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Globetrotter Jordi Cruyff embarks on new adventure with Ecuador

11:00 PM SGT 4/2/20
Jordi Cruyff
The former Barca and Man Utd man has never been content to live off his father's name and now sets his sights at taking the Tricolor to the World Cup

Throughout his life, Jordi Cruyff has strived to be more than simply the 'son of'. Now 45, he has managed to carve out a career successful in its own right. He is now gearing up for one of his biggest challenges with an Ecuador side which has a point to prove of its own.

January saw the former Barcelona and Manchester United player sign terms to coach the Tricolor through their quest to reach the 2022 World Cup. It is only Cruyff's third job on the bench; his last stint was a short spell in China at Chongqing that ended in December with the team finishing mid-table in the Chinese Super League.

The Dutchman's CV also includes successful spells in a director of football capacity with AEK Larnaca, who battled through to the Europa League group stage in 2011-12 to become the first Cypriot side to reach the knockout phase, and Israel's Maccabi Tel-Aviv. Having gone 10 years without winning the league, under Cruyff's tutelage Maccabi lifted the title three seasons in a row, while also enjoying moderate success in Europe.

He also did not shy away from making big calls, famously sacking himself as Maccabi coach in 2017 - "It was a tough conversation", he joked to the Guardian - in order to resume his directorial role. Away from the field he also completed a post-graduate marketing degree and invariably comes across in interviews as a sensitive, intelligent reader of the game and life in general.

Such achievements, as well as a playing career that took in two of the world's biggest clubs and subsequent impressive spells at the likes of Alaves, Espanyol and Metalurh, are no mean feats. But the frustrating truth for Jordi is that whatever he does will inevitably measured up against his late father Johan, one of the greatest players ever to step onto a football field, the creator of Barcelona's all-conquering 'Dream Team' and an all-time legend with the Catalans, Ajax, Netherlands and the sport as a whole.

“It has not been easy. Until one day I finally understood what I had to understand and I started to enjoy myself,” Cruyff noted in an interview with La Vanguardia shortly after Johan's passing in 2016. “What did I understand? That my father was among the one per cent of immortal people and that the other 99% are mortals, myself among them. That took the pressure off and I could relax.”

The accusations of nepotism that followed Jordi from his very first days at Barcelona, however, were hard to ignore. “They hurt,” he admitted to the Guardian in 2019 at - where else? - the unveiling of a statue dedicated to Cruyff Sr: “This is my dad, not me. The person who should be speaking isn't here.

“It happens: look at Michel's son, Zidane's. But look at my figures and [making the first team] was logical,” he adds of his time at Barca. “All the years at Barcelona I had a B team contract. 'They'll never be able to say you made money because of me.' When I went to United in 96, my salary jumped from youth teamer to Premier League.”

Jordi has never been afraid of a new challenge, with his football life so far taking him from England to Malta, Barcelona to Israel and China. And nobody could accuse the budding coach of dodging a challenge upon taking up the Ecuador job, a post that has now changed hands six times (including interim spells) since Reinaldo Rueda left in the wake of World Cup first round elimination in 2014.

The Tricolor reached three World Cup finals between 2002 and 2014 and began qualifying for Russia in emphatic fashion, beating Argentina 2-0 in the Monumental and winning all of their first four matches. But the following 14 games yielded just two victories and 10 defeats, leaving Ecuador above just Venezuela and Bolivia in the CONMEBOL standings and out of World Cup contention. The 2019 Copa America also ended in disaster, picking up just one point from nine to crash out at the group stages.

A similar frustrating story has developed at youth level. Last year Ecuador's Under-20s beat Argentina and Uruguay to the South American Championship, inspired by top scorer and new Wolves signing Leonardo Campana. That promising team went on to finish third in the 2019 World Cup; but the ongoing Pre-Olympic qualifiers proved a fiasco: four defeats out of four and early elimination for a team built around that brilliant Under-20 squad.

There is plenty of hope for the future nonetheless, with Campana, new Los Angeles FC signing Jose Cifuentes and Alan Franco, a Copa Sudamericana winner with Independiente del Valle, heading a talent-heavy new generation. But the Tricolor are a team lacking in experience. Of the 27 players called up for the last round of friendlies, only the evergreen Felipe Caicedo boasted more than 20 caps and with qualifiers for 2022 kicking off away to Lionel Messi's Argentina in less than two months, Cruyff will have precious little time to mould the side to his liking.

“I am ambitious and want to win everything I can. Enjoying yourself is important, but I want to compete and win. In official matches you have to go all-out from the first second,” the Dutch-Catalan signalled in his first press conference as Ecuador boss.

“There is interesting material here and an exciting project to work with. I am pretty optimistic about the coming results, I will try and strike a good balance between youth and experienced players.

“It is clear that there are good footballers here. I see athletic condition, a strength which gives you an advantage and which is present more than in other countries. If we can combine that with tactical intelligence, you will see Ecuadorian players in big leagues.”

Jordi returned to Europe shortly after his appointment in order to take a closer look at potential call-ups based over the Atlantic, but returned to Ecuador at the start of February and jumped straight back into work with visits to training sessions at the likes of Guayaquil's Barcelona. If there is one thing he has without a doubt inherited from his father, it is that tireless attention to detail that made Johan such a great on the pitch and on the bench.

Restoring Ecuador's place at the top table of world football by 2022 is a daunting task. As well as near-invincible Brazil, the Tricolor will have to tackle an Argentina team already at a more advanced stage of its own renovation, ever-awkward Uruguay and the likes of Chile, Colombia, Peru, Paraguay and possible dark horses Venezuela, all of whom believe it is their right to occupy one of CONMEBOL's 4.5 places at Qatar.

Competition will be fierce in what is arguably the most difficult qualifying campaign on the entire FIFA map; but should Jordi lead his new charges through, there will be one corner of South America at least in which his name is remembered with even more affection than that of his dearly missed, illustrious father.