A great biography sheds further light on one of the world's best football players
The debate as to who is the greatest football player will rage on forever, but the Dutch have long settled this question of course. Johan Cruijff (simplified Cruyff for international audiences) remains by far the best player ever and Dutch journalist Auke Kok penned a 640-page tome on the man who transformed not just the game, but also rose beyond it as an inspirational leader and individual who symbolized a new era of economic freedom and unprecedented individuality.
The biography takes a few interesting themes and elaborates on these while following Cruyff’s career from childhood to his career start in the early 60s to his premature death of cancer in early 2016. The first theme is demonstrating the insane talent the man had as a football player, but noting that it would never have amounted to much had there not been a structure in which to display and use these talents. In the early 1960s, the years when Cruyff rose to prominence, Dutch soccer was an amateur sport, poorly organized and international results were practically non-existent. When Cruyff came on the scene at Amsterdam’s Ajax, the first attempts to professionalize the sport were only just underway and it was the emergence of Rinus Michels – who later was named FIFA’s coach of the 20th century – to lay the groundwork for disciplined football with plans, tactics and structure. It was in this framework Cruyff flourished as the increasingly well-oiled Ajax machine created the platform that enabled him to shine and lead in the delivery of three Champions League trophies as well as a World Cup for club teams. The Ajax model was replicated onto the Dutch national team which at the 1974 FIFA World Cup ended as runner-up, but with most of the world recognizing that the Cruyff-led side played the best football the world had ever seen. The duality of individual and team remained a constant throughout Cruyff’s career as player and coach, his brilliance could only shine in structured environments, but the clubs and teams on themselves would never have been able to shine without Cruyff’s brilliance. Kok’s book dives deep into the numerous conflicts and tensions that this dynamic generated, pointing to the successes it created, but also to the failures and missed opportunities. Cruyff’s deeply individualistic DNA just did not fit into any traditional structure.
A similar dual dynamic underpinned Cruyff as person. Overly confident, intelligent, strong and at times arrogant, he was suffering from deep uncertainties and often used the weirdest rituals ahead of a game to quell the fears he suffered from. His uncertainty was most likely rooted in the early death of his father Manus and throughout life Cruyff tried to find a replacement for the father figure he missed since age twelve. But the uncertainty created by growing up in a family without a father manifested itself in a way that helped contribute to football’s rapid commercialization: Cruyff was almost paranoid about money and even as a well-established millionaire was suffering from deep concerns about his family’s security and well-being. This dynamic never played well in the Calvinist and sober Netherlands, many Dutch rolled their eyes over Cruyff’s hard and seemingly endless negotiations over contracts and commercial activities. However, if you read Kok’s book all of this was entirely logical in the context of Cruyff’s life and his awareness that he only had a short period of time to make money: Cruyff intuited economic uncertainty and was determined to be prepared for the worst.
Despite his internal doubts, Cruyff always displayed extreme confidence and certainty in addition to an almost suicidal loathing of authority: many great career opportunities were destroyed in conflicts with referees, coaches and above all club directors. Any Cruyff fan – and I am certainly one – will attest that the deepest regret we all have is he never collected more than 48 caps for The Netherlands. A more pliant and collaborative Cruyff would have seen far more appearances in the Dutch national orange shirt and possibly more trophies and recognition. It seemed Cruyff accepted this outcome and in that provided evidence of his uncompromising personality.
Financial certainty was there at his 50th when he stopped coaching altogether following a successful run at Barcelona. He focused on his charitable foundation and became a commentator on Dutch TV during which he appeared to elevate himself above everyone else with unfathomable analyses and remarks that became the staple of a number of books. “Football is simple, but playing simple football is very difficult” and “If I had wanted you to understand it, I would have explained it differently” became classics of Cruyff the philosopher.
There was another dichotomy in his life: the consummate sportsman chain smoked throughout his career, something that no doubt contributed to cancer and his death at age sixty-eight. All his fans were devasted when his passing was announced and in particular the Dutch felt an incredible sense of loss. The pain was not just for a fallen sports icon, no, for a nation that had risen from the ravages of World War II, became an economic powerhouse and in the process had grown into a global vanguard of cool and hip individualism, it had lost the very symbol of that incredible rise. Born in 1947 and peaking in the 60s, 70s and 80s Cruyff had become the embodiment of that confident Dutch identity. The man himself understood exactly that he had already eclipsed earthly parameters by stating that “In some ways I am probably immortal”, a remark that opens the biography.
And indeed Cruyff is immortal. His presence just in reading the book is weirdly palpable. His death ended one of most dynamic and creative eras in The Netherlands and in reading this excellent biography it lets you relive those days. At the same time, you learn from one of the few football players that transcended earthly life and became immortal.
A few weeks ago, Michel Bacos passed away at age ninety-four. It got some media attention, but not more than a few small obituaries and twitter references. I briefly mentioned it, but this week a video snippet of his funeral service appeared online and it prompted me to write about the man and his actions in a bit more detail.
Bacos had a colourful life. French, but born in Egypt, he fought during World War II and went on to become a pilot for Air France. In that capacity Bacos found himself as the captain of the ill-fated Flight 139, which on June 27, 1976, was scheduled to fly from Tel Aviv to Paris with a short stop over in Athens. There, a gang of German and Palestinian terrorists boarded and hijacked the plane and directed it to first Benghazi in Libya and eventually to Entebbe in Uganda. The plot thickened there. It turned out the hijackers were getting strong support from then Uganda dictator Idi Amin. Over the course of a few days the pressure was turned up as the terrorists sought not only a dollar ransom, but the release of a large number of Palestinian terrorists imprisoned in Israel. It put the government of then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in a very difficult spot given its stance on non-negotiation with terrorists and the long distance to Uganda made any rescue attempt next to impossible.
After only a few days, the crisis worsened as the Israeli and Jewish passengers were forcibly separated from the rest of the travellers, resulting in scenes reminiscent of the Holocaust. Not long thereafter, the non-Israeli contingent was released. At that point captain Bacos and his crew were given the option by the terrorists to leave too, but Bacos did not even consider it for a second and opted to stay with his passengers. He did give that option to his crew, all of who unanimously agreed to stay on. Given the likelihood of a very bloody ending to the affair, an extremely brave and commendable move and one that would put Bacos in the history books. The captain himself did not think that much of it when he commented later:
“There was no way we were going to leave – we were staying with the passengers to the end,” he said. “This was a matter of conscience, professionalism and morality"
After all diplomatic efforts had been exhausted, the Israeli government launched one of the most daring rescue operations ever, liberating the hostages and crew, killing all of the hostage takers as well as destroying a significant portion of the Ugandan air force. During the operation three hostages were killed, as was one of the Israeli commandos, Yoni Nethanyahu, the older brother of the current prime minister. One passenger, Dora Bloch, who had been evacuated to a hospital prior to the rescue mission was subsequently murdered by Amin's security forces.
Bacos was honoured across the globe and his resumed work as captain not long after the drama, insisting his first flight back on the job would be to Israel. His heroism and the natural way in which he assumed full responsibility for his passengers under the most adverse circumstances are of course deeply commendable. It made him a hero and an example how to keep the moral high ground, even in a situation where you may not get out alive.
But at a deeper level there is more to the move Bacos made. What he did was essentially what most Europeans failed to do during the Second World War. Taking a stance and doing the right thing when ordinary Jewish citizens are being singled out for death just because of who they are was exactly what was lacking in most of Europe. And it was exactly that which contributed to the death of six million Jews. Bacos must have sensed his actions had a far deeper meaning beyond just acting morally during a plane hijack. He may never have found the right way to express it, but if you see the short video of his funeral you sense what is going on. You see French flags, a priest, some French veterans, but you hear a national anthem that is not French at all. The anthem was played at Bacos’ own special request and it is the one national anthem that expresses hope. The hope.
How the financial crisis continues to claim lives
Last weekend, Dutch banker Jan Peter Schmittmann murdered his mentally handicapped daughter, his wife and subsequently, himself. Family tragedies like this are unfortunately not all that unusual, the media takes note and the world tends to move on after a few days of debate and analysis. This case however has just too many aspects to it to just pen it down to the ubiquitous ‘deep depression’ and stress references and forget about it. The reasons to look further into this are manifold. Schmittmann not only pretty much had it all – even after his forced early retirement – he also is part of a steady trend of financial crisis related deaths, one of his close colleagues from the same bank took his own life only a few years ago. But also being Dutch and a former banker myself and knowing some of the people that knew and worked with Schmittmann ensured that I could not get this out of my head quickly and had to start probing into the drama a bit more.
First the facts. Schmittmann, aged fifty-seven, had enjoyed a rapid career at the largest Dutch bank, ABN-AMRO, but never landed one of the top jobs, a case of visible frustration for the ambitious man according to some press reports. When his career did eventually peak it coincided not with big success but with high drama. ABN-AMRO was acquired by a conglomerate not of senior management’s choice and not long after that the financial crisis resulted in the domestic arm of the bank being nationalized by Dutch government, a process that included a fairly public dismissal of Schmittmann. The latter event focused on the golden handshake, which ended up being much lower than what Schmittmann had initially bargained for. Still, the approximately $11 million was splattered across Dutch media as a sign of how financiers created a mess and then accessed public funds to gently exit with a nice cheque. Schmittmann must have looked at this very differently. With 14 years to go to retirement, the care of a handicapped child, the sum, or whatever what was left of it after taxes, was probably not the princely amount that some had interpreted it to be. Good enough to live on comfortably for sure, as a banker Schmittmann probably ran his numbers, but at fifty-one his career and his chance to hit the proverbial big time were pretty much gone.
Therein lie two other crucial aspects of a banking career. Not only is it a career that is financially rewarding, it more importantly provided very high social status and access to all levels of society, in particular the ones higher up the chain. Having gone through a similar bank training program, having seen the wave of turbocharged liquidity in an ever globalizing world I can confirm that it was not exactly rocket science to participate in the upswing and derive the necessary benefits from it. But, the money is only a small part of the story. The status conferred on international bankers, even after the financial crisis, is quite phenomenal. To this date I leverage my years in that world to the fullest and they provide a welcoming ticket to many deals, contracts and contacts. But rather than let others make the call, I picked the timing of my own exit years ago and was young enough to reinvent myself, maybe because subconsciously I sensed the high potential of the role to be an unfulfilling one in the long run. Schmittmann had progressed beyond the point of no return and presumably had less of a hand in his eventual career exit. Bankers are not all that well prepared for a post-career world, certainly not one that ended as dismally as it did Schmittmann’s. It must have been a devastating experience for him and quite possibly triggered some latent potential for depression in the man. It is not a stretch to argue that it terminated not only his career, but also the notion he had of himself at a point where it was too late in the game to reassess and more importantly, reconstruct himself.
We can only make assumptions on the marital stress he may have endured or the difficulties posed in his relationship with and care for his mentally handicapped younger daughter who was twenty-two at the time of her death. He may have been on medications; he may have used other means to regulate his mood swings, some financial or other mishap may have occurred, who knows. We can only speculate. But coming down from a high status and easy access to power role to a forced to ‘reinvent yourself in your fifties’ scenario most likely set the stage for what tragically unfolded in his house last weekend.
His downward journey in all likelihood compounded or unleashed potential stress factors in Schmittmann’s personal life that as time moved on proved to be too much for him. We can only be deeply saddened and fathom at what prompts a man to kill his wife and daughter and probably never gather his final thoughts and motivations at that point in time. His final text message to a friend asking to take care of his older daughter raises as many questions as it answers.
So far the family has been quiet and the press has probed with some tentative explanations, none of which are particularly insightful. Time will hopefully give us more clues to attempt to reconstruct this terrible tragedy and the motivations behind it. Above all, Schmittmann’s sole surviving daughter is entitled to that. But given the many sequential upheavals that our economy and financial system are going thorough, so are many others. Not everyone is wired to quickly adjust to life and the inevitable hard landing once the perk-ridden corporate show is over, something for which the Schmittmann family paid the ultimate price.
This blog post was published earlier on Medium, here.