Book Review: Fierce Genius: Cruyff’s Year at Feyenoord by Andy Bollen
If you engaged a football fan in word association, throwing them the name ‘Johan Cruyff’, the most expected response would be ‘Ajax’, the club he successfully played and managed and with which he is most readily associated. You might also get a few replying ‘Holland’, ‘Total Football’ or ‘14’ the number famously worn by the Dutch legend, or even ‘Barcelona’, like Ajax a club he won honours with both as a player and coach. Some may even respond ‘turn’ as in the ‘Cruyff Turn’, which originated when he twisted Swedish defender Jan Olsson inside out during their World Cup game in 1974. What is highly unlikely is that any would be prompted to say ‘Feyenoord’ – the reason? Well, Cruyff’s farewell season in 1983/84, playing for the Rotterdam based club, despite the club winning the ‘double’ (Eredivisie and KNVB Cup), is largely forgotten about, amongst all else that Cruyff achieved. Andy Bollen’s Fierce Genius: Cruyff’s Year at Feyenoord, therefore, is a welcome window on this period about Amsterdam’s most famous footballing son.
In terms of the format of the book, Bollen does not simply focus on that campaign back in the early 1980s but provides a wider view as he looks across Cruyff’s career as player and coach in Holland, Spain and in America, as well as portraying something of his character and temperament. This means that the triumphant season at Feyenoord, is dealt with in just six chapters (out of thirty-one), with five focusing on the league matchdays and one detailing the Cup win. The emphasis of these six chapters is very much around match detail with description of the major incidents of the games, drawn it feels from the many videos available on YouTube, and incidentally well worth a watch to fully appreciate the genius of Cruyff. If there is a disappointment it is that those chapters on that season don’t contain more interviews and opinions from that campaign, whether that be coaches, players, administrators, fans or the media, to get more reflection and insight on an incredible achievement. Indeed it is not really until the final chapter, that more context is provided on the events of the 1983/84 Eredivisie.
However, that aside, this is a very informative and readable portrayal which Bollen relates with humour and as it evident from the writing, from the authors position as a fan of Cruyff. The chapters woven around the 1983/84 season take the reader from Cruyff the boy growing up in Amsterdam, through his first playing spell at the De Meer Stadion from 1964 to 1973, his five year stint in Spain with Barcelona, brief sojourns in the USA playing in the NASL and Spain with Levante, before a second spell at Ajax in which Cruyff delivered leagues titles in 1981/82 and in the following season. At the end of that campaign, in which Ajax also won the Cup, Cruyff was 36 and the expectation was that he would get a further one-year deal and retire at the club.
However, as Bollen details, this didn’t come to pass and instead Cruyff made the forty-odd miles journey from Amsterdam to Rotterdam, joining Ajax’s bitterest rivals, Feyenoord, capturing the ‘double’ for De Trots van Zuid and winning Dutch Footballer of the Year for himself. Once he retired from playing, Cruyff showed that his genius wasn’t just restricted to playing as coaching roles at Ajax and Barcelona brought national and European success taking and developing ‘Total Football’ to a new level, with his influence today seen for example in the managerial style of Pep Guardiola and a lasting legacy on the youth set-up and systems at both de Godenzonen and Barça.
For all the positives that Cruyff brought to the game, Bollen is balanced in acknowledging that the Dutchman had his faults and weaknesses. For instance, not everyone was comfortable with Cruyff’s continual drive for perfection or his stubbornness and sometimes forthright views, whether on or off the pitch, aimed at teammates, coaches, the media and football administrators alike. Indeed, Bollen recognises that this side of his character was undoubtedly instrumental in Cruyff lose a captaincy vote by the Ajax squad in 1973 and was no doubt influential in him not becoming coach of the Dutch national side.
The nearest Cruyff got to being an international manager was his time from 2009 to 2013 when he was in charge of Catalonia and which turned out to be his last job in the game. Sadly, Cruyff lost his battle with lung cancer and died on 24 March 2016 – the Fierce Genius was gone. He will though be remembered as long as football is played.
If you look at the greatest players in history, most of them couldn’t coach. If you look at the greatest coaches in history, most of them were not great players. Johan Cruyff did both – and in such an exhilarating style. (Former Ajax and Dutch international Johan Neeskens)
(Pitch Publishing. February 2021. Hardback 288 pages)