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Bona nit, Johan

24/03/2016

My much earlier post Cruijffisms discussed, among other things, the Dutch footballer Johan Cruijff’s remarkable ability to come up with unexpected one-liners about the sport that made him famous.

Today, at the age of 68, he died of lung cancer. And whereas I would not normally feel moved to dwell on the death of a sports celebrity, I find – much to my surprise – that I am so moved.

Holland’s king Willem-Alexander has said Johan Cruijff was van ons allemaal: ‘Johan Cruijff belonged to all of us’. Not being a football fan – the understatement of the year? – and never having watched Cruijff play, I was at first inclined to think ‘Well, not to me’. Yet I’ve spent much of the day reading front-page newspaper reports from all over Europe; and the more I read, the more I realise that someone truly unique is no longer in our midst. The word ‘legend’ appears over and over again, and that’s clearly no exaggeration.

I say I never watched him play; but in fact, thanks to a documentary film made in Holland just over 10 years ago (long after his playing career had ended), I did. Not that I was able to judge his skill as a player; but the film wasn’t just a predictable succession of football highlights. Instead, it painted an often moving picture of Cruijff’s personal impact on people in his second homeland, Spain – and specifically Catalonia. A secretary confessed she was secretly in love with him; an old man in a pavement café recalled how proud he was when his city’s team (Barcelona, or ‘Barça’), led by the ‘Flying Dutchman’, inflicted a stinging defeat on the national champions Real Madrid (and, by implication, the dictatorial Franco regime); a top-flight chef expressed his own admiration of a fellow professional. Best of all, an unassuming middle-aged man in a raincoat emerged from his front door saying ‘I’m not quite sure if I can manage this’ – then proceeded to imitate one of Cruijff’s most famous moves on the pitch. The man was the cardiac surgeon who had operated on the Dutchman when he needed two urgent by-passes after a life of heavy smoking.

After the successful surgery Cruijff gave up smoking, ‘cold turkey’, and appeared on TV in a famous anti-smoking ad for Catalonia’s regional health services in which he said ‘Football has given me everything in life – but smoking nearly took it all away’ – then he dropped a cigarette packet onto his boot and kicked it out of sight.

The ad was in Catalan; but in practice Cruijff never took the trouble to learn the language. He did learn Spanish, and the last 20 minutes of the documentary are an interview with him in that language. His refusal to learn the local language after living in Catalonia for 35 years naturally led to a certain amount of criticism; but at one point in the film he appeared in the Barça stadium before a huge crowd, and spoke the Catalan words Bona nit a tothom (‘Good evening, everyone’) into his portable microphone. I wish the Dutch subtitles had indicated when people were speaking Catalan and when they were speaking Spanish, for in Catalonia this has always been a key issue. But Cruijff’s insistence on speaking Spanish seems to have been largely forgiven. His repeated use of the Spanish phrase en un momento dado (‘at a given moment’, ‘sooner or later’, ‘eventually’ – a rather literal translation of the Dutch op een gegeven moment) became iconic, and was even chosen by film-maker Ramón Gieling as the title for his documentary.

In any case, what I notice in all the tributes now being made to Cruijff by friends and strangers alike is that he was universally seen as a gentleman who lived for his sport. Unlike another equally famous football star, he never got into sex, drugs or rock ‘n’ roll (perhaps his only ‘sin’ was smoking); and he seems to have remained a simple man, largely untarnished by fame. He had his own very forceful ideas about how he thought football should and should not be played, and would argue them fiercely; but he was also a teacher. He encouraged children from disadvantaged backgrounds to improve their lives through sport. He wanted to pass on the things he knew, rather than keep them secret.

Like Spanish buenas noches, Catalan bona nit is not only the greeting ‘good evening’ but also the farewell ‘good night’. So, even though I really can’t believe he’s anywhere around to hear or read me, that’s what I would wish Cruijff now – just in case he can. Bona nit, Johan.

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