Nature or nurture? It’s a question psychologists have debated for centuries. In the context of sport, it’s interesting that so many gifted individuals have raised children who have also gone on to have a stellar career. Is the talent hereditary, passed on through their genes, and therefore nature? Or is the environment they are raised in responsible – the visits to stadia and training grounds, the lessons in the back garden and inspirational stories around the dinner table – and therefore nurture?
In football, there are countless examples of sons following in their father’s footsteps and making a career for themselves. While there are instances to the contrary, often the sons live in the shadows of their famed fathers and find it hard to escape the constant and suffocating comparisons.
Darren Ferguson is forging a career of his own in football management but his father will always be Sir Alex. Nigel Clough is well-respected in the English lower leagues but his father Brian won two consecutive European Cups with Nottingham Forest and had charisma to burn. Zinedine Zidane was one of the greatest players of his generation and so far he’s transferring that talent to the dugout, winning La Liga, successive Champions League titles and the Club World Cup in his short career at the helm of Real Madrid. His son, Enzo, is currently in the Real Madrid B squad and has featured for the first team.
Danny Blind and his son Daley have both represented the Netherlands and lifted European trophies with their clubs, while Peter and Kasper Schmeichel have both featured as goalkeepers for championship-winning sides. And then there is Jordi Cruyff, son of three-time Ballon d’Or winner Johan Cruyff, one the most iconic, talented and decorated players of all time.
Jordi was born in February 1974 in Amsterdam, whilst his father was in the midst of a successful spell with FC Barcelona. At the time of his birth, Spain was at the tail-end of a 36-year dictatorship under the auspices of General Franco. Regionalism was forbidden yet Johan, ever the rebel, named his first-born son Jordi after the patron saint of Catalonia. This angered local authorities but the stubborn Cruyff dug his heels in, demanding that as his son had been born in Amsterdam and held a Dutch passport, he was entitled to be named as the parents wished. Franco was dead within a year and Spain began the transition to democracy as Jordi was in the formative stages of his life.
Johan retired at the end of his five-year spell at the Camp Nou, refusing to take part in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. It’s almost become mythical that the political Johan relinquished his chance to captain the Netherlands at another World Cup due to his opposition to Argentina’s military regime, but in fact, he didn’t want to leave his family after a home invasion and failed kidnap plot in September 1977. Poor investments, including a comically failed pig farm venture, brought Johan out of retirement for financial reasons. He signed to play in the North American Soccer League (NASL), relocating the Cruyff family first to Los Angeles and later Washington. The seeds for Jordi’s nomadic nature were therefore sewn when he was just five years old.
Cruyff’s American adventure lasted two years and via a short spell in their native Netherlands, they eventually re-settled in Catalonia. Johan became Barcelona’s first-team coach in 1988 and his son, now 14, settled into the club’s famed youth system. Jordi rose swiftly through the ranks, making his debut for the B team in 1992, appearing over 50 times in the Segunda División.
His debut for the first team came in September 1994 in front of a packed Camp Nou crowd. The visiting Racing took the lead but it was the debutant who would draw Barça level. A cross from the right was allowed to bounce near the penalty spot and Jordi steered a powerful diving header into the top corner. Barça went on to win the game 2-1, sending father and son home happy.
Two months later Jordi would feature heavily in a crushing 4-0 defeat of Manchester United in the Champions League in front of 114,000 fans. The English visitors were torn apart by Barça, and young goalkeeper, Gary Walsh – replacing Peter Schmeichel due to the three foreigner rule – had a night he would rather forget. Jordi started alongside Romário, Pep Guardiola, Ronald Koeman and Hristo Stoichkov to name but a few, playing a pivotal role in the Bulgarian’s opening goal.
Jordi scored a respectable 11 goals in 54 appearances over the course of his two years in the first team squad but what was a relative personal success didn’t translate into team honours. After winning 11 trophies in his father’s first six years at the helm, the club endured a two-year drought, finishing fourth and third in the league after four consecutive titles. In 1996 Johan parted ways with the Catalan giants, and his son would soon follow him out of the exit door for reasons both political and footballing. Incoming manager Bobby Robson planned to spend big following two years of poor form with Ronaldo, the Brazilian phenomenon, one of his acquisitions.
Jordi’s form at the Camp Nou hadn’t gone unnoticed by his national team, with Netherlands coach Guus Hiddink calling him up for the Euro 96 squad. He made his international debut against Germany in a pre-tournament warm-up game, and notched his only goal for his country in the group phase, opening the scoring in 2-0 win over Switzerland with a strong left-footed strike from the edge of the area. The Dutch were ultimately eliminated in the quarter-finals and Jordi would end his international career with one goal in nine appearances. He would also go on to represent the unaffiliated Catalan national side in several friendlies.
As well as Hiddink, Jordi also caught the eye of Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson, who signed the Dutchman for £1.4 million on a four-year contract following Euro 96. According to Jordi, Ferguson flew out to Barcelona personally to seal the deal, something which impressed his father immensely.
Cruyff started well for the Red Devils, featuring in a 4-0 Charity Shield victory over Newcastle and scoring two goals in the first three league games as the Premier League champions sought to defend their title. However, a knee injury sustained in November severely hampered his season, restricting him to just 22 appearances. The injury was a recurrence of an issue he had while at Barcelona following a bungled operation towards the end of 1995. His father stated that the operation had “appalling consequences” for the rest of his career.
Despite picking up a championship medal during his maiden campaign in England, the following season was a disaster for both Jordi and his club. The injury received the previous season continued to disrupt his progress, allowing the forward to make only eight appearances in all competitions as United lost out to Arsenal in the league, while crashing out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage.
The 1998/99 season will forever be remembered fondly by Manchester United fans and Jordi played his own part. He scored in a 3-0 victory over Southampton at The Dell, grabbing a late equaliser against Derby County at Pride Park two games later. Those two goals would prove to be his only contribution during the first half of the season in which he made two starts and a further nine appearances from the bench. He was sent out on loan for the remainder of United’s treble season, scoring two goals in nine appearances for Spanish side Celta Vigo.
Jordi was back in Manchester for the 1999/2000 season and his parent club picked up where they’d left off in the previous campaign, retaining the league at a canter. The blistering form meant that action for Jordi was limited to just three goals in 17 appearances, with 12 of those coming from the bench.
He left the club in the summer of 2000 upon the expiration of his contract, having struggled with the Manchester lifestyle as well as three injuries in as many years. It was no surprise that he returned to Spain where he would enjoy somewhat of an Indian Summer.
The Basque capital city of Vitoria-Gasteiz, and CD Alavés, was Jordi’s next destination, and his first season there would prove to be one of the most memorable of his career. Putting his injuries behind him, Jordi played 45 times, scoring seven goals in the process as Alavés finished in a respectable 10th position in La Liga and reached the UEFA Cup final. En route to the final, Jordi scored in the San Siro against Inter to set up a showdown with Liverpool in what will be remembered as one of the most entertaining European finals of all time.
Liverpool took a 3-1 lead into half time, although two Javi Moreno goals in the first six minutes of the second half levelled the scored at 3-3. Robbie Fowler made it 4-3 to Liverpool but Jordi equalised once more in the 88th minute, heading in a corner to force extra-time. However, much to the dismay of Alavés, an own goal in the 117th-minute would crush their dreams.
In what became a depressively repetitive pattern of his career, the high of the 2000/01 campaign would be followed by further lows. In the next two seasons he played progressively fewer games and scored fewer goals than in previous campaigns due to more injury complications. Alavés were relegated at the end of the 2002/03 season and Jordi ended his three-year spell with the club on a sour note.
He stayed in Spain but moved a little closer to what had become his spiritual home, Barcelona. The birth of his first son was imminent and the expectant father wanted him to be born in Catalonia. Luckily there was a one-year contract offer on the table with Barça’s rivals Espanyol, and Jordi accepted, stating at the time, “I’m coming here with a lot of enthusiasm.”
Jordi made 30 appearances, playing an average of 57 minutes per match, whilst scoring three goals. Espanyol finished in 16th position, avoiding relegation by two points. Like his father in 1978, he briefly retired before having a change of heart.
In 2006, at the age of 32, Jordi would begin his nomadic spell in earnest by joining Metalurh Donetsk in the Ukraine. Jordi stated that he liked “strange countries” but also that he was looking for an understanding manager due to his injury history. In compatriot Co Adriaanse he found that, although he managed less than half of their league games in a two-year period which saw Metalurh finish third and ninth in the Ukrainian top-flight.
Jordi’s final destination as a player would see him join Maltese side Valletta as player-coach for the 2009/10 season. In 2010 he hung his boots up for good, becoming the sporting director for Cypriot side AEK Larnaca, before moving across the Mediterranean two years later to take up a similar post with Israeli side Maccabi Tel Aviv. Under Cruyff’s stewardship, Maccabi ended a 10-year drought by winning the Israeli championship in 2013, followed by two further league titles in 2014 and 2015.
In January 2017, Jordi sacked Georgian manager Shota Arveladze following a poor run of results, installing himself as interim manager. The change was stark, with Maccabi winning eight out of nine games with the Dutchman in the dugout. He stepped down, joking that he effectively sacked himself, before moving back upstairs.
At the end of the 2016/17 season, there was talk of Jordi joining Barcelona as part of the sporting director’s team, in what would have extended the Cruyff legacy with the Catalan club. However, following his successful spell as caretaker manager earlier in the year, Cruyff instead opted to become the full-time manager of Maccabi Tel Aviv, declaring himself “happy and excited” and “more determined than ever” to meet the challenge. He would leave that post in 2018 to take up the manager’s role at Chongqing Dangdai Lifan in the Chinese Super League.
Having a famous father can be both a gift and a curse for sportsmen. They may inherit the genetics which made their fathers so special, as well as being exposed to a sporting environment from an early age, giving the best of both worlds in the nature versus nurture debate. It can also provide opportunities, using the endless contact book gleaned by their fathers over the years.
If a player fails to reach the heights experienced by their father they will always be looked upon as a failure. ‘He’s not as good as his dad,’ they’ll say. Jordi had the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of one of the most revered and iconic sportsmen of all time. His father’s death in March 2016 – Johan had given up smoking in 1991 following heart bypass surgery but he couldn’t escape the grim clutches of cancer – almost elevated him to levels of football sainthood which would only exacerbate the weight of the Cruyff name on Jordi’s shoulders.
However, if we look at Jordi’s career in isolation, he has a lot to be proud of. He’s represented his country and played in the Champions League; he featured for two of the world’s biggest clubs in Barcelona and Manchester United; he’s been brave enough to travel the world to make his way, playing in England, Spain, Holland, Ukraine and Malta; and he became a sporting director in Cyprus and now Israel. He has achieved a great deal already and, at the age of just 45, don’t bet against him creating a legacy that not only carries on the proud family tradition but gives him some recognition in his own right.
By Dan Williamson