Johan Cruyff, the Dutch football genius, has died of cancer at the age of 68.
When I was 7 or 8 years old, growing up in Rome, my older brother Danny dragged me to a run-down movie theater to watch “Il Profeta del Gol”—a mesmerizing documentary film about Cruyff narrated by the legendary Sandro Ciotti, whose raspy voice (along with that of Enrico Ameri), provided the soundtrack of our every Sunday afternoon.
Watching Cruyff ignited my lifelong love and passion for football. After moving to the United States in the mid-1980s, I wore his number 14 on my high school, club, and college teams.
He seemed both extraordinary and ordinary. His creative use of space, technical excellence, and speed were inseparable from his scrawny physique, tempestuous nature, non-comformist cigarette smoking, and consistent dislike for fitness training. I will go to my grave with Cruyff’s “Impossible Goal” against Atletico Madrid.
Cruyff’s interpretation of football as a competitive art taught me to see alternative ways to play, move, think, and be. Ajax’s “Total Football,” which Cruyff exported to Barcelona, first as a player then as a coach, was so radically different from the way Serie A teams played in the 1970s and early 1980s. “Everyone attacked and everyone defended,” Eduardo Galeano wrote, “deploying and retreating in a vertiginous fan.”
His stunning decision to boycott the Generals’ World Cup in Argentina in 1978, the first I followed religiously on television, endeared the Dutchman to me even more. An anti-fascist superstar who practiced what he preached!
Frits Barend, the Dutch tv commentator whom I met in South Africa in 1998, referred to Cruyff as an “obstinate maestro.”
David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange, arguably the best book written in English about Dutch football and society, described him as “essentially Dutch.” A poem by Toon Hermans, Winner writes, “captures the feeling that there was something sublime about Cruyff”:
En Vincent zag het koren En EInstein het getal En Zeppelin de Zeppelin En Johan zag de bal
(And Vincent saw the corn
And Einstein the number
And Zeppelin the Zeppelin
And Johan saw the ball)
Bob Vassen’s passing fills me with immense sadness.
A great friend to those of us who had the privilege of knowing him. A courageous South African who fought for the freedom of his country, at home and in exile as a member of Umkhonto weSizwe (The Spear of the Nation). A committed teacher who mentored thousands of students, young and not so young, internationally. An intellectual who was as incisive as he was humble. Consider his masterful editorial work in Ahmed Kathrada’s Letters from Robben Island, published by Michigan State University Press.
And Bobby, as his friends called him, was also a football man. Like his father before him, he had played for one of Johannesburg’s oldest teams: Moonlighters FC, founded by Indian service workers in 1892. Growing up in Fordsburg and Doornfontein, gritty working-class neighborhoods in Johannesburg, “to have a football was to have arrived,” he recalled.
A few years ago, I had the honor of interviewing him about his football life. You can watch the full interview here.
Our heartfelt condolences go out to Ursula and the entire Vassen family. We miss you Uncle Bobby.
Thieves, rapists and murderers in Uganda’s only maximum security prison play for Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Barcelona, Juventus, and . . . Hanover 96.
In a gripping podcast recorded in Luzira, a suburb of Kampala, David Goldblatt tells the story of the Upper Prison Soccer Association (UPSA), “the most elaborate prison football league in the world” (listen here).
What emerges form this radio documentary-style piece is a deeply humanistic portrait of a prisoner-run sporting organization that does more, much more than stage occasional kickabouts.
UPSA injects fun, entertainment, and healthy recreation in the otherwise stultifying drudgery of life behind bars. Running it requires hard work, sophisticated organization, and tight discipline. It is a complex, sometimes stressful, affair.
But it works. UPSA helps inmates cope with life on the inside as it strives to transform violent criminals into citizens better prepared for what awaits them after their sentences have been served.
Juventus, the Old Lady of Italian football, is in the Champions League final for the first time since 2003. In an interview I did a year ago with Austin Long for the Soccer Nomad podcast, I explain how I came to support the bianconeri in the mid-1970s despite being from Rome.
Since I did not live in Turin, I supported Juve from afar and became religiously devoted to Michel Platini and, years later, to Roberto Baggio.
A day after eliminating Real Madrid to earn a date against Barcelona on June 6 in Berlin, it’s funny to hear my rational, realistic assessment of Juve’s prospects for success in Europe alongside my thoroughly irrational dream of winning the European Cup like Milan did in ’94–by thrashing Barca 4-0!
“I’m wandering downtown in the rain searching for words to describe what I’m feeling right now. Something, anything to make sense of the loss,” is all the prose I could muster when I heard the sad news. Fortunately, many other more capable, more productive authors, activists, and scholars posted lovely tributes, although only a few highlighted Galeano’s art of fútbol writing (e.g. click here to read Dave Zirin’s eulogy in The Nation).
As I searched for the appropriate, any!, words to articulate my grief and gratitude, I thought back to when I translated a chunk of the Italian edition of Soccer in Sun and Shadow into English for Joe McGinniss, the American journalist and writer with whom I was corresponding from South Africa as he finished his book The Miracle of Castel di Sangro.
By the time I had returned to Boston to write up my PhD dissertation, the English edition had finally been published (brilliantly translated by Mark Fried) and I took to opening and closing class meetings in my Soccer and Imperialism course (sic!) with a reading from what I called “the Gospel according to Galeano.”
It’s now been four days since our fútbol bard’s passing and I’ve completely failed to find the just-exactly-right words to share with you.
So I returned to the source. Below is my favorite reading from Fútbology’s Sacred Text. Ciao Eduardo!
The Football Action Network describes itself as an “open, unbureaucratic network of football activists [in Britain] that includes supporters’ trusts, independent fan groups, fanzines, campaigners in the women’s game and advocates for grassroots football.”
David Goldblatt, one of the world’s preeminent fútbologists, writing in The Guardian, laid out the group’s manifesto to improve the game in the land of the English Premier League and beyond.From economic justice and institutional reforms to fan freedom and equality for all, this program aims to reclaim and transform football by putting people before profits.
This is the third post in Pelle Kvalsund‘s series rethinking Sport Development and Sport For Development. (Click here and here to read the previous posts.)
By Pelle Kvalsund
If you have visited sub-Saharan Africa then you know that Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are everywhere, even in sports.
In 1999, I traveled from Norway to South Africa to work for Sports Coaches’ Outreach (SCORE). This NGO aims to create sporting opportunities for children and youth in disadvantaged urban and rural communities. The agenda was clear and the focus simple: Sport for all!
Since the pioneering days of the 1990s, thousands of new local and international sport for development organizations (S4D) began operating all around the world (partial list here). Most of these organizations feed on a broken local sport system to create, often successfully, high demand for their services. Sometimes their agendas are not clear or straight forward.
Sport NGOs are manna from heaven for Western governments and donors eager to boast about their efforts in developing civil society and reaching grassroots targets in the Global South. By offering sporting activities for boys and girls, S4D NGOs appear to have successfully “taken over” parts of the mandate for youth development usually given to local (including national) sport associations.
Backed by solid support from northern sponsors (public and private), many S4D groups have developed a strong internal organizational capacity that enables them to raise funds, submit grant proposals, market themselves, and run and evaluate activities according to the foreign aid industry’s terms and latest trends. These NGOs succeed by investing in their capacity and development. In the process, they create self-sustainable structures that go beyond their original function as “gap fillers” for outstretched African sport providers.
This process has fostered adversarial, even hostile, relationships between the NGOs and government-mandated sport bodies. Such rivalries stem from perceptions that the success of S4D NGOs stems at least in part from the sports governing bodies’ mismanagement and mistakes. In some cases, this animosity targets northern brokers who are seen to be undermining the local sport custodians’ mandates. The rivalry is rooted in struggles for material benefits, such as access to a new Land Cruiser, as much as by the fact that many NGOs and football academies are producing young footballers for sale in European and Asian markets.
Some governments and sport governing bodies have been developing strong policies and clear strategies that chart a coherent, productive direction for sport development in their countries. Chasing aid money, the NGOs often fail to align themselves with host countries’ strategic plans and begin operating in a parallel universe. This parallel universe does not only function in isolation; at times, it also produces some peculiar activities. As S4D’s agendas change because of funding levels and requirements, the sport activities they deliver also change.
Over the years, I have observed how using sport to address serious issues like AIDS, farming, sanitation, traffic safety (as well as some religious agendas) has backfired. NGOs forget (or choose to ignore) that the kids come first and foremost to play sports. They do not enjoy standing quietly in line passively listening to lengthy explanations about how to wash hands properly or safely cross the street.
Some of the S4D activities are so far removed from sport that they confuse both the boys and girls and sport development practitioners like myself. Such a wrong-headed approach has led to many youths choosing to pursue other activities and dropping out of sport all together.
What would the African and Asian sport associations (discussed in my previous post here) look like and how would they function today if northern brokers, supported by Western governments and companies, had invested the same amount of human and material capital in capacity-building and long-term development? The Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sport, an umbrella organization for all national sports federations in Norway, has adopted this strategy. It will be interesting to follow its development over time.