Niels Meijer, director of the Cruyff Foundation in the Netherlands, after a time as manager at Johan Cruyff Institute Amsterdam, and a graduate of the Master in Sport Management, talks about the international strategy of the organization, the involvement of Johan’s family and the constant reference to Johan in striving to continue creating space for vulnerable children and youngsters around the world
Space. Space to move, to develop, to interact, to grow, to be free. Space, tools, possibilities and resources so that, through sport and play, children remain children, regardless of their race, gender, resources, abilities or environment. Space is what the Cruyff Foundation has been creating and making available to vulnerable children and youth around the world for more than 24 years. Johan Cruyff‘s characteristic and lethal touch, his dribbling with the ball at his feet to create space between the opponents, aroused admiration and created a new style of play. It also attracted the attention of Jon Jon, a boy with Down’s syndrome, Johan’s neighbor during his last playing days in Washington, with whom he played whenever he could, to bring him out of his isolation. Jon Jon would unknowingly become the seed of his foundation.
The Cruyff Foundation in Amsterdam will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year with its international expansion strategy consolidated and the mission and vision that Johan set out in his day intact. The foundation currently assists more than 200,000 children with or without disabilities around the world through their three major projects: the Cruyff Courts (present in 21 countries, 266 fields built, 45 Special Cruyff Courts; 65,000 children use them weekly), Schoolyard14 (present in 3 countries, 520 schoolyards, 81 in special education centers; schoolyards for 90,000 children weekly) and Disabled Sport (50,000 children with disabilities exercise every week and every year the Open Day is organized for them in Amsterdam and Barcelona, a sports day that brings together more than 1,500 children in the same space).
“At the Cruyff Foundation, we are driven by thinking every day what Johan would do in every situation. We have grown internationally, we continue to grow and make a big impact; we work with the same energy and with a great desire to continue his legacy,” says Niels Meijer. He has been the director of the Cruyff Foundation in Amsterdam since 2015, after coming into contact with Johan Cruyff’s legacy when he retired as a professional basketball player: first as a graduate of the Master in Sport Management and then as manager of Johan Cruyff Institute Amsterdam.
He talks about the origins of the Cruyff Foundation, its expansion strategy, the involvement of Johan’s family, sports and governmental entities, and its latest project focused on and implemented in refugee camps, in this extensive interview, in which the references to Johan Cruyff are always present.
If you had Johan in front of you now, how would you explain to him how his foundation has changed over the years into what it has become?
I very much like this question because we are always wondering the same thing. We still miss him every day, especially his insights. He always thought outside of the box, always thinking one step ahead, so what we do nowadays is always ask ourselves, what Johan would have done in this situation? It’s even written on our wall: What would Johan have done? I would explain to him that we’ve grown internationally, we are still growing, maybe a little bit more structured than he was used to, and we are making a huge impact. We create space for children, to develop them in sport and play, mainly in the Netherlands, Spain, the UK, South Africa and Malaysia. I also would tell him that we are doing very well, working very well together with Fundación Cruyff in Barcelona. We are having a huge impact on vulnerable children, especially in deprived areas, with the Cruyff Courts, for handicapped children, and also now for children from refugee camps. And I’d like to tell him that we are still working with the same, or maybe even more, energy as before and really eager to continue his legacy.
“I would tell Johan that we’ve grown internationally, we are making a huge impact and we are still working with the same, or maybe even more, energy as before and really eager to continue his legacy”
Let’s go back to the origins: how and when was the institution founded? Was it inspired by any of Johan’s first-hand experiences?
It all started when Johan was playing in Washington (US). He was living next to a kid with Down’s syndrome, his name was Jon Jon. Johan became friends with him. They had such a good dynamic, he not only learned how to swim but also how to play football. And one day, Johan came from an away game, he drove into the street and saw Jon Jon playing with the other kids and they were telling him ‘if you can play football with Johan, you can play football with us’. I believe that the seed was planted to start his own NGO, 24 years ago now. So next year is our 25 years anniversary and I think we are still doing what he started back then to develop children through sport or play because it’s so powerful.
From the United States to India, from northern Europe to South Africa, more and more projects are carried out by the Foundation and ambassadors are joining the cause. Which of Johan Cruyff’s rules would you like to see never forgotten?
In every project that we are doing, for example the Cruyff Courts, as a multifunctional pitch that we build all around the world and that is much more than a court because we also educate coaches around the court, there’s a sign and it says ‘the 14 rules of Johan Cruyff’. It’s 14 rules because his number was 14. And my favourite rule on that sign is ‘be a team player’, because, like Johan used to say, ‘you can’t do it alone, we have to do it together’. And I think that’s exactly what we are doing and what makes us successful because we’re not doing it alone. We always work together with local partners, with other NGOs, with councils, with governments, with volunteers, with ambassadors, with partners who support us. And that makes us successful. So, I really like that rule on the sign of the 14 rules of Johan Cruyff.
“My favourite rule on the sign of ‘the 14 rules of Johan Cruyff is ‘be a team player’ because that’s exactly what we are doing; we always work together with local partners, other NGOs, councils, governments, volunteers, ambassadors and partners who support us. And that makes us successful”
You joined as director of the Foundation in 2015. What is your mission and what fulfills you the most?
Let me first start to say that when I joined the Cruyff Foundation I came from Johan Cruyff Institute, from the educational part, and went to the NGO. I came into an organization that was very well organized, the fundamental basics were already great. So, my predecessor, Carole Thate, left me a very healthy and successful organization. So that helped a lot. But I asked my board members: What do I have to do to be successful? There were three things: the need to have some structure in the team, and we needed also an international strategy. Before our strategy was wherever Johan Cruyff went, we went, that’s why we are all around the world. But we needed some strategy in there. And, of course, a big challenge for every NGO charity organization is fundraising. So that is a challenge as well. I think in all subjects we grow. Now, there is an international strategy and it really, really helps us to grow and do it in a sustainable way. Also in fundraising, every year we make some steps and increase our budget. So, that is really nice. And, like I said before, next year is our 25th anniversary, so towards the future, my mission would be to make more impact, and it means the quality of our projects and the urgency should be there. That should be our focus for the next couple of years.
One of Johan’s mottos was: ‘If you can help someone, you should do it’ and his way of doing things inspired many people to ‘think out of the box’. The Cruyff Courts in refugee camps in Lesbos and Samos are a great example of that. How did those projects come about?
Actually, it was already a big wish of the family, and since we started, we were there for vulnerable children and youngsters. So, no matter their culture, their background, their gender or their handicaps, this is the group that we want to work for. We want to help those children and youngsters. But especially from the family and especially from Susila Cruyff, the daughter of Johan, she had the big wish to do something for refugees. We started a project in the Netherlands, it was very successful and it helped us to gain the first experiences working with this target group, because it’s in some ways very different than what we know from the Cruyff Courts or from the children with a handicap. And then, finally we started to look for, again, a partnership with another NGO that could help us along the way, because you don’t have to do it alone, you can do it together. And at the end, we found Movement on the Ground. And I think with Movement on the Ground, they are specialized in helping refugees, mainly on the Greek islands, for example, in Lesbos. And from the start we shared the same DNA. They are also really streetwise. They are also really innovative, creative. There was a connection from the start and we have worked with them ever since and now we have a very interesting and successful project in Lesbos, in the refugee camp.
“The Cruyff Courts in refugee camps was already a big wish of the family, and especially from Susila Cruyff, the daughter of Johan”
Are there any other new projects you are working on that you can tell us about?
I was mentioning the international strategy, we brought in some focus and now our focus is in the Netherlands, the UK, Spain, South Africa and Malaysia. But I’m happy to announce that we are going to add another country and that will be China. There is a lot of development going on there in sport and in football, mainly. So, we are looking forward to starting our first projects over there. That will be a big main focus for the next couple of years.
Another project that started and developed through the last couple of months is in the Netherlands. It’s the Summer Games, after the Winter Games 2020 that started because of Covid. There was already a lot of inactivity among youngsters, especially youngsters are not really active in sport or could be participating in sport, and especially during Covid, like four out of five youngsters in the Netherlands were inactive during Covid. So we started the Summer Games. And with the help of our government and the health departments, we were able to bring some positive impulses to our Cruyff Courts. In almost every council in the Netherlands, we have a Cruyff Court and those coaches were able to organize events and positive impulses for these youngsters. We call it the Summer Games and we really would like to continue this towards the future.
What is the Dutch government’s collaboration and involvement with the Foundation?
I just gave you one of the examples with the Summer Games. In this case, they are a funding partner, they supplied the grants and they are very important. It’s also an institution that we really would like to talk as much as possible to also have influences in all the activities within the sports sector or within the sector of NGOs. But not only them, because this is one of the institutions, but we also work very closely with lotteries. In this case, the national postcode lottery in the Netherlands, but also in the UK, and also with EU grants or UEFA grants or FIFA grants. They are very important for us and they have the same mission. Together with them, we can set up projects to help children and youngsters that really need it.
“We still really miss Johan and we are really keen to make sure that his legacy will be there in the future to come. But we really need the family in this. And it’s really great to see the involvement the family still has in the activities of the Cruyff Foundation”
What is the involvement of the Cruyff family?
We still really miss Johan and we are really keen to proceed with his legacy and make sure that his legacy will be there in the future to come. But we really need the family in this. And it’s really great to see the involvement the family still has in the activities of the Cruyff Foundation, and especially Susila, the daughter of Johan, who’s also taking part in the boards of the Cruyff Foundation and in the Netherlands, but also having accepted the board of the Fundación Cruyff in Barcelona. And it’s amazing the way she looks like her father, not only physically, but also the way she talks and the way she thinks, but mainly her passion, her passion for the children that we are helping. And I think for us, it’s very important that the family is still so involved.
You are now the director of the Foundation in the Netherlands, but you have been part of other initiatives of Johan’s legacy. You are a graduate of Johan Cruyff Institute’s Master in Sport Management and former manager of Amsterdam. How did the Master in Sport Management help you make the transition to the business world after retiring as a former professional basketball player?
It helped me a great deal. For me it was very important. I’ve been a professional basketball player for 11 years, but I had to retire at a young age, 28, because of an injury. I was a physical therapist but didn’t want to practice. So, for me, I was standing on a crossroads, didn’t know what to do. I found my way in Johan Cruyff Institute, I started studying the Master in Sport Management. It really helped me in transferring my competencies that I had on the basketball court into competencies that I could use on the business floor. For example, in my last years on the basketball court, I was the team captain. So, you have certain competencies as a team captain, but it doesn’t help you if you can’t transfer that to being a manager. So, you have the leadership competencies, but you need to transfer. So, that helped me a great deal. But, also the basic fundamentals, the basic knowledge that you need as a manager. So, how to read a P&L, for example, but also other finance aspects or marketing communication aspects. And that’s what I like about the Master in Sport Management; it’s a really general, basic master’s, but also really practical and helps you in getting this knowledge to use as a manager.
“When I retired as a professional basketball player, I was standing on a crossroads, didn’t know what to do and I found my way in Johan Cruyff Institute studying the Master in Sport Management”
Do you think you could manage the Cruyff Foundation now, or Johan Cruyff Institute Amsterdam in the past without having that master’s degree?
It helped a great deal! You have some qualities as an athlete, for example, your endurance to cope with emotions, setting goals, setting targets for yourself or the team, and work in a structured or disciplined way. But like I said, it doesn’t mean anything if you can’t use it, if you can use it only on the court and not on the business floor. What also helped me studying the master was getting to know new people. So it helped me create a network of students, alumni, teachers, sports organizations. For me it was a really nice way to start my second career. Sometimes, I still miss the cheering and applause of the fans, that’s something you never get back, but I think mentally and physically it’s still important to be in shape and especially mentally, this is something you have to develop when coming from a basketball floor to the business floor and it’s something you can practice, it’s something you can train. I always say to students when I talk to them about leadership, ‘follow your dreams and follow your passion’. My passion was basketball, but now my passion is to develop children and, like you said, when you see the smile on their faces, when you can do something for them, it’s priceless.
“As an athlete you have some qualities and competencies and the master helps you to transferring them to the business floor; for me it was a really nice way to start my second career”
What is the connection between the Foundation and Johan Cruyff Institute?
First of all, we are the legacy, we are the social part of The World of Johan Cruyff. I consider us to be family. And, of course, also in programs. We have the MOOC, that we presented together, it’s a free program that is being offered by Johan Cruyff Institute, but content-wise, it’s about the Cruyff Foundation, and it really helps to give us some insights. But also, me and my colleagues are giving presentations to the students at the Institute, we have alumni working here now at the Cruyff Foundation, we have the ‘14K run’ in Amsterdam where students help us organizing this fundraising event… So, there are a lot of links and connections between the Foundation and the Institute and I think in the future we can do so much more.
“The connection between the Cruyff Foundation and Johan Cruyff Institute is there; we are the legacy, the social part of The World of Johan Cruyff, we are family”
How do you work with Fundación Cruyff in Barcelona?
Very well. We did some really good steps in this couple of years, we really know how to find each other, we talk every week. We are autonomic organizations but we are very much aligned within the marketing communications, partnerships, and the things that we are doing. So, it’s not even a brother or sister, we are one organization.
We cannot end this interview without talking about how complicated the last year has been for everyone. How has the Foundation experienced the Covid year?
I think, like many organizations. It has been tough; it has been challenging. First of all, for our children in our projects. I was talking about vulnerable children and vulnerable youngsters; they need structure, exercise, sport and positive impulses. And when this falls away, because this was what was happening during the first lockdown and also the second lockdown, they couldn’t go outside. And especially for vulnerable children, this is devastating. So we are very glad that especially for children and youngsters in the Netherlands, really soon children could go outside again. But what we see, for example, in our projects in South Africa or in Malaysia, this wasn’t the case. So this is challenging for us, in order to know how to make this better in the future. Secondly, money-wise, of course, all of our fundraising events were cancelled. So, we have less income in the year 2020 and we have to recover in this year.
On the other hand, Johan always taught us that every disadvantage has its advantage. So, we pretty much immediately started to look at the advantages of this crisis. Also, somebody used to say ‘never waste a good crisis’. Well, that’s what we did. And we looked at our projects and we became much more creative doing things on the way.
“The Covid year has been tought and challenging; vulnerable children and youngsters need structure, exercise, sport and positive impulses, and when this falls away is devastating”
For example, our Open Day. We always organized it in the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam. Around 1,500 children with a handicap come to the stadium and experience one of the greatest sports days that they ever have. But they couldn’t come to the Olympic Stadium. So, what we did is, we went to them and with a lot of ambassadors, famous football players, famous sports people, we came to them and we provided for them, in their school, a nice sports day, a sports event. So, like I said, always look at the bright side, look at the things that you are able to do. This is also how Johan would look at this situation.