Boardroom battle at Dutch giants

Cruyff rift tearing Ajax apart

April 12, 2011
By Ernst Bouwes
(Archive)

With FC Twente and PSV struggling with an overloaded fixture list, suspensions and out-of-form and tired players, Ajax have stealthily sneaked back into the Eredivisie title race with six points from their last two games. But this is almost an afterthought for their fans, who are currently split by the return of Johan Cruyff to the club.

Johan Cruyff arrives at Ajax as the board of directors resign during a special meeting of the member council
GettyImagesJohan Cruyff arrives at Ajax as the board of directors resign during a special meeting of the member council

Cruyff became the chairman of an advisory group in February which was established to monitor and critique the current development set-up at the club. However, when their first report proved not to be advice but rather a dictum, all hell broke loose at the Amsterdam ArenA.

Cruyff's plan is to overhaul the Ajax youth academy and return to basics with more ex-pros on the coaching staff, just as he did at Barcelona. Cruyff, who both played for and managed the Catalan club, is seen as the inspiration for the current tiki-taka generation at Camp Nou.

Director of the Ajax youth academy Jan Olde Riekerink commented on Cruyff's 12-page plan for Ajax in an interview with NRC Handelsblad and said that it was actually not too different from the current set-up. Other insiders also wondered what all the fuss was about as there was no proposal for a major overhaul of the working strategy at the De Toekomst academy. Instead, most of the ideas, which the Ajax board had already agreed during initial discussions with Cruyff, could be easily implemented.

The real cause of fracture at Ajax was Cruyff's demand to let eight youth coaches go without sufficient evidence of their incapability. Just a few months before, Ajax had tried to dismiss head scout Hans van der Zee, but could not convince the necessary officials that it needed doing, and firing another eight employees just because Cruyff did not like them would cost the club over €1 million in compensation. When the board refused to cooperate, the Cruyff camp angrily withdrew their services and announced they would take action at the members' council at the end of March.

Within a few hours Ajax became the subject of a media war between two major newspapers and a ground war between Cruyffians and anti-Cruyffians with the (Louis) Van Gaalistas stuck somewhere in the middle. Just before the start of the members' council meeting the board buckled under pressure and stepped down. At the press conference that night, Chairman Uri Coronel published some of the threats he had received from Cruyff's supporters in the media:

"If you support the directors, you are done for. I'll write you down." And "when you don't co-operate, the network will side against you."

These were no idle threats. Since the '70s Cruyff has had three influential friends in the media; Jaap de Groot of Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, Voetbal International magazine's Johan Derksen and Frits Barend of RTL-tv have formed a powerful entourage. The more paranoid critics could suggest that Cruyff has been particularly cunning to select these cronies, but it is more likely that the trio have found their intimacy and close contact with the Dutch football legend very beneficial for their own careers.

In recent decades, De Groot, Derksen and Barend have provided Cruyff with a powerful media mouthpiece. And the three of them definitely have the platform and are ruthless enough to execute the aforementioned threats. They are instrumental to the leaders of the current revolution.

Their opponent is the Rotterdam-based Algemeen Dagblad, who support the Ajax board, or what is left of it, and happily brought up Cruyff's chequered past as the debate raged. Should Cruyff lose his battle with the club, then De Telegraaf lose too and Algemeen Dagblad will take over as Ajax's mouthpiece. Scoops from Ajax are commercially very interesting for a news corporation.

Yet while the Dutch football world has been set ablaze as rumours, opinions and accusations bombard the public from every media outlet, the man himself has returned to Barcelona and to his wife Danny - the only person who can stop him talking.

Johan Cruyff: Inspiration for Barcelona's current tiki-taka generation
GettyImagesJohan Cruyff: Inspiration for Barcelona's current tiki-taka generation

Following his heart operation in 1991, Danny became stricter in controlling her man. He withdrew as national coach for the 1994 World Cup in a cloud of arguments after an initial agreement. She probably forbade him to go as it was too dangerous for his health. Several times since, Cruyff has promised to commit to some responsibility, only to resign later with some half-hearted excuse. It's as if she told him to stop being foolish, but he did not dare to say so in public. Danny appears to be very well capable of handling Cruyff.

During the upheaval in Amsterdam, Cruyff employed a new agent, after which the tone of his attacks on the Ajax board toughened. This surprised many in and around Ajax, maybe Danny as well, who may have had watched the disturbing scenes at the Amsterdam ArenA on her television in Barcelona. Being the caring wife of a 63-year-old heart patient, she might well have said: "Enough nonsense with you." Taking a responsible position in the club will most likely be vetoed by her. With Cruyff currently residing in Barcelona for the past two weeks and the board gone, news of a revolution has stalled for now.

Not inside the club though, as youth trainers Dennis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk belong to the technical group which Cruyff suggested needed to discharge several colleagues, some on the spot. Meanwhile, Danny Blind has been branded a turncoat and a failure by Cruyff's entourage and has to finish the season working alongside Frank de Boer, who is very much in the middle of Cruyff's plans. De Boer has since stated that he holds Blind in very high regard. The atmosphere at the training complex at De Toekomst must be hell at the moment.