| Thierry Henry will struggle in this tournament, feels Cruyff
Early in my international career, I was pinned to the guard rail of the Hoverfoil that connects mainland Denmark with the Swedish city of Malmo by Fleet Street’s finest. I was new to the scene and en route to the Europa Cup semi-final.
Treading carefully and probably side stepping their questions, I completed my ocean-side interview.
My interrogators moved on to other members of the British athletics team. One of them, a quick-witted, acerbic Eastender, who when not trackside, was ringside in Vegas following the fights, took me aside.
He removed the cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth. “You’ve got talent, son, but do yourself a favour, always have an opinion,” he growled.
It is a doctrine I have always tried to follow even if it cost me my Olympic place in 1988.
Nobody has ever accused Johan Cruyff, Holland’s best footballer, whose talents sit comfortably with those of the likes of Pele, Charlton and Maradona, of not having an opinion. For starters, he believes England will never win anything, that there are no great sides at Euro 2004 and that Thierry Henry, the scourge of Premiership defences, will struggle to make a mark at the tournament.
Now 57, Cruyff still looks as greyhound-lean as he did when tormenting (and occasionally ridiculing) world-class defenders 30 years ago with ball skills that were an oasis of ecstasy, at a time when international football in Europe was as appetising as the fourth hour of the speaking clock.
Only deeply etched lines around his eyes and the greying crew-cut hint at the passing of time.
“I went grey when I became a manager,” he laughed. He could have added that after three blocked arteries from 50 cigarettes a day and open-heart surgery, he is lucky his legendary status is not posthumous.
“I only decided to become a manager when I was told I couldn’t.”
It is a sentiment that has a familiar refrain throughout Cruyff’s playing and managerial career. He was told in his early teens that he would never be big enough to be a great player. And after retiring at the age of 37 following a successful swansong at Feyenoord — he left his beloved Ajax because he was told he was too old to go on playing — went to Barcelona because the chairman of Ajax wanted him to go to Madrid.
He then returned to Ajax to pursue a managerial career because the Dutch Football Association told him he didn’t have the necessary coaching qualification. “They couldn’t see beyond the paper, almost as though I had never played in two World Cup finals or been a part of the best-ever international side apart from the Brazil team of 1970,” he said.
The Dutch federation wanted him to study for six years for his piece of paper. “I know everything about playing the game, the technique, the tactics, but I don’t know the physical or the medical, how long will that bit take'”' he asked. “Seven months,” they explained, and after his period of study he joined Ajax as technical director.
Three times the disciplinary committee hid in trees and bushes around the training ground with film cameras trying to prove he was coaching. Each time he explained that he was only passing on instructions to the qualified coaches standing alongside him.
In the end they gave up, which was just as well as he went on to win the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1987. When finally he was told he could call himself a coach, he smiled and explained that he was rather fond of his old title.
His coaching doctrine was simple: “Dominate the ball — move it around quickly with good technique and get to a position where you can attack as quickly as possible and never ask players to do what they can’t do. I’ve played with players all my life with less quality than I have,” he explained disarmingly.
“Don’t ask them to do in a game what they don’t have the technique to carry off. The problem for most coaches is preventing even good players from doing things in a game they don’t do well. Football is essentially a game of mistakes — if you do seven things well in every 10, you’ll be a great player, if that drops to five you’ll have a losing side on your hands.”
The old master evidently has little doubt about his own sublime talent. “I had no weaknesses but that’s not really the point, I didn’t make mistakes and I just enjoyed playing.”
What made the Dutch side of the Seventies so special' “I’ve never been in a team that enjoyed playing so much. We were playing at a time when coaches were killing the game, always encouraging footballers to play the ball on quickly, forbidding them to dribble and actually not being taught properly the right time to give the ball away.
Rinus Michels, the Dutch team coach, gave us a system but the system was never allowed to get in the way of our talents.”
He also knew what we could and couldn’t do and, unlike many Dutch sides, he gave us focus. He has been my greatest influence.”
In eight years as manager of Barcelona, Michels’ influence helped Cruyff win four league championships, a European Cup and two European Cup-Winners’ trophies. Cruyff looks forward to the opening salvos of this week’s European Championship with resignation. “There are no great sides in there,” he opines, “the most depressing match I have seen for a long time was the goalless draw between France and Brazil. I never thought I’d see two sides full of such talent running back into defensive positions the second they lost possession, like a handball team.”
He marks down France as marginal favourites, “only because they have the edge technically. England will have some good matches but they will never win anything because of the way you play in the Premiership, which is exciting to watch but you don’t beat unexciting, methodical teams like that.
Henry is a good example of that. I think he’ll struggle in this tournament and it’s not a style that would suit Italy or Spain.”
With such strident views I thought I’d go for the clean sweep — and Mourinho at Chelsea'
“I don’t think that’ll work, either. I don’t like the way Porto play. Last season they had some good games and some disastrous games. I don’t like coaches who sit back and wait for other teams to make mistakes. The first thing he said was he’d cut the playing staff in half. What’s that shit about'”'
It was at that point I explained to him that I was a season-ticket holder. “I’m not sure I’d want to watch it,” he smiled. “I’m off for a game of golf,” he laughed. “Presumably because somebody told you you should be playing tennis,” I asked'
He shrugged his shoulders and again laughed. “I will die with my way of thinking, not yours.”