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The Prophet of Betondorp and the Unbearable lightness of Playing


Johan Cruyff, “In Memoriam” (1947-2016)

Johan Cruyff, the worldwide prophet of modern soccer, died some weeks ago leaving behind a particular ludic[1] and anthropological legacy. Applying Max Weber’s sociological ideal-type classification, he showed persuasively that discipline and tactics are blind without beauty and elegance, as much as pleasure and creativity are empty without rigour and hard work.

It’s with this same ethos that Europeans will be welcoming (tomorrow, June 10, in France) the most ecumenical of today’s liturgies – the 15th edition of the UEFA European Football Championship. And, just last week, North and South Americans inaugurated the Copa America Centennial (1916-2016) soccer tournament at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California – for the first time organized outside South America. I still remember the imagination, joy and lightness of the football played by Het Nederlands Elftal (The Dutch Eleven), as orchestrated by Johan Cruyff. I was a child who watched for the first time, on a rudimentary black and white television, the World Soccer Championship held in Germany that year. It woke up in me a deep and contagious desire to watch and play – that Saturday, June 15, 1974. Divided between feelings of remorse and curiosity I managed to skip the sacred sabbatical services in La Victoria Adventist Church, Lima, Peru, where my father was trying to play another play, that of a Pastor.  

Cruyff was, in many ways, a man of the people. Betondorp is not a fancy place. Literally translating to ‘concrete village’, this part of Amsterdam is close, yet far removed from the beautiful canals the city is known for. For the young Cruyff, however, it was a fantastic place to start playing football. It didn’t take long for Ajax, Cruyff’s local club, to welcome him into its academy. He trained with the club from age six and officially joined their ranks as soon as he turned 10. It wasn’t an easy road, however. Life changed for little Johan when he was 12 years old. In an event that would alter the course of his young life, his father passed away, and his mother, Nel, was forced to leave their greengrocer shop behind and take a job as a cleaner at Ajax. Here, she met Henk Angel, the club’s grounds man, who would become ‘uncle Henk’ when Nel remarried. Cruyff fostered a close relationship with him and later recalled that, when not training with Ajax, he would help Henk with anything from putting out corner flags to marking our pitches – experiences which are said to have kept the youngster grounded.

From his teens onwards, Cruyff’s star would only rise. But his modest roots stayed part of his persona forever. Even as a retiree living in Barcelona he still visited Betondorp from time to time, and was lauded by the Dutch public for staying grounded. And paradoxically his confidence, which was sometimes read as arrogance, had its roots here too. Never afraid to take anyone on, from rivaling football teams to his own manager, he exuded self-reliance in everything he did or said.

Cruyff broke into the public eye at exactly the right time. Consequently, he became a national icon. It was the late 1960s, and the Netherlands were still recovering from the devastating Second World War. In the grey streets of a country low on confidence, constantly occupied with the hard work of reconstruction, the younger generation were letting their hair grow, listening to the Beatles and enjoying the pranks and protests of the hippie-like ‘Provo’s’ in Amsterdam. Cruyff's biography offers us the opportunity of articulating three important questions that are also crucial for us as Adventists.

The first one is a more technical question. What was Cruyff's particular contribution to today’s soccer? He incarnated and promoted the “Total Football” philosophy. In this revolutionary perspective a player who moves out of his position is replaced by another, thus retaining the team's intended organizational structure. With this fluid system no outfield player is fixed in a predetermined role; anyone can successively play as attacker, midfielder and defender. The only player who must stay in a specified position is the goalkeeper. Total Football's tactical success depends largely on the adaptability of each footballer within the team, in particular the ability to quickly switch positions depending on the on-field situation. The theory requires players to be comfortable in multiple positions; hence, it places high technical and physical demands on them.

Cruyff's charisma did all this without losing either efficiency or beauty. With his appearance and elegant style of play, Cruyff took this newfound positivity to the football pitch, elevating Ajax from obscurity to world fame in the process. Winning the European Cup three times in a row, from 1971 through to 1973, the Amsterdam-based club laid the foundation for a revolution in football. The zenith of this development came in 1974, when the Netherlands reached the final of the World Cup. Although the final against West Germany was narrowly lost, the “Total Football” Cruyff and his team-mates played would change soccer forever. Later on as manager of Barcelona, in the early 1990s, it was the little kid from Betondorp who mentored Pep Guardiola and helped him develop the tactical vision that would later conquer the world with Barcelona F.C.'s stars like Messi, Iniesta or Xavi. The legendary number 14 still reminds us that life, as much as soccer, is not a natural, unchangeable game. It has various possible configurations and strategies and we need to choose that which best represents and adapts to our present needs and situation. In this sense when football became almost a secular religion, the little kid from Betondorp truly appeared as its charismatic, innovative prophet.

Here, a second, more socio-cultural question necessarily emerges. What is the relationship between soccer and society? Does playing represent, in Western societies, a coronation of, or an escape from concrete life? Despite the enormous visibility, energies and psychological/economic investment soccer drags today, its true function in Western societies is rather atypical and unclear. Soccer and sports generally are very often used, by dictators but also by efficient political systems, to distract people from their real situation as citizens and in life. This strategy is not new. Juvenal's “Panes et Circenses” (bread and circuses) was used to decry, in a decadent Roman Empire, the selfishness of common people and their neglect of wider concerns. The phrase implies the erosion or ignorance of civic duty amongst the concerns of citizens, either through manipulation of the leaders or simply distraction of the citizens themselves by satisfaction of mere elementary desires.

Today, Juvenal's phrase is used again to critique individuals and societies which are not disciplined enough. While it’s easy to say that people need to learn to work more, face life as it is and avoid escapism –such judgment is a misleading over-simplification of sports and play generally. But, do Western societies really play too much or too little? A short multidimensional cultural assessment would easily show that they actually play too little. They are obsessed with work, discipline and efficiency to the extent that Westerners have not only unlearned playing but, paradoxically, they have managed to reduce play to mere efficiency – thus killing the very nature of play. John Huizinga's “Homo Ludens” already reminded us many decades ago that surprise, gratuity and openness are the essential characteristics of ludic communities – people who can demonstrate spontaneous and undirected playfulness. It is less the existence of formal play and more the existence of ludic attitudes. In this sense the major problem today is not an excessive “Panes et Circenses”, i.e., the fact that we are playing too much instead of working, but rather the opposite. We are working too much even when we play. This is why we need to heal our work through true play rather than discipline ourselves even more with inefficient playing.

But only here does the major difficulty emerge for healing because the main strategy used by efficient Western societies has not been to ignore playing but rather to separate it from daily life. Since play can't be ignored it just has been excluded from the working hours and segregated to the private realm or to the periphery of the day. In other words, the traditional and inseparable union of play and work during the day, typical of non Western societies, has categorically been divorced in search of a higher efficiency. If you really work you can't play. And if you are playing you are not working. This trend in thought and attitude has not changed even within the exponential increase of available amusements and free time found our post-modern societies.  

But at this point we cannot escape a third (apparently lazy) question. A theological one. What is the relation of soccer and play to theology and religion? Apparently there isn't any connection. If you have a true religious experience you can't lose time in playing. To be religious means to be concentrated on serious themes and, above all, avoid the risky exercise of “playing” with your eternal salvation. This deep concern with real and concrete life experiences has pushed today's Christians, gradually and uncritically, to copy and introduce at the heart of their faith experience the same efficiency paradigm secularly promulgated by Western societies. It’s the same general pragmatic paradigm, only applied into two different levels: Society and Christianity. When, in fact, the Biblical understanding of God is not that of a “Deo gravis” but rather that of a “Deo ludens” – a God able to trust and play. Not, of course, a selfish play to increase God’s own satisfaction through the increase of other's people suffering but a playing to increase people's satisfaction, putting at risk God’s own security. He doesn't create, save and redeem us by calculation, planning or efficiency. Creation, Salvation and Redemption are unlucrative events for God. They have introduced, in His intimate world openness, risk and suffering that only His capacity to love has transformed in grace, forgiveness and trust. This is the essence of “Deo ludens”, the God of grace and gratuity – who is certainly disciplined, hard-working and efficient – but who doesn't remain imprisoned in those virtues but rather opens them up to laughter, trust and surprise.

What has Adventism done to correct and temper this spirit of excessive discipline and efficiency in our contemporary world that tends to crush and suffocate the capacity for play? The answer is difficult and certainly can't be monolithic and compact. But we can say that Adventism has been great to call attention to religious and human dimensions overlooked and forgotten by our contemporary world, but paradoxically has, in interpreting them, reinforced the same tonality and rhythm. The end result is that Adventism tends to radicalize the already strong pragmatic and efficiency paradigm of Western societies. Adventism really doesn't know how to laugh and how to play. For instance, we take too seriously the idea that our understanding of God's word is as sacred and untouchable as God's word itself. We are unable to risk our doctrinal or administrative certainties in the true open play of relations with others and even within our own communities. The treasures of our heritage like the Sabbath, vegetarianism or the Second Coming – which are consistent “ludic” categories substantially linked to grace and gratuity – are almost exclusively subordinated to an efficiency paradigm that clutters and paralyzes the liberating capacity for playing, an experience Christians should always preserve. This is, paraphrasing a Milan Kundera sentence which describes the main trend of today’s societies, the “Unbearable Lightness of Playing”.

We moderns, Adventist or not, find it so difficult to welcome and introduce play in our lives. Cruyff did it with soccer. Will we be able to do it in life? Zvetan Todorov summed it up in a provocative sentence taken from Dostoevsky's novel, “The Idiot”: only “beauty will save the world.”

Much to think, much to learn. Let's play.

[1] lu·dic – /ˈl(y)o͞odik/, adjective: showing spontaneous and undirected playfulness.


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

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