Dutch soccer great Johan Cruyff dies at age 68

Football great Johan Cruijff today died at age 68 after a battle with lung cancer. Cruijff was probably one of the most famous Dutchmen and definitely the most well-known Dutch football player: wherever in the world I have been over the past 30-odd years, the name Cruijff was always a foolproof topic to strike up a conversation.

Cruijff was the first “modern” football player, an athlete who revolutionised the game in more than one way. He was a visionary and master of football tactics. He introduced, together with coach Rinus Michels, the concept of “total football” at Ajax Amsterdam and later as captain of the Dutch national team during the World Cup in Germany in 1974. (The first of three World Cup finals the Netherlands played, and lost, during my lifetime.) He helped Ajax win three European Cups in a row from 1971-1973.

Total football, with players passing the ball frequently to seek advantage, and switch positions seamlessly to adjust to the flow of play, electrified and influenced the game worldwide. This possession-based playing style Cruijff promoted, with an emphasis on relentless attack, has been widely copied since.

After his successes with Ajax he moved to FC Barcelona mid-season in 1973 and led the Catalan team to its first national title in 14 years. Most memorable was the 5-0 win at arch-rival Real Madrid, a team that was heavily supported by Franco’s dictatorship. Some Catalans still refer to Cruijff as “El Salvador,” the saviour.

Johan Cruijff revolutionised and professionalised the game in other ways too. The transfer fee FC Barcelona paid to Ajax (US$14 million in today’s dollars) was unheard of at the time and considered a milestone in the commercialization of sport. He was also one of the first football players to take on corporate sponsorships. For the 1974 World Cup the Dutch football federation had signed a sponsorship with sports brand Adidas whereas Cruijff had his own deal with rival Puma. He refused to wear the team’s official jersey and ended up playing in a custom-made shirt, and shorts, bearing only two stripes on the sleeves instead of Adidas’s famed three.

Cruijff’s virtuosity won him many accolades: he was awarded the European Footballer of the Year trophy in 1971, 1973 and 1974. And was named Europe’s best player of the 20th century in 1999. As coach of Ajax and Barcelona, with whom he won four Spanish titles, he won his fourth European club title.

Unfortunately I was too young to have seen Johan Cruijff play during his glory days at Ajax and Barcelona in the 1970s. My first memory of hearing his name was during the World Cup in Argentina in 1978, an event Cruijff had decided to boycott for reasons that are still not fully known. That there were frictions with other players on the national team was no secret; Cruijff has always been known for being dominant, stubborn, uncompromising and forceful. Another reason given at the time was that he opposed the military dictatorship in Argentina, which, a few years later, made him stand out for me among the mostly apolitical football players.

The first time I saw Cruijff play was on 6 December 1981, when, at age 34, he made his comeback at Ajax after his tenure in Barcelona and an interlude playing for the Los Angeles Aztecs and Washington Diplomats in the United States. He scored an absolutely magical goal, concluding a rush past several defenders with a subtle lob over the goalkeeper from the tip of the penalty box. For several years my generation had the privilege to enjoy Cruijff’s superb game, until his retirement in 1984, which he crowned with both the national cup and championship playing for arch-rival Feyenoord Rotterdam. As a teenager I, and many of my friends, always tried to copy the so-called “Cruijff turn” – a technique he used for passing defenders by faking toward them, then flicking the ball behind his own other leg in the opposite direction and darting after it.

Cruijff was larger than life. He announced last October that he was suffering from lung cancer but continued to write his popular –and very influential in Dutch football– weekly column in De Telegraaf newspaper. Last month Cruijff said he was “2-0 up in the first half” of his battle against cancer. Cruijff was known for his creative use –some would say, abuse– of the Dutch language, commonly referred to as “Cruijffiaans.” “Every disadvantage has its advantage” and “You can’t win without the ball” are oft-quoted classics.

As former Dutch tennis player Raemon Sluiter aptly put it: “‘You have to have lived, otherwise you may not die’ he would probably have said. Rest in peace, Mr. Cruijff.”

Share this:

5 reasons the EU-Turkey deal won’t end the Syrian refugee crisis

After months of negotiations, the 28 European Union leaders and the Turkish government last weekend reached an agreement to slow the refugee influx from Turkey. In exchange for taking back Syrian refugees who crossed to Europe illegally, the EU will accept refugees from Turkey, along with 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) and a renewed prospect for Turkey to join the EU.

Full article published in Dallas Morning News on 23 March 2016.

Share this:

Brussels attacks

BRUSSELS – Dozens were killed and hundreds injured in Brussels this morning in apparent suicide attacks.

Around 8 am local time two bombs went off in the departure hall of Brussels international airport, Zaventem, 11 kilometers from the city center. Shortly thereafter an incoming train exploded at the Maelbeek subway station, in the middle of the European Quarter in Brussels.

“This is our 911,” said Bart Somers, the mayor of neighboring Mechelen on Belgian public radio shortly after the attacks.

Belgian authorities immediately closed down all public transport and train stations in Brussels and advised everyone to stay inside while hunting down possible suspects involved in the attacks.

A few hours after the attacks downtown Brussels looks like a ghost town. Central Station is still closed. The famous medieval Great Market, which on a regular day attracts huge crowds, is nearly empty.

Yet public life in Brussels has not completely come to a standstill. In Schaerbeek, a Brussels neighbourhood bordering the European Quarter, men can be seen hanging around public parks, not sure what to do. A mother is picking up her daughter from a daycare. “I am in total shock,” says Nathalie DeHaene, who can’t wait to be reunited with her 3-year old.

Unlike during the manhunt for the Paris attackers last November, Brussels’s European Quarter is now completely locked down. Police and military are patrolling the streets. The EU flags at the buildings of the European Commission, the heart of Europe, at a stone throw from the Maelbeek subway station where at least 20 people died and more than 100 were wounded, are halfmast. Civil servants are leaving the numerous buildings of EU institutions, including the European Parliament. No one is allowed to (re)enter the area.

Meanwhile tourists gathered in places like the Parc du Cinquantenaire, are following the ensuing developments on their smartphones, waiting what happens next.

At 14:30 local time the sounds of ambulances bringing victims from the metro station to nearby hospitals can still be heard. And helicopters are hovering over the city to provide back up and surveillance.

At 15:45 authorities lift the lock down for most of the city. Office workers make their way to parking garages and the main train stations. The streets fill up. Brussels gets ready for the evening commute as traffic resumes. At Central Station in downtown Brussels commuters are waiting, patiently and visibly relieved, in an ever-longer line to access the one entrance that is open. Each passenger entering the station is strip-searched by police officers.

“We have been so lucky not to have been among the victims,” says Marie Teunstedt. She arrived at work in downtown Brussels this morning at 8:15, right after the bombs exploded at Brussels Zaventem airport. The Maelbeek metro station is three blocks away from her federal government office. Ms. Teunstedt has been following the events all day from her office via the Internet as telephones were down. “This is so difficult to comprehend,” she sighs.

Julie, a civil servant for the European Commission who did not want to give her full name, also stands in line in front of Central Station. She was on board of the subway to Madou station, one stop before Maelbeek station, when the bomb went off. Julie works as a communications officer in the Directorate-General for Competition of the European Commission. As far as she knows, none of the colleagues in her department have been wounded or killed. “Only an hour-and-a-half after did we receive an update. I guess they wanted to be certain that all information was accurate,” she says.

Brussels North Station is now also open. All but the main entrance to the train station has been cordoned off by police and military. The station is encircled by police vans and military vehicles.

The stores in the sprawling departure hall are still closed down. Police halt and search a young immigrant who stands by, which under normal circumstances would have been described as profiling.

In the heavily guarded departure hall commuters are waiting for their delayed trains. Koffi Djokpa waits for his ride to Brain-le-Comte, a –French-speaking– Walloon municipality south of Brussels. He arrived at work this morning after the attacks and just before public transport was shut down. “I guess I was lucky,” he says in fluent Dutch.

He admits that during his workday as a maintenance engineer in the Flemish Ministry of Education, one of the high rises next to North Station, he did not get much information about what was going on in the city.

“I did not expect this. In fact, Brussels has become safer over the past years in my view,” says Mr. Djokpa, an immigrant from Togo who has lived in Belgium for 15 years.

When I tell Taher Alkhteb an hour later that public transport is running again, he is surprised. He did not know. He is the Egyptian owner of a falafel restaurant in a buzzing commercial street with a Middle Eastern flavour in the nearby Schaerbeek district. His restaurant has been open all day. “Politics, always politics…,” says Mr. Alkhteb. “This is the darkest day in my life.”

Five minutes later police find a bomb and an ISIS flag during a search in an apartment two streets over from his restaurant.

Share this: