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The Ajax legend's pre-match system stars in the latest of our series chronicling the extraordinary power of belief

Like many successful coaches, Dutch maestro Johan Cruyff quickly discovered that in order to succeed in the management game, he needed to rigorously adhere to the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ philosophy. During his successful tenure at Barcelona in the 1990s, he prided himself on having precious little time for “much of the bluster and nonsense both inside and outside the game. I feel that players are indulged to a ridiculous extent these days”. The 1974 World Cup finalist was particularly scathing of both players and managers who were influenced by any type of superstition. “If it does influence them,” he insisted, “you can’t play them in the next match.”

"Once I’ve gone through with my little system before the game, my mind is fully focused on what we have to do to be successful on the pitch"


Yet as an Ajax player, Cruyff followed a bizarre routine at the start of matches which he would never have tolerated as a coach. Shortly before kick off, he’d slap goalkeeper Gert Bals in the stomach, and then spit his chewing gum into the opposition half. “It’s odd I know, but it seems to work for me,” he claimed in 1972. “Once I’ve gone through with my little system before the game, my mind is fully focused on what we have to do to be successful on the pitch." Disaster struck shortly before the 1969 European Cup Final though.

Keeper Bals received his customary smack in the guts, but as Cruyff prepared to gob out his gum, he realised that pre match nerves had got the better of him, and he’d forgotten to put some in his mouth. Ajax – who’d become the first Dutch team to appear in a major European Final – got thrashed 4-1.

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