Amsterdam has a habit of doing things its own way. The late nights on offer in the city are Europe’s most hedonistically, radically liberal, while an eco-conscious anarchist group known as “the Provos” kickstarted its transformation into the world’s most cycle-friendly capital back in the 1960s. Its art has often been peerless; its contributions to design, engineering and style idiosyncratic. Yet there is another element of modern life that Amsterdam has influenced to a profound degree. Football, Earth’s favourite sport – if you can still call it a sport, which seems an oddly timid and deficient label given how ubiquitous football has become – wouldn’t exist as it does today without the city, and without one of its most cherished sons in particular: Hendrik Johannes ‘Johan’ Cruyff.
The legacy of Dutch football’s greatest ever player, thinker and rebel – as well as the ‘Total Football’ ideology he helped popularise with Ajax in the ‘60s and ‘70s – can be detected at every level of the game, from the rarified atmospheres occupied by megaclubs like Barcelona and Manchester City, all the way down to the pub chats and playground daydreams of its devoted fanbase. Modern football might be ruled by money, Messi, Ronaldo and ratings, but tactically and aesthetically, it is Cruyff’s baby. In his home city, two friends are carving out a space for their vision of the game with a new football-inspired clothing brand, Lack of Guidance, subverting the uniforms of history’s greatest sides by finessing their insignia into laid-back street styles perfect for that time of day when the floodlights have only just come on.
“The brand’s name refers back to players like Eric Cantona, Paul Gascoigne, Zlatan Ibrahimovic – and of course Cruyff, he’s the number one,” explains Rens van Strien, who co- founded Lack of Guidance alongside his friend Akaar Amin in 2016.
“It’s more than a name, it’s a feeling,” Rens continues, “of confidence, individuality. I think the funny thing with that is even if you’ve played at quite a low level, you always come across these kinds of people in football. Even in park games.”
Rens’ tracing of that mentality down to football’s literal grass roots is significant.They bemoan the lack of “characters” in professional football today, preferring to seek inspiration instead in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s when the game felt a little freer, less arduously monitored and mapped. Today, perhaps the game’s real characters are more reliably found in the parks and concrete cages that provide an arena for the dreams of the young and the amateur.
“I grew up in a neighbourhood that was mostly Moroccan and Turkish, as well as a few Surinamese people,” explains Akaar, recalling his youth in the West Amsterdam enclave of Osdorp.
– “We used to have this weekly match, like a derby on the estate, and it was always Turkey vs Morocco. My mum was born in Iraq and my father’s Kurdish, but I always joined the Moroccan side, and was the youngest, so always had to go in goal. It was very playful – if you lost, you had to buy the other team ice cream.When I look back at those times, it really brings a smile to my face.”
This street football tradition is well ingrained in Holland and has produced many of its best players; Robin van Persie and Memphis Depay honed their skills in the concrete courts of Rotterdam and Gouda respectively, while Dennis Bergkamp – who was given his debut in the Ajax team by Cruyff at the age of just 17 – has spoken at length of how his astonishing talent was shaped by the architecture of Amsterdam. “Most of the time I was by myself, just kicking the ball against the wall, seeing how it bounces, how it comes back, just controlling it,” he wrote in his autobiography, Stillness and Speed. “I found that so interesting! Sometimes I’d aim at a certain brick, or the crossbar. Left foot, right foot, making the ball spin. Again and again.”
For Rens, too, “it was all about football” when he was growing up in the small village of Udenhout, until he graduated from high school. “That was the first moment that mindset changed for me – you think, ‘Okay, maybe I can’t be a pro footballer, so I have to think of something else.’” For a while, that was business school in Tilburg, but eventually he found his way to Amsterdam where he ended up living with Akaar, eschewing the city’s raucous party scene to stay in talking football, style and culture. “I remember sacrificing a lot of weekends to sit at home with Rens, light up a joint and just talk,” Akaar explains. “Before we started the brand all we did was talk about it – what our identity should be, observing what others were doing and figuring out what was missing.”
These conversations – and Lack of Guidance’s subsequent output – were informed by Rens’ time at Rotterdam Art Academy: “I think it’s visible in the brand, you can see us interacting with things like photography and film. That’s what sets us apart from normal football brands. We’re not just for people who are only into football and that’s it. ” This threading together of football and wider culture is what first drew the pair to C.P. Company: “I think it’s the perfect example of that, becoming fashionable in football and in a certain subculture simultaneously,” says Rens. “A lot of brands and designers are trying too hard to tap into football culture but for C.P. Company it’s the other way round – football fans, especially those in the Casual culture, want to wear their clothes.”
“Two weeks ago Holland played England in a friendly and I live in a flat overlooking the Red Light District, where the England fans had all congregated,” continues Akaar.
–“It was crazy looking down on to the street and only seeing people in C.P. Company. Not so many people wear it in Amsterdam, though I’m seeing it more and more.”
Wryly observed, unashamedly romantic and steeped in football lore, Lack of Guidance have so far co-opted the colours and emblems not just of Ajax Amsterdam but also Bayern Munich, the France ’98 and USA ’94 World Cups, the Italian national side, Sparta Prague, Boca Juniors and Feyenoord. Their interest in football seems to transcend the tribal and geographical loyalties that dominate the common narrative, compelled instead towards the wider aesthetic appeal of iconic shirt and logo design. It’s telling that they’re most effusive not when discussing Cruyff himself, but the Amsterdam store named after him.
“When we first started the brand, we fell in love with the idea of working exclusively with Smit- Cruyff – it’s iconic,” gushes Akaar of the sports shop in the city centre. “It was the first place in the whole of Holland to stock brands like adidas, Nike and Puma and the guys who work in there are so funny. They’re 55, 60 years old and when we took our first shirt in there, they just laughed at us.” Guno Reingoud and Rob van der Straeten, the current owners, started out in the shop as interns back when it was still run by Johan Cruyff ’s brother.
“They have so many stories. To me it feels almost like a museum. I was there after closing once with Guno and he took me up to the attic – there were all these classic football kits just laying there in piles. I look at retro football shirt websites every day, so I know how much these things are worth – it’s crazy. I told him it was a gold mine, but he’d never sell anything – he loves it all too much, everything in there is like his baby.”
It’s not tough to see why Rens and Akaar are so drawn to Smit-Cruyff. Despite the modern fixations, ultimately football is about folklore and stories, its warmth and meaning drawn almost entirely from acts of heroism, tragedy and farce that can be passed easily between anyone familiar with the sporting context. If Smit-Cruyff is a museum and Guno and Rob its curators, then the shirts are the precious artefacts, loaded with history and sentiment.
Lack of Guidance can be seen as an attempt not to wallow in that history but to ensure it remains with us – to keep an eye trained on the modern game, to stop it becoming untethered from its past and drifting out of sight completely. And what better vantage point could there be for that than Amsterdam?
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