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Chivas turn to Dutch legend for inspiration

March 2, 2012

A more in-depth follow-up to this piece on the arrival of Johan Cruyff in Guadalajara:

Bottom of the league table and enduring their worst ever run of form, Mexico’s most successful soccer side have turned to a European great for salvation in their most desperate hour of need.

The club owner hailed him as the “Pope” of football, and sure enough the mere presence of Dutch legend Johan Cruyff inspired an immediate improvement last weekend, with Guadalajara Chivas finally recording their first win of 2012 against in-form Santos Laguna.

But is Cruyff’s appointment a footballing masterstroke or a pricey and elaborate rebranding act by chairman Jorge Vergara?

Cruyff, 64, was officially unveiled as a part-time advisor to the club before 400 fans at the Omnilife Stadium on Saturday. He is the latest link in the Dutch connection, with Chivas having previously employed his compatriots Leo Beenhakker and Hans Westerhof to coach the club.

Widely considered one of the greatest soccer players of all time, Cruyff is one of only four players to have won the Ballon d’Or prize for world player of the year on three separate occasions. He was the star of the Dutch national team in the 1970s and won a host of trophies at Barcelona and Dutch club Ajax, before returning to both sides during an equally successful career as manager.

Cruyff’s arrival is a major coup for Vergara. Nothing if not ambitious, the millionaire businessman says he hopes “to make Chivas the best team in the world.” On the surface, the appointment of such a big name should go some way to placating fans who are angry at Vergara’s stewardship of the club.

Chivas have lacked stability under his tenure, naming seven coaches since 2009; their shiny but expensive new stadium is rarely full and Vergara remains reluctant to fund big-name signings.

Instead, he has put great faith in the club’s youth development system that has produced international stars such as Manchester United striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez. Uniquely, Vergara maintains the time-honored Chivas tradition of only fielding Mexican-born players (the only team in the league to do this).

“Chivas is different from other clubs because they also preach values, that are based on other things,” said Cruyff. “We showed in Holland and in Barcelona that when you start with values, these always come back.”

By hiring Cruyff, Vergara aims to emulate the success of Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, which has produced many of the best players in the world, including Argentine superstar Lionel Messi.

Cruyff was an architect of the Barcelona youth system that takes on players from a young age and emphasizes an attractive, possession-based style of soccer. Known as “tika-taka” in Spain, this style developed from the “total football” philosophy that Cruyff first pioneered with Ajax, Barcelona and the Dutch national team.

While Cruyff’s appointment will have raised morale and diverted attention from events on the field, some critics consider his appointment an expensive piece of propaganda and there are already doubts over the level of his involvement with the team.

Cruyff will travel to Guadalajara just three times a year, to give ten advisory sessions over a period of three years. His part-time contract is reported to be worth between three and five million dollars.

In his absence, Cruyff will be assisted by graduates from the Mexican branch of his school, the Johan Cruyff Institute for Sport Studies. Armed with master’s degrees in football leadership and business administration, they will be stationed permanently in Guadalajara.

Looking to play down expectations, Cruyff warned, “It’s impossible to think that Chivas will win [on Sunday] because now I’m here. They are not going to start to play like Holland now.”

But win they did. With their new mentor watching on from the stands, Chivas triumphed 2-1, at last ending their run of six months without a home victory. The goals came from two of the most promising products from Chivas’ youth academy: 22-year-old Marco Fabian and 19-year-old Erick “Cubo” Torres.

Chivas’ ranks are bursting with young potential, but if Vergara is sincere in his aim of owning the best team in the world, one senses he will need to call for greater first-hand involvement from Cruyff and resist the urge to sell his biggest stars for a tidy profit at the first opportunity.

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