52 years back, on a frosty, nearly forgotten day in 1964, a monumental event occurred. A scrawny young 17-year-old, still rather small for his age, played his first-ever minutes for the Ajax first team. At the time, the match seemed so insignificant that no grainy footage has been found; it only lives on in a two-line report in newspapers and the hazy memory of those who experienced it. Yet that day was a significant step in the life of a boy who would grow up to change football like no other individual before or since.
Johan Cruijff, known as ‘Jopie’ in and around his neighbourhood, never lived more a couple minutes away from the De Meer Stadion; the family moved house once after his father’s death in 1959, but Johan lived at Weidestraat 37 right until 1968, when he became Dutch Footballer of the Year. He had been a star of the Ajax youth team that then dominated the national youth league, but even before that, he’d almost been part of the club’s furniture.
By age 10 the outstanding nature of this lanky, under-built child stood out, even among a group of older boys. Jany van der Veen, a former Ajax player turned scout, lived right off the playground Cruijff frequented in Betondorp and was responsible for his offer from the club
When not officially playing at Ajax, he still hung around the complex, lingering near the dressing room as his mother did her cleaning or stationing himself behind the goal when players practised shooting, to return the balls to them.
At age 17, his mother gave the young Jopie permission to travel with the Ajax first team for the first time. Ajax were languishing in mid-table, unable to catch their nemeses across town, DWS (now in the sixth tier of Dutch football) or their rivals from Rotterdam, Feyenoord. Near the end of October, the famous capital club was enduring a terrible run of results and, unsurprisingly, their confidence was faltering. In an attempt to reconfigure his own tactics and freshen up the players a bit, manager Vic Buckingham organised a friendly match with third division side Helmondia ’55.
Two years later, in a 1967 interview with Raket magazine, Cruijff was asked to name the people who had been most important to his development into the then-young phenomenon. He chose four coaches. Two were Englishmen — Kevin Spurgeon and Jack Rowley — but he failed to mention Buckingham, who elevated him to first team status.
On that fateful Sunday morning of October 25, 1964, the Ajax first-teamers, including the likes of Klaas Nunninga, Sjaak Swart and Tonny Pronk, reported to the textile town of Helmond, located close to Eindhoven in the Netherlands’ south. As the rickety Ajax bus pulled into the complex at Helmondia ’55, a young face, framed by hair characteristically parted to the side, emerged. His eyes were sharp but topped by eyebrows perpetually furrowed, as if in constant reflection and scrutiny of what he was seeing.
The crowd turnout was rather large for a simple friendly match. None of them knew of Johan Cruijff, of course. They turned up because the opportunity to watch your small club take on Ajax — even though they were only on the cusp, not yet achieving glory — was special. But unbeknownst to them, they were participant in the moment that the most influential individual in football first stepped on the pitch as a first-teamer.
Wim Suurbier, Cruijff’s friend from the Ajax youth team and another gem spotted by van der Veen, was with him when the team arrived in Helmond. But it was never the case that Cruijff was shy or anxious around the senior players; because he had grown up with them he never had difficulties making himself heard, even as a young novice. As Nunninga noted, in an interview to Het Parool in 1994, “You could tell that at seventeen he had already thought a great deal about the game. Tactically he was far ahead of his peers. He was smart, opinionated and brutally so.” Nunninga, judged surplus to requirements soon after Rinus Michels took the helm, continued, “[Cruijff] was sometimes annoying, but we still considered him as our younger brother.”
Such relationships continued, even into the final years of Cruijff’s life. Despite an eight-year age difference, he and Swart developed a close friendship, and it was not uncommon to spot Cruijff and Swart seated next to each other in the Directors’ Box in the Amsterdam ArenA. Just three years ago, El Salvador even donned his boots again, for Swart’s 75th birthday testimonial match that brought numerous Ajax legends together.
Swart, who had already won two league titles and had a host of appearances for the national team by the time Cruijff’s fateful day arrived, was the one rested by Buckingham that day, allowing Cruijff to play, out on the right wing in a 4-2-4, on his back the #8 shirt that Mr Ajax had always worn.
In 2014, Bart Hoffman of Eindhoven Dagblad tracked down a few Helmondia ’55 players from that match. Some could barely remember what had gone on, but one of their stars from that era, Lambert Kreekels (who had also opened the scoring), mentioned, “He was a boy among men. But he had, that afternoon, almost all the shots. I did not know him yet, but he was fabulous. He passed so easily, just elusive.”
Cruijff was never sufficiently strong for his age, and lacked power, but as he himself poetically declared years later, “every advantage has its disadvantage”; his limitations prompted Cruijff to explore and master other avenues on pitch. For example, he was well-aware that he would not match up in physical strength to massive defenders and any contact of their sliding tackles with his spindly legs would result in an injury; so he swerved and skipped and leapt over them, earning the nickname ‘grasshopper’ at the Ajax training ground. His lack of a sturdy build also meant his shots were comparatively weak. To compensate, Ajax coaches devised a special, more solid pair of boots for him — jokingly called clogs by his teammates, of course.
No proper video exists of the match, which Hoffman calls “Cruijff’s faded debut.” A vignette of the weedy 17-year-old, slaloming past opponents on his ‘clogs’ as his oversized white-red-white shirt billows in the drizzle-heavy wind of October, already pointing that finger here and there, is largely left to the powers of imagination.
The match often remembered as Cruijff’s first occurred a few weeks later, at GVAV in Groningen, where he took to the professional arena for the first time, scoring Ajax’s consolation goal in a 3-1 defeat. Helmondia ’55 was the bridesmaid to GVAV, but had nonetheless seen the first of Cruijff. Three years after that match, Cruijff was the hottest young player in the whole country, while Helmondia ’55 had gone bankrupt and no longer existed.
Perhaps the afternoon was unremarkable, perhaps the memory of those present on the day is now colored by romanticism, by the legend Johan Cruijff grew to be. Yet without this three-time European Cup and Ballon d’Or winner, without the man who created total change in the tactics of the sport, football would be different. This beautiful game would not be so beautiful.
And for an individual who has irrevocably, immeasurably altered the course of football’s history, some romanticism should be afforded.