Genuine genius Cruyff called to account in all his cantankerous complexity

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The Independent Online
Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff: The ABC of an Obstinate Maestro By Frits Barend and Henk Van Dorp (Bloomsbury, hardback, pounds 16.99)

JOHAN CRUYFF is as complex a character as the sub-title suggests. To the journalists from whom he sought money for interviews - in the hope of putting them off, he insists - the godlike Dutchman was plain greedy. Yet there has always been a strong aesthetic sense running parallel to the mercenary streak. Cruyff refused to consider a lucrative move to Roma because their ground has a running track, "and that's the worst thing there is."

This is an unusual book about an uncompromising individual. Eschewing the self-justifying trawl through games and goals that is the standard fare of football biography, it is based on the transcripts of (unpaid) interviews which Barend and Van Dorp held with Cruyff. Starting in 1970, when he was orchestrating Ajax's "total football", they take us through his various returns to Amsterdam and sojourns with Barcelona to open-heart surgery and last year's 50th birthday.

Cruyff's nature is so contrary that, for every insight coaxed from him, there are several moments of world-class obfuscation. In 1992, when the question of whether he should become national coach if the Netherlands reach the next World Cup finals is vexing the nation, the authors express bewilderment at his failure to clarify his position. "If I'd wanted you to understand," he tells them, no doubt sucking on the omnipresent cigarette, "I'd have explained it better."

He is only marginally more open about himself as a player. Cruyff is, of course, up there with Pele, Di Stefano, Maradona and Best, and this collection sheds some light on how he inspired Ajax's rise in the 1960s. It was all down to a scientific approach, he says, although the lay reader may find his analysis of the system does little to demystify it. But when asked how his own style developed, he replies unhelpfully: "I don't know. I don't think that much about myself."

There are, however, enough quirky or candid remarks to belie the suspicion that Cruyff is too clever, cautious or stubborn to give much away. "Orange is a concept," he says, "but so, accidentally, is Cruyff." If this sounds pretentious, a la Cantona, there is a pleasing bluntness to his explanation of why, as his country's first diploma-less coach, he concentrates on technique and tactics: "I hated running in the woods."

He is especially revealing about the two clubs he kept returning to and his fractious relations with those who run them; he left Ajax as coach partly because of their reluctance to sign Cyrille Regis. His thoughts on Dennis Bergkamp's temperament and Ruud Gullit as a coach are fascinating with hindsight, while the identity of the one playing colleague he felt was on his wavelength, Ajax's "Einstein", will surprise many.

Likewise the confession that "anything modern", from mobile phones to credit cards and faxes, is beyond his comprehension, and above all his claim that a major factor in why he never took the national job was his dislike of the Dutch FA blazer. Truly, a most cantankerous genius.

- Phil Shaw