with him once at training, and that was something special. But what I mostly remember about Abe is that he always had a ball with him.

During my early years I saw a lot of Uncle Henk, particularly after his wife passed away, as he often ate at our house. Over meals I listened breathlessly to what was happening at Ajax. It was during this time, when I was a young boy, that Arend van der Wel also joined us for meals. Back then he was still a young player with the first eleven and lived in Amsterdam North, which was too far to go home after work and get back in time for evening training, so he ate with us. Thus, from a very early age, I not only was spending all my free time at the Ajax stadium, but also had the club as a presence in our house, and it was thanks to Uncle Henk, as we continued to call him even after my father died and he married my mother, and Arend, that from the age of five I learned everything that was going on at the club from the changing room to the first eleven. I sat listening to them day after day, soaking it all up like a sponge.

As soon as I was old enough I was running about all over the place on my own, playing football in the streets with my friends, and from then on the Ajax stadium became my second home. I was there every spare moment, and never left home without a football. From the age of five, when I went to help out with Uncle Henk at the stadium, I always took my bootbag with me as well. You never knew if the team might be a man short for training or a practice match and I was often lucky, though usually only because they felt sorry for me. I was a bag of bones, I looked like a shrimp, and they took pity on me, which meant that even though I had no business being there, and wasn’t even in the youth team, I was playing with the Ajax team from a very early age. It was another example of a belief that I have always had and tried to pass on – that you can turn a disadvantage, like my scrawny appearance, into an advantage.

I am often asked what my greatest memory was as a footballer. Honestly, I cannot remember much of the details, even things like my first goal at home for Ajax after turning pro. What I do remember, though, and very clearly, was the first time I was allowed on the pitch in a full stadium. Not as a footballer, but to aerate the goal area with a pitchfork. I was about eight years old, my father was still alive, and I wasn’t even on the books, but here I was out on the pitch, in front of a full stadium, helping to make it perfect for the first team. That’s not the kind of thing you ever forget. As I jabbed the fork into the turf, I felt responsible for delivering the perfect playing surface for my heroes. As someone who has played and managed and watched and thought about football all my life, I am sure that such early experiences of helping to take care of things, learning the importance of those kinds of standards, informed the person I became. After I retired from playing and managing and set up the Cruyff Foundation to help give kids a chance to play football, we drew up a list of fourteen rules that people had to respect. Number two on the list was about responsibility and respect for the pitch and the people, and that all stemmed from this time in my life. As I have said, all my life lessons were learned while at Ajax.

Even though I was a mediocre student, from an early age I had an affinity with numbers. Numerology interests me. So, for example, I married Danny on the second day of the twelfth month, December. Two plus twelve produces the number on my back: number fourteen. The year was 1968, and six plus eight is also fourteen. No wonder we’re still together after forty-eight years. Our marriage was good twice over. The same is true of my son, Jordi. He was born in ’74 and I was born in ’47. So both years add up to eleven. And his birthday is on 9 February and mine’s 25 April. That’s nine plus two and two plus five plus four. Both eleven.

I’m even good at remembering phone numbers. My friends just have to give me their number once and I’ll never forget it. Maybe that’s why I’m also good at mental arithmetic. I didn’t learn it at school, but in my parents’ greengrocery. When my father was off doing deliveries and my mother had to cook our meals, it was my job to help the customers. But I was still too small to reach the till. So I learned mental arithmetic, and because I was good at it from a very young age I think that’s where my fascination began. I also think it was, in part, because of this love of numbers, learning about the mental side of things, that I started thinking more about numbers in football – how we can take advantage of the opposition, how we can work better with the space, like Di Stéfano had done. So, while my parents didn’t give me footballing skill, they did give me a way of thinking about football that was different.

In terms of the fitness that was required as a footballer, I’ve always had a terrible aversion to cross-country running, and the medicine balls that we had to use in the gym. When I was in the Ajax first team, every time Rinus Michels sent us off into the forest I tried to get as far ahead as possible, then hide behind a tree until the team returned, hoping no one would do a head count on the route. That worked for a while, until Michels worked out what was going on. As punishment I had to do a disciplinary training session at the forest track at eight in the morning on my day off. Michels drove up exactly on time. He was in his pyjamas behind the wheel, he wound down the window and said, ‘It’s far too cold for me, I’m going back to bed.’ Leaving me humiliated.

I officially joined the Ajax youth system in 1957, at the age of ten. I was a scrawny kid when I joined, and if I had signed up now I am sure that they would have put me through all sorts of exercise routines. But I had none of that, and would have hated it. The most that I did was ask my mother to cook me more green beans and spinach, because of the iron. As for the rest, I just did what I had always done, which was spend all my free time playing football, either at the club or on the street with my friends. What has been important to me is not only playing football, but enjoying it.

Later, I had something similar when I coached Frank Rijkaard at Ajax, who always pretended he needed to cough during cross-country circuit training. The players were usually split into two groups, one following the other. He would join the second group, let his teammates run on and then join the forward group on their next circuit. That way he ensured that he ended up running one lap less than the rest. No other trainer noticed, but I did. I just enjoyed it. Of course, I told him later on, but at the same time I had a really good laugh about it. I love that kind of cunning, thanks to my father, although I actually had a lot of my mother in me too. Later, when I started going out with Danny, I sometimes wanted to stay out longer than Michels allowed. He always drove through Amsterdam in the evening to check if our cars were parked outside the house on time. Once I borrowed my stepfather’s car and left my own car at home. Michels suspected what I’d done and threatened to give me a fine the next day. I was still living at home, and I said, ‘Just call my mother, I was at home.’ He did, and she played along perfectly, Michels had to withdraw the threat and I had a great laugh with my mother later on.

When I was with the Ajax youth team at the age of twelve, Jany van der Veen trained me not only in football, but also in norms and values. He was the first person at Ajax who taught me always to choose a particular course and follow it. He was another example of how the Ajax life was one that compensated for the education that I wouldn’t be getting at school. Jany only ever worked with the youth team, but he took the ideas he had worked on with Jack Reynolds – the visionary Englishman who had been the first team coach in the 1940s and helped lay the footballing foundations that Total Football would later be built on – and applied them to us. It was Jany who taught us to play games in which we would work on mistakes so that we could be creative in the way we practised. From Michels we got the discipline, but it was from Jany that we got the fun. When I became a coach myself, I took these ideas to Barcelona. As I always said, if you work in football, it’s not work. You have to train hard, but you have to have fun as well.

My trainers while I was in the youth squad were Vic Buckingham, who was manager of the first team before Michels, Keith Spurgeon, who would also manage the first team for a season, and, most importantly, Jany van der Veen, the youth team coach. Van der Veen always insisted on very specific training, in which five fundamentals played a central part. Playing games always alternated with maintaining and developing these five basic fundamentals of football: shooting, heading, dribbling, passing and controlling the ball. So we were always really busy with the ball. This way of training has always remained the standard for me. It’s led me to realize that the easiest way is often the hardest. So I see touching the ball once as the highest form of technique. But to be able to touch the ball perfectly once, you need to have touched it a hundred thousand times in training, and that’s what we spent our time doing. This was the school of thought at Ajax, which would go on to produce players who were technically up there with the best in the world. All thanks to the apparently simple training techniques of people like van der Veen.

But he wasn’t the only one. I owe something else to Vic Buckingham, who later started me off in the first team when I was seventeen. He had two sons my age, who were still finding their way around Amsterdam, and because my mother cleaned for the Buckingham family I often went to their house, which is how I learned English. Not at school, but by talking to the Buckingham family a lot. This was the Ajax way of doing things – to look after the young kids in the team and make sure they behaved properly. And of the footballers, when I started to play for the first team, Piet Keizer took me under his wing. He was almost four years older than me and had been playing in the first team for three seasons by the time I was picked. Ajax were only just starting to offer professional contracts, and Piet was the first to receive one. I was the second, and I noticed that Piet was fond of me. For example, he always made sure that I was home by half past nine in the evening, so that I would avoid a fine or punishment from Michels.

While it was Buckingham who gave me a place in the first team, it was Michels – who took over in 1965 – with who I had the most special bond. It was Michels who shielded the team from the rest of the club’s management structure, which was completely amateur. When Michels arrived, we were near the bottom of the league, and he tried to protect us from what was happening off the pitch to make sure that everything we did was focused on getting us to play better and think more clearly about the game. It was him who managed Ajax to the very top of the game. The bond that we created at Ajax was the sort of thing that is difficult to put into words, because he became part of my life outside the club. Much later on, when I had kids of my own, he dressed up as Santa Claus at a children’s party at our house. But my daughter Chantal recognized him. I can still hear her saying, ‘Hey, you’re not Santa at all, you’re Uncle Rinus.’

I was eighteen years old when Michels took over, the youngest player in the team, but he would take me aside and talk about the tactics of the game. He didn’t do this with anyone else, and it was through those conversations that we formed a bond. We talked about how we could get better if we did certain things, and, I realize now, it was in these conversations that we developed the ideas that would shape the unique way Ajax came to play in the late 1960s, while every other club was doing the things they had always done. He would explain to me how he wanted to play and what needed to be done if something went wrong. Henk Angel, Arend van der Wel, Jany van der Veen, Rinus Michels, Piet Keizer and many others helped to define what I became in the end. At important moments in my life they also went out of their way for me off the field as well. But it was Michels who drove me to the doctor because, after my father passed away, we didn’t have a car at home any more. Less agreeable things happened between Michels and me later on, but they never tainted the image I had of the man who stood up for me when, as a young guy, I really needed him.

My father died in 1959, when he was forty-five and I was twelve. It was the day I got my lower school certificate and I heard that he was dead during the farewell party. After that, Ajax started to play an even bigger part in my life, because I no longer had my father at home to turn to. We found out that he had died of a heart attack because his cholesterol was too high. His death has never let go of me, and as I grew older, the feeling that his fate would also be mine grew stronger. For a long time, I thought that I wouldn’t make fifty. So I wasn’t really very surprised when I developed heart problems at about the same age as my father, while I was coaching at Barcelona, because I had more or less prepared myself for it. Except for one big difference – thirty years later medical science was able to save me.

My father is, like my mother, buried in Amsterdam’s eastern cemetery, which is right by the old Ajax stadium, and not long after he was buried I started talking to him whenever I walked, cycled or drove past the graveyard. I did this for a long while after he died. To start with I talked to him about school, then later, when I was playing for Ajax, I talked to him mostly about football: what a dick the referee was, how I’d scored my goals, that kind of thing. Over the years our conversations changed but never ceased. I always went to talk to him to ask his advice every time I had to make a difficult decision in my life. ‘So, what do you think, Dad?’ Then I got up next morning and knew what I needed to do. I still have no idea how it worked, but he was there every time I had to make a decision, and after I had talked to him I knew exactly the right thing to do.

One time, I would have been in my early twenties by this point, I was still living in Amsterdam, had just got married and was playing regularly for the first team. Things were good, but there were a lot of rows at Ajax at the time, and I was racked with doubts about certain things, even about the help my father still seemed to be giving me. I am not very religious, and I started wondering how this was happening. After all, nobody’s ever come back from the dead. That’s when I put my father on the spot a bit. I asked him to stop my watch whenever he was nearby, in whatever form, to show that he was really there and could hear what I was saying. It may be coincidence, but the next morning my watch had stopped. My father-in-law owned a watch shop, and a watchmaker there looked at it the same day, couldn’t find anything wrong and soon got it going again. The very next morning it was the same story – my watch had stopped again. Once more I went back to the shop, and again they couldn’t find anything amiss. That evening I told my father he’d convinced me that he had heard everything I had said, and the next day my watch was still going and has never stopped since. I wear it every day.

In the months after my father’s death my mother had to earn some money, and because of the close connection with the club through my father and Uncle Henk, as well as because I was hanging around all the time, Ajax looked after our family. One thing they did was find her the work as a house cleaner for the English trainers that Ajax had at the time, which led to me getting to know the Buckingham family. The club also employed her to clean the changing rooms. A few years later, when my mother married Uncle Henk, who became a second father to me and still worked at the club, my connection to Ajax was complete.

Even though my mother was now earning money, there wasn’t enough spare to pay for us to go on holiday now, so I spent the whole year at De Meer, even after the season had finished. Whatever the month, I was always there playing football. In the summer, when the football season had finished, baseball was played at Ajax, and I was very good at that, too. As a catcher I was even on the Dutch national team until I was fifteen. I was also the first hitter, but I was so small that they could never pitch three strikes. So it was often four wide and straight for home base.

Baseball allowed me to focus on a lot of details that would later be very useful to me in football. As a catcher you determine the pitcher’s throw because he doesn’t have an overview of the whole field and you do. I learned that you had to know where you were going to throw the ball before you received it, which meant that you had to have an idea of all the space around you and where each player was before you made your throw. No football coach ever told me that I had to know where I was going to pass the ball before I had received it, but later on when I was playing football professionally the lessons from baseball – to focus on having a total overview – came back to me, and became my strength. Baseball is typically one of those sports that can bring on a talent during training, because there are lots of parallels with football. Like starting speed, sliding, spatial insight, learning to think a move ahead and much more besides. These are the same sort of principles that Barcelona have with their close control and passing drills like the rondo, which are the foundation of their tiki-taka style.

I know for certain that it worked for me because I continued to immerse myself in baseball later on, which meant that as a coach I was able to transfer a lot of advice from baseball to football very successfully. The same was true of learning to think ahead, which was what baseball taught me as well. You’re always busy making decisions between space and risk in fractions of a second. To be good at baseball required you to bridge the gap between runner and home, and get the ball there before the runner arrives. It also taught me about tactical insight – making the right decision and performing it in a technically good way. It was only later that I pulled this together to create my vision of how the game of football should be played. I absorbed all these lessons without noticing the bigger picture at the time. I was just a kid who had a ball every waking minute of every day.


  • "Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it"- Pep Guardiola on Cruyff's work at the Nou Camp.

    "He is like the Godfather of Dutch football" - Frank Rijkaard.

    "Pythagoras in boots. Few have been able to exert, both physically and mentally, such mesmeric control on a match from one penalty area to another" - David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange.

    "He was at the heart of a revolution with his football. Ajax changed football and he was the leader of it all. If he wanted he could be the best player in any position on the pitch" - Eric Cantona.

    "The proudest moment of my career. I thought I'd win the ball for sure, but he tricked me. I was not humiliated. I had no chance. Cruyff was a genius." - Jan Olsson, the Sweden defender who was tricked by the Cruyff Turn at the 1974 World Cup.

    "As a player he turned football into an art form. Johan came along and revolutionised everything. The modern-day Barca started with him, he is the expression of our identity, he brought us a style of football we love" - the former Barcelona president Joan Laporta.

    "He has had the biggest influence on football out of anyone in the world, first as a player and then as a coach." - Guardiola again.

On Sale
Apr 24, 2018
Page Count
336 pages
Bold Type Books

Johan Cruyff

About the Author

Johan Cruyff (1947-2016) played for and coached Ajax and Barcelona. In his retirement, he managed the Cruyff Foundation, the Cruyff Institute, Cruyff Classics, and the Cruyff Library, and wrote a weekly column for De Telegraaf. Cruyff passed away in March 2016 in Barcelona.

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