As the son of one of football’s icons, a member of Manchester United’s Treble-winning squad, a sporting director in Israel and now a manager in China, life has rarely been dull for Jordi Cruyff.
This week, the 45-year-old son of Barcelona and Netherlands legend Johan returned to the Nou Camp as the Spanish giants named their new B team stadium after his father.
BBC Radio 5 Live’s Guillem Balague caught up with Jordi, who is now in charge of Chinese Super League side Chongqing Lifan, to discuss a varied life in football.
‘I find myself thinking about my dad a lot’
Johan Cruyff, who died in 2016, is considered the finest exponent of the ‘Total Football’ philosophy, a style of play pioneered by the Netherlands team of the 1970s. He managed Jordi during the formative years of his son’s playing career at Barcelona in the early 1990s.
When you see and hear the emotion people have when they talk about my father, I know he was a special man.
When he came to Barcelona it was a difficult time politically. He came with the chains and the long hair and a free spirit, not caring about the past. Many people remember that attitude he had. Others remember the courage he had to play how he wanted, no matter what. Even when he didn’t win trophies he still had that same way of playing.
It’s symbolic to have the mini-stadium at Barcelona named after him because it’s the last step before going to the first team and my father was well known as a coach who wanted to give opportunities to young players.
I find myself thinking about my dad a lot when I am thinking about certain decisions now I’m a manager. When I do that I usually go for the young player or the most offensive player!
A lot of things he did in his life are related to things of his past. He didn’t finish school but he was tough on us if we didn’t do well. He’d take you off football. He always knew that he’d been lucky in his career but he always understood he never had a plan B, so I think that is partly why he set up the educational aspect of Barcelona’s academy.
My father always had unbelievable strength, which I don’t think 99.9% of people in football have now. But when he came home he was completely disconnected from that. He would never bring negative voices from what happened in the game back home – he immediately switched his mind. It’s a very logical thought, but that’s easier said than done. I cannot do that – I need a few hours after a game to just clean my system.
He was demanding to me in front of others, absolutely. He would give me a shout and the hairs would stand up.
I’ve had a few of those tough moments – but I look back and I understand it.
‘Man Utd move probably came a year too soon’
Jordi moved to Manchester United from Barcelona in 1996 at the age of 22 and spent four years at the club, a period disrupted badly by injuries. United won three Premier League titles, one FA Cup and the Champions League during that time, but Cruyff only played enough games to be awarded one Premier League winners’ medal and contributed only 31 minutes during the triumphant European run in 1999.
When you take a step like going to Manchester United you need to be mature enough, and I was probably one year short of that.
You have to adapt. It was different, to have dinner at 5pm or 6pm – I’d never seen that.
I was probably the youngest person in the village where I lived and that was tough. Now it’s a different city, a different vibe – the city is alive.
I fell from one injury to another and I could never really get a run and show the manager he could count on me. When Ryan Giggs was injured, I was always injured – and that’s my fault. As a coach, you want players who are ready when you need them. I see that now myself.
Training-WISe, I was always on the level that was necessary, but I didn’t play a lot and I probably didn’t bring what I could do in training to the games.
If you know you’re going to play 30 minutes every three weeks you make a decision – do I want to stand out by scoring a goal? You can see that in a few games – there was a time when I was just trying to score goals, and others when I was trying to participate in the game and enjoy it.
But with the injuries, I could never catch that train and have a stable season. When I look back at that team – Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane, Eric Cantona, and then the likes of Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham and Andrew Cole – not to have played much is nothing to be ashamed of.
‘It’s difficult to build something in China’
Cruyff was appointed Chongqing Lifan manager in August 2018. Under his management, they secured 15 points from the final nine games to move above the relegation zone on goal difference. This season they are eighth in the 16-team Chinese Super League, 12 points above the drop zone with seven games to play.
To play good football you need players who are comfortable on the ball. In China, there are differences between the big teams and the smaller ones.
We try to play as offensively as we can but we are the smallest team with the smallest budget in China, so you have to be realistic about what is possible.
We have seven games left this season. Historically, statistically we are three points from safety. We’ve had a good season but we are a team who had to sell two of our better players during the season.
It’s difficult to build something and it’s different to what my father experienced in coaching football teams.
You have to decide which zone of the pitch you want to have the ball. A lot of other opponents have some top-level attackers. To start passing the ball around the back against players like Hulk, Oscar or Marouane Fellaini is risky. It’s easier when we have the ball in certain areas, in others we have to be a bit more careful.
‘I like the strategy of being a sporting director’
After retiring from playing and before going into management, Cruyff had spells as director of football at AEK Larnaca in Cyprus and sporting director of Israeli side Maccabi Tel Aviv.
I like difficult and strange projects. I like to be ready for the day that you do decide to go to one of the world’s A leagues – prepared for every possible situation because you have those experiences.
The sporting director role is something that’s inside you. Man management is not something you study – you either have that or you don’t have it. I feel comfortable with that – I like strategies, club strategies and thinking ahead.
It’s tough sometimes when you’re far away and it’s different to what you’re thinking, but Tel Aviv was a successful period.
At Maccabi, every season the manager would leave to go to a bigger league. That was part of the deal really.
In one season we had Slavisa Jokanovic and then Peter Bosz, and we sold both within four months to Fulham and Ajax respectively.
That was part of my job: to have a list of people who you could get and who could fit immediately.
I knew Jokanovic because he did a very good job at Watford and we had an opportunity to get him. We did that quick and he took us to the Champions League.
When Fulham came in he was gone, so I had to be prepared for who I could take in the January and Bosz is also one of the coaches who is close to my father’s philosophy. They accuse him sometimes of playing attacking football too much, but I like to see coaches who like to play to win.
‘Guardiola is always trying to be a step ahead’
Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola was at Barcelona at the same time as both Jordi and Johan. He spent six years – from 1990 to 1996 – being managed by Johan, and is considered a disciple of the Dutch legend’s philosophy as a manager.
When you are capable of putting your stamp on three different clubs in three different top-level football countries, then you have it. Pep has it.
He has the drive, the passion, the ideas. He’s probably a crazy workaholic. Football never stands still, so you always need to find the next step and you need to be creative to find new things all the time.
In his case, it’s always trying to find a way to be one step ahead. To create something takes a lot of hours of training.