The Jewish side of football genius, Johan Cruyff


Johan Cruyff, the sporting legend whose "total football" style revolutionised Barcelona and the Dutch national side, and who died on March 24, aged 68, had a close relationship with Judaism.

The pioneer of the Cruyff turn, the passed penalty and the flowing, attacking football that won titles for Holland, Barcelona and Ajax, entered documents into Yad Vashem for his wife's family members.

And it has emerged that, in 1985, the Dutch maestro met an elderly farmer who sheltered a family from the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Frits Barend, a Jewish sports journalist who was a friend of Cruyff's for 48 years, was not yet born when his brother and parents had to flee their home during the German invasion in 1940.

They were hidden by a local farmer called Frits, whom he was named after. Four decades later, with Cruyff due to attend a Netherlands game 15 miles from the farm, Barend saw a way to repay his namesake.

"I took the man who saved our lives - an old, sick farmer who could only wear wooden shoes because his feet hurt - to see Johan.

"And I said to Johan: 'This is the guy I told you about, who gave shelter to my family in the war,' and he said: 'Oh, of course - you are the guy who saved the lives of Frits's family. I'm proud of you. How nice to meet you."'

"While others laughed at the old man for wearing wooden shoes, Johan talked to him for five minutes. The farmer died three months later but, before that, he could tell his friends: 'I met Johan Cruyff. He's a good guy.'"

Barend said the open, friendly way he spoke to the farmer "was typical Johan. He behaved the same in the dressing room as he did with the Queen."

"He was the only person in the world who didn't realise he was Johan Cruyff. That made him so special. I miss him. He was always willing to talk."

And this humility was also on show when he entered signed testimony into Yad Vashem on behalf of three members of his wife Danny's family.

Regina de Groot, Rozette Behr and Judith Van den Berg - all sisters of Danny's aunt's husband - were in their 40s when they died in Sobibor and Auschwitz concentration camps.

During Cruyff's trip to Israel in 2013 to celebrate his son Jordi's first title-win as Maccabi Tel Aviv sports director, the 1974 World Cup runner-up visited the country's Holocaust memorial to ensure that the trio would be remembered in the archives.

In fact, the footballer's links to Jewry began long before he married, with Jewish culture a continual presence at his first club, Ajax.

In David Winner's book Brilliant Orange, club physiotherapist Salo Muller is quoted as describing how the players "liked to be Jewish even though they weren't.

"We had a Jewish butcher in Amsterdam - Hergo in the Beethovenstraat. Before every European match, they gave me an Amsterdam salami, a Jewish salami. And the boys said: 'Oh it's Jewish - we like it!'"

As well as the likes of Ajax and Barcelona, Maccabi Tel Aviv also paid tribute to Cruyff at the weekend, with players wearing black armbands and commemorative shirts which incorporated his famous number 14 - the number he also wore on his kippah when he used to visit Israel.

Barend explained that Cruyff had been able to have such a profound effect on so many people because as well as being, "the best football player I've ever seen," he had no truck with those aspects of life that divide people.

"He thought only in terms of human beings, not of religion, politics, race or gender - for him, it was just about trying to reach your goals and giving everyone the chance to play sports."

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