I felt like a kid in a candy shop.
The only thing is that I was in my 40’s and the candy shop was AJAX Amsterdam and the man behind the counter distributing sweet morsels of wisdom was Johan Cruyff.
I wish I could tell you it was easy.
It was not.
Johan was a football genius. He could see football field like a chess master sees the board. The game was not played in the present for him but in the future. Several, and I mean several, moves ahead – calculating and creative.
“They got it all wrong, every piece,” he used to say to me. And then I would diligently take notes. Notes, notes, and then more notes.
He would jump from thought to thought and while at times it seemed so disjointed, his thinking was holistic. He could not change one piece without changing them all. Every pawn, every bishop, every knight would need to understand his role and not stray from purpose.
The Board of Directors was a problem. The press was a problem.
The ex-players were a blessing. The youth were an opportunity.
The Academy would be the saving grace of a club that could not compete on the financial fields with the biggest clubs in Europe.
Imagination, not money, would be our greatest asset.
I wish I could say it was straightforward but it was not.
The darkest forces of power were in the shadows undermining every step for fear that Johan might just succeed. Deceit and blatant unethical manipulation. I will spare you the stories of those who would lie, cheat and steal along the way to protect their own political position instead of work toward to the common good for the club.
In the midst of the revolution was one man.
One man who volunteered his services for a club whose locker rooms his mother used to clean. A club whose fields his second father used to tend. An intimate club that carried him until he could carry it.
We engineered the Cruyff Plan on a power point at the kitchen table and off it went into the phases of implementation. Former players would be called to action. We would begin with workshops ensuring that every employee from the technical director to the facility manager to the kind and capable servers at the bar would understand their value to the process of raising talented, intelligent and responsible athletes. Footballers first. The youth players would be the highest priority and each employee was critical to the process of educating the next generation.
“It was a great moment for him to step in. That’s why we see so many young players coming through again. That’s definitely the influence of Johan.” – Ronald de Boer
Patience, persistence and undying faith. This was not a short-term fix in a world of short-term fixation. This was as solution. This was a vision of how a small club could compete at the highest levels. Boys against men. But boys who were well-trained and passionate about powerful performance - about style and substance.
Tonight, seven years after scribbling notes and moving sugar packets across the kitchen table to replicate the redesign of the AJAX Academy, the club will play a UEFA final against an English giant.
Win, lose or draw – Johan will be watching from above knowing once again that he was right. In youth we must invest, on and off the field. Johan was “crazy until he was a genius.” And the genuine and altruistic vision he shared for his maternal club is alive and well, activating talent.
“That’s the philosophy that Johan changed back to again. That’s why everybody speaks of the academy again.” – Ronald De Boer
Johan’s grandchildren and I will sit up late tonight watching a football match. But I will also be watching the legacy of football visionary play out before my eyes. And we will watch with many more millions of you out there who still believe that a vision coupled with action can lead us to the best state – a state of pride knowing that our youth matter and that they are capable of remarkable feats.
Well done, Johan. Enjoy the match.