Should he stay or should he go? In the most unusual managerial change across European football, when it came to deciding the fate of a coach with an outstanding unbeaten record, Jordi Cruyff merely looked in the mirror and in effect fired himself. The Dutchman, steeped in the game, laughs about it as he reflects on this uncommon experience.
Cruyff has been the sporting director of Maccabi Tel Aviv for four years. At the beginning of January, with the team low on confidence and results, he stepped in to take on the role of interim manager and the team were instantly lifted. Eight wins and a draw later, Jordi told himself enough was enough. “It was a tough conversation,” he says, jokingly.
Behind the yarn, though, deeply thoughtful motives drove his decision making. “I always told myself: never replace a coach by sitting in his chair yourself. It is not the correct thing to do. It brings bad energy.”
The influence of his late father, the uniquely gifted footballing stylist and thinker Johan, played a big part in that choice. “My father was a man of principles and one thing he always told me is if you have a doubt between a human decision or a professional decision, always follow the human decision. If you take the right human decision in the end everything will be OK. He always pushed me towards that. I have always stuck by that if I have any doubts.”
Since losing his father in March last year, Cruyff has faced new challenges in his life as he tries to come to terms with such a significant absence. The loss of a huge presence leaves a big hole. Concentrating on work has been a help of sorts, even if this has not been the most straightforward of seasons.
The role of a sporting director demands clear judgment, and around the turn of the year Maccabi Tel Aviv were drifting under the management of Shota Arvaladze. The players were underperforming. Cruyff analysed the situation and went for the “high-risk call” to take over the team himself while he looked around for a longer-term replacement.
“We had a lot of tough away games coming up and I thought we need a period of adaptation, the team was in a bad vibe, and it was difficult for a new coach to come in. I took responsibility, I took that risk. I knew what the players could do so I tried to get things back on track.” And how. What enthused him was how strongly the players reacted. “Psychology is an important part and I saw it with some players who stepped it up so much they looked completely different. The lightbulb went on.”
One of the reasons he felt able to take temporary charge is that he is extremely well qualified. Not all sporting directors have the benefit of Cruyff’s footballing education – he took all his coaching badges as well as being able to call on the experience of his family and his own playing career. The prime motivation was not a specific ambition to coach but a desire to identify as clearly as he could with the tasks and problems a manager faces. He wanted to speak their language. He has developed a passion for tactics and his own philosophy on how he likes the game to be played. His love for passing, attacking football is blended with respect for strong organisation. These ideas underscore all his planning.
“What you see a lot in clubs is that an owner runs a club and thinks to run it a certain way according to his other businesses. But football is completely different. The main difference is that the major decisions have to be made by a so-called sports specialist. What you see a lot is a coach has the key of the club, decides to sign six players in the summer, and when they lose five games in a row the coach is out and a new one comes and then signs another group of players.
“You have an unbelievable shift of players in and out with all the associated costs. The best thing for a coach is to do what they are really good at and let the sports director take care of the mid- and long term. I like to protect both interests but with a clear inclination towards good results.”
He is a rare breed – a fusion between the business side and the pure footballing side – and that was evident from a young age. “It started when I was 20 years old and I had a knee injury,” he explains. “I went to see two doctors in Spain who said my career was finished. Funnily enough I played until I was 35. It did open my eyes. Wow. An alarm. I was not ready to fall back on anything besides my parents at that time if something goes wrong. So I applied myself to study and preparation. I studied business management when I was in the first team of Barcelona. When I was a Man United player I went to do a post-graduate course in marketing. So I was always open to learn new things and develop myself.
“With the coaching badges it wasn’t my intention to coach, but I wanted to understand. Badges bring a little bit of structure in your mind. The way to handle pressure, the decisions you make in big moments, is something that comes from inside you. But you can use the coaching course to help on your weak points.”
His experiences as a player, with spells at Barcelona, Manchester United and Alavés particularly key in sharpening his ideology, are also invaluable in his current administrative role. “I experienced a lot of things – happy days, sad days, I had 12 operations, a lot of injuries, sitting on the bench, being in the stands, playing … I have been through all the emotions of sport. That helped me to understand how players might think.
“One of the vital aspects to understand whether a player might succeed or not is it’s not only the talent – a lot has to do with character, mentality, adaptation. If you have ever experienced a dressing room – and a complicated dressing room is where you learn the most – it is very hard. You can’t just say: ‘Let’s sign this player, he is good.’ The small details are vital.
“It’s a team sport but there are only 11 sandwiches with 25 hungry players who all want to grab the sandwich for themselves. There is competition and individuality within the team group. You need to try to get everyone moving in the same direction. Everybody knows the unwritten rule that in general coaches don’t change winning teams. But still. You want your chance. Then you have social media, the amount that people earn, a lot of things come into it which might create problems. You need to know how to handle that.”
With Cruyff having handed over a revived team to his newly recruited coach, Lito Videgal, Maccabi Tel Aviv are now in a strong position, breathing down the necks of the defending champions, Hapoel Be’er Sheva. As a man with strong values, Cruyff feels he acted in the best way possible for his club. He has a good intuition for coaching appointments and keeps strong relationships with those who have left Tel Aviv for prestigious clubs – departees have gone on to Fiorentina, Valencia and Ajax.
Cruyff ponders the question of how such a pure football man can find himself preferring a job that revolves around contracts and personnel rather than the smell of the grass and the dynamics of the team. “It’s a question I often ask myself. I haven’t really found the right answer. I just follow my instinct.”
That instinct remains linked to the Cruyff way with which he was bought up. “The first principle as a father is you will never push your son to do something that you know he is going to fail in. In the end that is painful because you are hurting the son. I always believe if there is some kind of talent then go for it 100%, follow your passion. My father was a typical Dutchman, live and let live and go your way. About coaching I have something inside me, the experience accumulated over the years creates that.”
So if he was offered a dream job at a major club in future, which chair does he envisage taking – that of the coach or sporting director? Cruyff laughs. “I suppose if something would come now – a big if – it would be as sports director. To be coach in the big teams you need more experience, even if it is inside you. But of course if these clubs call you are always going to be open …”
The only thing that is sure is that Jordi, in true Cruyffian style, will go on doing things in his own way.
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