As a precocious teenager plucked from the streets of a low-rent Amsterdam neighborhood, Johan Cruyff almost single-handedly turned Ajax into a European football giant.
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Now, as a revered elder statesman of the game, he wants to do it again.
But just as he did in his playing days as a mercurial attacking midfielder, he can’t help clashing with authorities. After being asked to draw up a plan of action to return the four-time European champions to their former glory, Cruyff insisted his reform agenda be carried out in full or not at all.
Key to Cruyff’s vision is installing a nucleus of respected former-Ajax stars – Wim Jonk, Dennis Bergkamp and current coach Frank de Boer – to oversee the first team and the club’s legendary youth academy, based at a training facility called "The Future."
Cruyff wants all three to get actively involved in training youth players, focussing more on their individual skills than on team play at the early stages of their development.
Cruyff was known for his brilliant skills and dribbling but also his vision and ability to release teammates with perfect passing.
The club was silent Thursday, the day after its board of directors quit and accused Cruyff at an emotional news conference of strong-arm tactics in insisting that several key staff, including assistant coach Danny Blind, be fired as part of his master plan.
Leaving the club late Wednesday, Cruyff said he had "stuck his neck out" in drawing up the plan.
"It’s clear what has to happen," he said. "We are ready."
Earlier in the evening, outgoing chairman Uri Coronel told reporters that Cruyff had threatened to "take down" him and other board members if his plans were not accepted.
"This process, especially the continuing unrest around the club, is extraordinarily damaging for Ajax," Coronel said after announcing his resignation.
He said nobody could tell the club’s leadership who to fire, "not even Cruyff."
Cruyff denied Coronel’s claims, as did Jonk and Bergkamp, two of the former-Ajax stars Cruyff hand-picked to lead the club out of the wilderness.
Ajax is currently third in the Dutch league, six points behind leader PSV Eindhoven, and has been knocked out of Europe. The only chance for silverware this season is the Dutch Cup, and the club needs to finish second in the league to enter next year’s Champions League.
Cruyff remains immensely popular and influential at Ajax and has frequently commented on the club in his weekly column for top-selling Dutch daily De Telegraaf.
Another Dutch newspaper, De Volkskrant, said Coronel had painted "a Mafia-esque picture" of Cruyff’s dealings with the club in "a fight that will have no winners."
Over the years, the Ajax academy has been a production line of talent, turning out the likes of Cruyff, Bergkamp, Wesley Sneijder and Patrick Kluivert, and allowing the small Amsterdam club to excel in Europe.
It is still nurturing stars of the future – such as promising Ajax right back Gregory van der Wiel – but it has been seen as in decline since Ajax won the Champions League in 1995 with a team built around academy stars like Kluivert, Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf and Frank Rijkaard.
Where Ajax’s academy was once seen as the blueprint for rearing talent, the mantle has now been taken over by Barcelona – the other football love of Cruyff’s life and widely regarded as the best team in the world at the moment.
He joined the Catalan club in 1973 after leading Ajax to three successive European Cups, the predecessor the Champions League, and helped Barcelona win its first Spanish league title since 1960 that season. He also managed Barcelona to a European title in 1992, the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1989 and four Spanish league titles.
Even in his playing days, Cruyff’s assertive personality led to run-ins with authorities. He famously wore a Netherlands shirt made by Adidas with two stripes down the arms instead of the company’s usual three because he had a deal with rival company Puma.
Despite being the country’s greatest footballer and one of its most successful managers, he has never coached the national side because of differences of opinion with the Dutch football association.
The standoff at Ajax will likely lead to a meeting of its members to either endorse or reject Cruyff’s vision. The supervisory board already has begun looking for replacements for the board of directors.
Cruyff says he is not a candidate, preferring to remain an unofficial adviser and mentor to Jonk, Bergkamp and De Boer.