It was far from obvious that the Johan Cruyff story would become the face of a good cause. He was known for a while as a money wolf, partly because he was the first football player with an agent to take care of his financials. That was Cor Coster, father of his wife Danny and therefore Cruyff’s father-in-law. And also not when it came to a healthier life, because the three-time European Footballer of the Year was regularly caught with a cigarette between his lips. In 2022, the Cruyff Courts, which give every child the opportunity to move enough and thus learn to discover his or her talents and gain self-confidence, are almost impossible to count…
This is Part 3 of ‘The Cruyff Story’ Series. Make sure to read Part 1 and Part 2.
In January 1991, his heart suddenly showed failure, during a walk with Danny. He was found to have arteriosclerosis and was rushed into surgery for a heart bypass. The success coach of Barcelona was only 43 years old, his father Manus had died at the age of 45 from a cardiac arrest. That does something to a person.
With Johan Cruyff maybe a little different than the average heart patient. If a journalist asked about it, he turned a disadvantage into an advantage, because that was his nature. ‘Heart problems? Everyone always makes a problem of something’, he could then respond, ‘I see it as an extra experience that you have to use. I’ve been living a lot healthier since then. Quit smoking.’
“You know: this and this and this has happened and that’s the risk. Well, then it’s over. Many people cannot deal with such a problem because they look back. I say: the bypass surgery has solved it, so you can go ahead again. That is to say: live on and not let your life be spoiled by fear. That’s a lot of people’s problem. They don’t live on! What’s the point of having surgery then?’
His heart problems were of course a wake-up call. Cruyff openly fought against smoking. The commercial in which he ends up shooting a pack of cigarettes out of an imaginary stadium has done the anti-smoking campaign a lot of good (and the lollipops of Chupa Chups).
Cruyff soon took up not only against smoking, but also for health. Not only his own Chantal, Susila and Jordi, or the players in his team, but all children. Especially those who had not been as affected as the Cruyffs or the gifted top footballers of this world. And usually don’t get nearly as many opportunities to grow.
Completely according to his own motto. “In general, your fate is determined,” he once said. ‘The only thing you can do yourself is work hard and never let the talents you get slip away.’
The Johan Cruyff Foundation
From 1997, the man who initially preferred not to be publicized in connection with charities, linked his name to a good cause. His own charity, the now well-known Johan Cruyff Foundation. What started small is now gigantic. So big that his old friend and ambassador Michael van Praag does not immediately think of the footballer or coach when he is asked what Johan Cruyff’s greatest merit has been, but of his role as a pioneer and beacon of hope.
“He has put his fame at the service of children and neighborhoods,” said the former chairman of Ajax and the KNVB a while back in VI. ‘He wanted to transform disabled and disadvantaged children into sporting youth, and teach them something about healthy living, rules and discipline.’ Because, as life had taught Cruyff: ‘You only get one body, you have to do it with it for the rest of your life.’
If a Cruyff Court, as his concept of modern football playgrounds were christened in 2003, was opened somewhere, it could just happen that Cruyff himself was also present. That’s how Van Praag experienced. “It was the same everywhere,” the driver saw, “wherever he went: people loved it when he was there. He had no star allures at all. No gold Rolexes. He talked to children and took them on his arm.’
‘His name and legacy will continue to exist’, van Praag promised, also on behalf of other ambassadors such as Sjaak Swart, Frank Rijkaard, Dennis Bergkamp, Ronald Koeman, Wesley Sneijder, Pep Guardiola, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi, Gerard Piqué, Soufiane Touzani, Jackie Groenen and Esther Vergeer. “We will all continue to do so at full speed.”
Like a kind of footprints, there are already hundreds of Cruyff Courts in the world, from Amsterdam to Maastricht, from Chicago to Kuala Lumpur. Also special versions for children and young people who go through life with a disability. And lots of events are organized, such as the first national final of the Streetwise Cup, the street football tournament of the Netherlands.
Translated into Cruyffian language: ‘Often something has to happen before something happens.’ No time to sit still. Physical exercise is life.’
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