BARCELONA, Spain — Just occasionally, as he begins another story about what his father did, or said, or thought, Jordi Cruyff lapses into the present tense.
It is now six months since his father, the Dutch great Johan Cruyff, died at 68 at his home in Barcelona, his battle with lung cancer lost. It is now six months since soccer stood still to mourn one of its immortals, a game-changer and trendsetter, both as elegant player and pioneering coach.
And as his son speaks, language betrays him: Not enough time has passed for those who knew Johan best to get accustomed to the idea that he is no longer here.
“My father is a guy with a strong personality and strong opinions,” Jordi said at one point. At another: “He is a person with a social conscience, with amazing moral values.” Or even: “He has always been very good at driving.”
It is as though they were in the car together, just the other day. Jordi must remind himself that his father is gone.
Jordi, 42, still carries his father with him; he does not have much choice. He has long been accustomed to the realities of life as the son of a legend who was honored three times as Europe’s best player. “Only later do you realize that he means something bigger,” he said.
In the months since Johan’s death, what he meant to the soccer world has become clear to his son. Jordi’s initial reaction to his private grief was to throw himself into his work as technical director of the Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv. It was, he conceded, an attempt to find distraction.
But there have been reminders at every turn. Along with his mother and sisters, he devoted part of his time to the two nonprofit groups close to his father’s heart, as well as to a series of audio recordings that Johan made in the last year of his life. The tapes will constitute a posthumous autobiography scheduled to be published next month. Jordi has listened to them all, a process he said had been both arduous and cathartic.
Then there have been the spontaneous eulogies. No matter where in the world Jordi has found himself, he has been told countless stories, been shown hundreds of pictures, and been inundated with messages on social media. All of them are tributes to his father. It has been, he said, an experience “full of contradictions” — at once intensely painful and immeasurably proud.
“You are never allowed to forget anything,” he said. “There are new anecdotes, almost every day — lots of stories I did not know. People always say how sorry they are, what he meant to them. I have been to various countries these last few months, and you see men who are 65, 70, and they are emotional. They had moments when my father touched them, in whatever way, and they want to talk about it.
“They say where they were in 1974 or 1978, for the World Cups, or they have these pictures on their phones from 30 years ago. I don’t know how they get them on there. It is maybe their way of grieving, and it is out of respect. They just need to say something. Because they come every day, you can never really get over it.”
On one hand, they are constant reminders of his father’s death. But on the other, Jordi said, “there is a unanimous feeling that he meant something.”
It is not the first time Jordi has been of two minds about his father. He acknowledged that it would have been easy, during his career, to allow resentment to fester. His surname alone, after all, was “always a bit” of a burden; while a young player at Barcelona, during his father’s time as coach there, he was aware of accusations of nepotism.
He said that those suggestions had affected him as a teenager but that he felt he had “let all that go” once and for all in 1996, when both father and son left the Camp Nou. Johan departed as coach, and Jordi went off to play for Manchester United. “I had a lot of good offers,” he said. “These teams do not come for you unless they see talent. That gave me a lot of confidence.”
That was the start of a career path that suggests he has, perhaps, done all he can to disprove the charge that he traded on inherited fame. That his uniform as a player — except for his first season at United — always bore the name Jordi, rather than Cruyff, was a simple business decision: “My father had trademarked ‘Cruyff 14,’ so nobody else could have that name and number on their shirt.” But many of his other choices have been made with an eye toward striking his own path.
“I specifically chose my own way, in different environments and a different kind of football,” he said. As a player, Jordi spent time in Ukraine and Malta, rather than taking lucrative deals in Qatar. After his playing career, he decided that working as a technical director — in Cyprus and, since 2012, at Maccabi — suited him more than coaching.
He said he had enjoyed working away from the limelight. “It is easy to convince people to go to the Premier League,” he said. “In Israel, there is a lot of convincing, a lot of explaining.”
And he has had successes of his own. He helped guide Maccabi into the Champions League group stage in 2015, and to the Europa League this season, and he has kick-started the careers of a host of coaches, most notably Paulo Sousa, now of Fiorentina.
That he is a Cruyff, of course, has helped. There is something of an echo of his father in his assertion that his work “is all about disagreements, between the coach and the sporting director,” and his admission that he “needs to be in a certain environment, with a good feeling with the owner and the chief executive.”
For a long time, he had his father to fall back on for advice, and Johan had an “irritating” habit of being right most of the time, Jordi said.
“Even with things like driving,” he said. “He would know the right route, and more than that, he would go all these different ways to make sure he got as many green lights as possible. He would calculate that if this one was red, the next two would be green. He was always trying to find the quickest way, the best way. He was a step ahead. His brain was never sleeping.”
Every so often, though, Johan had to demur to his son. “We had one situation where he wanted me to take one coach and I wanted another,” Jordi said. Often counseled by his father to “trust your intuition,” he went with his instinct. “I was right on that one,” he said.
The apple, perhaps, does not fall far from the tree.
But Jordi Cruyff knows that he can never be his father, that he will not leave the same legacy or touch as many people.
“He was part of the 1 percent, who will always be remembered,” he said. “I realized a long time ago that I am part of the 99.”