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In Memoriam: Johan Cruijff

“In a sense, I’m probably immortal.” It’s one of the many quotes that Dutch football legend Johan Cruijff, who tragically passed away recently after a six-month struggle with lung cancer, will be remembered for. The man is widely considered to have been our greatest football player of all time, if not our greatest sportsman ever — at least, I can’t think of someone else from the top of my head. Just two months before his death, he had even been quite optimistic about his disease: “I feel like I’m 2-0 up in the first half. The game isn’t over yet, but I’m sure that I’ll win in the end.” Alas, it wasn’t to be… However, despite dying at a relatively young age (68), Cruijff’s legacy is an enormous one — one to be very proud of. His ideology of dominant, attacking football is still successful to this day, with his former club FC Barcelona playing it to perfection in recent years, reaching highs that it couldn’t possibly have dreamed of before Cruijff — or El Salvador, as he was typically called — came to the rescue. (Just do me a favour and don’t mention Ajax, okay?) Let’s shed some light on this ideology by analysing the man’s most ingenious quotes, translated into English by yours truly. Enjoy!

  • “I like to do work, as long as it’s work that I like.”

Well, let’s get going then, old bugger! The idea behind this one is simple: if you make work appealing to people, they’ll do it more happily.

  • “If you want to achieve something with a group of people, respect should be at the heart of it all.”

It’s a cliché to say it, but it’s a cliché because it’s true… In fact, I feel that this is the case for a lot of these quotes. Cruijff excelled at stating the obvious — sometimes so obvious that you hadn’t even thought of saying it — in rather poetic ways. However, that doesn’t make them any less true. This particular quote requires no further explanation. Respect should be at the heart of every organisation, be it a football club or a big company. (Besides, that’s what football clubs are by now.)

  • “Why shouldn’t you be able to beat a richer club? I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.”

Companies or not, Cruijff took his opponents for what they were: football clubs with — you guessed it — football players. Cruijff was never impressed with the amount of money on their bank accounts, but instead focused on their weaknesses. Similarly, even very rich multinationals have weaknesses (think about size and inflexibility), and they can be exploited as long as you’re creative.

  • “There are many people who can point out that a football team is playing poorly; there are fewer people who can point out why it’s playing poorly; and there are just a handful of people who can point out what needs to happen in order to make it play better.”

Speaking of outperforming others: we all know that the qualities of your personnel — your human resources — influence the performance of your company a great deal. Much like in football, you need leaders who have the vision to determine where to take the company next. If Cruijff had been a businessman, he would undoubtedly have been the captain of the ship — in other words: the CEO.

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

Cruijff is spot on about leadership here. Clearly, not everyone is as natural a leader as he was, and frankly, he would’ve made little effort to refute that; he was a real know-it-all if ever there was one.

  • “It’s the most sensible to listen to others as much as possible, for that benefits your general development. If you pick up even 10%, you’ll already be way ahead of others.”

This is where all that wisdom must’ve been coming from. This is a quote I particularly like myself, because I appreciate a good listener. (You know what they say: speech is silver, silence is golden.) However, personal development is an important topic for businesses too, as they try to implement ‘lifelong learning’ — an increasingly popular concept — into their human resource management. They say that listening has become a lost art, but as Cruijff so rightfully points out, good listeners are often good learners too. Plus, I’m sure that I’m not the only one who appreciates a good listener!

  • “If I ask you to show me what you’re capable of, you would show me what you’re capable of. But that would also tell me what you’re not capable of, for you wouldn’t show me that.”

This is another one of those quotes that you might have to think about twice before it starts to make sense. However, it’s a good thing to keep in mind if you ever happen to be the one conducting job interviews. We all make ourselves look better than we really are on our CV’s, and sometimes we do this by deliberately hiding critical information — willingly and knowingly, as the Dutch would say. Let Cruijff remind you why.

  • “If you select the best player for each position, you wouldn’t have a strong team, but rather a team that falls apart like loose sand.”

Much like in football, hiring people is about finding the right person for the right job, such that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Many past dream teams in football — Real Madrid springs to mind — failed due to a lack of cohesion, and the same thing could happen to a company, Beware of that.

  • “What would you rather have? A good first eleven, or eleven good individuals?”

Apparently, even geniuses like the odd rhetorical question!

  • “Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.”

Just winning was never enough for Cruijff; if possible, his teams had to entertain its supporters by playing attractively — again, this ideology of dominant, attacking football that I mentioned earlier. I’m pretty sure that most companies can relate to the second part of the statement, let alone the first.

  • “It’s a law of football that great success is often followed by big disappointment.”

Ain’t that the truth! It’s one thing to become the biggest fish in the pond, but it’s another to remain it for an extended period of time. This is just as valid in a business context, although it has to be said that brand awareness doesn’t erode as quickly as players’ reputations do. Let’s be grateful for that…

  • “It’s better to go down with your own vision than with someone else’s.”

A truth like a cow. (Yes, this is a Dutch saying, and no, I don’t know the logic behind it.)

  • “I’m still convinced that you should do it the way that I do it, for otherwise, I wouldn’t do it.”

Success or failure, Cruijff stuck to his guts — a sign of confidence that all leaders should possess. Only then can you be a successful businessperson.

  • “The greatest task of human cognition is to comprehend that it cannot comprehend.”

I’ll leave you with these wise words.

Finally, some last words about the man’s sudden death. When the news came in, it was rather shocking, even to me — a 22-year-old who has never seen Cruijff play live, let alone in person. It’s not easy to comprehend how big the man truly was, but if you’ve seen the many beautiful tributes all around Europe, you can at least start to get an idea. Cruijff wasn’t just a formidable player and manager, but also a real visionary of the game whose influence can still be seen at the very highest level. Personally, I can’t think of someone who has left a greater legacy to the world of football than Cruijff has, and it makes me a proud Dutchman to say that we brought forth this admirable person.

As for where he might be right now? “I don’t believe in God. In Spain, all 22 players make the sign of a cross before they enter the pitch. If that worked, all matches should therefore end in a draw.” Johan Cruijff, 1947-2016. May he rest in peace.


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