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Soccer legend Cruyff scores a goal in India

For years he dazzled the world with his superlative football skills, playing the game as much with the head as with the body. Now, Johan Cru...

Written by Johnson T A | Bangalore |
April 2, 2002

For years he dazzled the world with his superlative football skills, playing the game as much with the head as with the body. Now, Johan Cruyff — the Dutchman whose ‘Total Football’ concept in the 1970s gave players a new way of looking at the game — is changing the lives of 275 underprivileged children in a small village outside Bangalore.

With a little help from friends and Rs 25 crore from his own trust, Cruyff has created the Johan Cruyff Centre for Education, a training and development facility for children at Mathagondapalli, on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border 40 km from here. And after slipping in quietly to visit the place in November 2000, the soccer legend is set to return sometime this year.

Cruyff was a star in the Dutch team of the 1970s when he, along with team coach Rinus Michels, invented ‘total football’. It involved all 10 outfield players (not including the goalkeeper) playing without any fixed position, attacking and defending en masse. The system took the 1974 World Cup by storm — Holland reached the tournament final — and is still used by Real Madrid, among others.

The JCEC, funded by the Holland-based Johan Cruyff Welfare Foundation, and put together by NGOs — the Dutch wing of Terres des Hommes (Earth for Mankind) and the Indian Rural Institute for Community Education — is set on an 85-acre property.

Naturally, sport is the backbone of all education here; the Archimedes principle is taught in the swimming pool, spatial calculations on the soccer field and arithmetic on the kabaddi ground. The most important lessons on the curriculum are ‘‘team play’’ and ‘‘total commitment’’, both key elements from Cruyff’s own playing career. Football is there, too, but so are traditional sports including kho-kho and kabaddi.

‘‘Through sports lessons, the children learn that everyone is the same and that they can win together. It also teaches them to hold onto their own well-being,’’

says Terres des Hommes programme officer M Meru, who’s in charge of the JCEC

Cruyff became involved in the project, Meru said, after he came across a slogan, ‘‘Let them play’’, circulated in the Netherlands on behalf of underprivileged children. When the soccer icon learnt that a majority of children in India did not enjoy the joys of childhood he decided he had to help.

While announcing the project in the Netherlands a couple of years ago, Cruyff said it was important to ensure that no child was deprived of the pleasure of playing and learning because of poverty or mishaps. ‘‘You don’t always think of it but if you have the opportunity to do something for another, then you must do it,’’ he says on his foundation’s website.

Cruyff is said to have been inspired by Mother Teresa and his own childhood — he had to assume responsibility for his family after he lost his father at 14. Even Cruyff’s daughter, wife and friends share his beliefs and have visited the centre. However, the game’s most famous Number 14 has left one job for later: playing with the children.

‘‘He said he was too old, he didn’t play with us (when he visited the centre in 2000),’’ says Stephen Raj, an 11-year-old carrying out goalkeeping duties at an evening’s soccer game there.

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