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When Johan Cruyff ruled American soccer: the Dutch master's NASL years

ESPN FC's Gabriele Marcotti shares his thoughts on legacy of Dutch footballing legend Johan Cruyff.

The Dutch legend Johan Cruyff, who died on Thursday after a battle with cancer at the age of 68, played two seasons in the old North American Soccer League (1979-80) for the Los Angeles Aztecs and the Washington Diplomats. ESPN FC columnist David Hirshey, then writing about soccer for Sport Magazine, was granted unprecedented access to Cruyff for the most in-depth article about the three-time Ballon d'Or winner's time in the United States. What follows is a condensed version of his original article from May, 1980.

TWO HOURS AFTER HIS first game on national TV, Johan Cruyff's left ankle has swollen to the size of a hardball, split down the middle by a row of angry red stitches. He hobbles through the corridor atop Washington's RFK Stadium, searching for the Dutch ambassador's reception in honor of the Los Angeles Aztecs. Having just led the Aztecs to a 2-1 victory over the Washington Diplomats, Cruyff wants nothing more than to relax with his teammates and countrymen, maybe knock back a few Heinekens, light up a cigarette and grab a bite to eat.

The 15-minute climb up the ramps from the locker room has been excruciating, but he finally pushes through the mob cluttering the entrance to the party and sinks into a chair.

But what's this in front of him? Bagels and lox? At a Dutch reception? And why is that fat little man in the Hawaiian shirt blowing a whistle? And isn't that a yellow card in the guy's shirt pocket, the same card an official waves at a player to caution him during a game?

"It's impossible," Cruyff says softly, beginning to realize where he has seen all these faces before.

Johan Cruyff, who was once suspended from international play for an entire year for striking an official, whose mouth has earned enough yellow cards to paper The Hague, has walked into a room full of referees.

"Oh, it's impossible," he moans again. "How does this happen?"

Cruyff initially signed with the New York Cosmos only to clash and ultimately leave over creative differences.

LAST SEASON, JOHAN CRUYFF'S first on American soil, was full of surprises but most of them were pleasant. They began with the first NASL goal he scored, just 164 seconds into his debut game, and continued right up to his selection as the league's Most Valuable Player, its top forward and its Offensive Player of the Year -- confirmation that at 32, after a year's layoff, Cruyff is still the best soccer player in the world. In 23 games, he scored 13 goals, assisted on 16 more and led the once humble Aztecs to the playoff semifinals.

Like Pele, who had retired the year before, Cruyff became the designated savior of U.S. soccer. He commanded a colossal salary, doubled his team's attendance and drew huge crowds wherever he played. Just before the 1980 season began, Cruyff had a surprise of his own. He signed a three-year contract worth $1.5 million with the Washington Diplomats.

Sonny Werblin, the team's chairman of the board and renowned signer of superstars like Joe Namath, obviously felt Cruyff was worth the money. After all, in his team's game against the Aztecs, Werblin had just witnessed a sublime display of not just Cruyff's matchless skills -- the lightning acceleration, the feathery touch, the impossible body swerves that leaves defenders lunging at nothing but air -- but, perhaps more importantly, he had seen his extraordinary versatility.

Frustrated by Cruyff's bag of tricks and flicks, Washington resorted to increasingly physical tactics in the second half resulting in two Aztec defenders having to go off with injuries. Los Angeles manager Rinus Michels, Cruyff's longtime coach at Ajax and Barcelona and widely regarded as the mastermind behind the Dutch style of play known as "Total Football," is forced to reshuffle his lineup. He needs a new sweeper and he turns to Cruyff, who up to then had been deployed as the creative hub of midfield.

Cryuff slips into the role like he's been playing it all his life. Confidently, he roams the territory in front of the goal; once, with a Washington player lurking alone in the box awaiting a cross, Cruyff leaps in front of him to take the ball on his chest, juggle it once, twice on his knee, whirl around and clear it 40 yards cross-field to the foot of an Aztecs attacker. Los Angeles hang on to win, 2-1, and Cruyff is named Defensive Player of the Game.

ON THE AZTECS' RED-EYE flight home to L.A., most of the players doze fitfully but Cruyff is in constant, fidgety motion, biting his nails, chain-smoking Camels and dreaming up practical jokes. At every opportunity, he is the prankster schoolboy, seeking to close the yawning gap between himself and his teammates with some good-natured hijinks. He is not above snapping a towel if it gets him a laugh, slipping forks onto his friends' seats in coffee shops, pinching lit cigarettes for a lark. Recently, he hid the left shoe of a sleeping teammate who was forced to trudge through Canadian customs in one shoe.

Just now he's engaged in moving the no-smoking sign back six rows so he can puff away with impunity. Then he steals three cans of soda from the beverage cart when the stewardess isn't looking. As the last of his teammates nods off, Cruyff settles down to do a bit of paper work for InterSoccer Ltd., the company that markets and promotes him. Somewhere over the Sierra Nevada mountains, he announces he is ready for the appointment with the tape recorder "to be discussing my life."

By now, it is a well-known Dutch fairy tale. It begins with skinny little Johan, the grocer's son, bouncing a soccer ball on his knobby knees at the age of four. Across the street are the gates of Heaven: Ajax Stadium, home of the Dutch reigning club champion that grooms its future stars beginning in elementary school. Beating out 200 hopefuls, Johan gets his acceptance to Ajax Juniors on his 10th birthday.

Life seems a simple rotation of practice and games until Johan's father dies when the boy is 12. His mother Nel must take work cleaning locker rooms at Ajax. Johan is mortified but at 15, he is hired as an Ajax professional and his mother swabs the gritty tiles for the last time.

Soon, Johan is making headlines for two things: brilliance and arrogance. By 19, he is one of the most spectacular young talents on the international scene. The next years are epochal in Dutch soccer. Under Cruyff's forceful leadership in the early 1970s, the team from Holland rose from second-rate status to become a dominating power. Ajax won three European Cups and the Dutch National Team's brand of electric soccer and fluid positioning captured the world's imagination -- and nearly the World Cup, losing to West Germany in the 1974 final. By then it was an expatriate Cruyff who had returned to play for his country; in 1973, Barcelona paid Ajax $2.1 million for Cruyff's services, an investment that paid off immediately.

"The first couple of months in Spain were no problem," Cruyff remembers. "When I got to Barcelona they were second from the bottom and within 10 games with me, they were first."

Winning had become an easy thing for Johan Cruyff. Coping with the pressures it brought was not. "In Spain, when you dominate a team on the field you make many enemies," he says. "I had no free time. I had to give up my children. If I played bad, my oldest daughter would go to school and the other children would say 'Your father's a disaster.' I wasn't enjoying it anymore. You play, play, play. If you don't get results, you are criticized, tortured by the press..."

Further clouding Cruyff's status in Spain were some bad investments. In the fall of 1978, it was reported that an agreement had been reached in which Cruyff would pay the Spanish government $850,000 in back taxes. It was around that time that negotiations began to bring Cruyff to the United States. The Cosmos started courting Cruyff in 1977, about the same time Pele bade New York fans a tearful farewell in his last (and final) retirement game.

After making his American debut with the Cosmos a year later in an exhibition against the World All-Stars, Cruyff signed documents stating that if he played in the NASL, it would be in New York. The NASL registration fee at the time was a staggering $400,000, which the Cosmos cheerfully paid. But the smiles began to disappear when it came time to signing a contract. "He wanted to run the show on and off the field," explains a member of the Cosmos board of directors. "He refused to let us market him, though we did a pretty good job with Pele, don't you think?"

When the remark is relayed to Cruyff, he becomes visibly annoyed, and will comment only with prodding. "I told them I will do merchandising to help the club, but I want the veto.·I want to say 'yes' or 'no' to each thing. They said no. I said I will never accept this situation where they tell me where to go, what to say. No one has an exclusive on Johan Cruyff. This is impossible."

L.A. was the logical choice. It was where his mentor Michels had gone to coach the Aztecs. After intense negotiations, the Aztecs paid the Cosmos $600,000 for Cruyff's release.

THE JET HAS JUST begun its descent into the luminous, brown haze that is Los Angeles. Cruyff is now visibly fatigued. Tired, too, he says, of the incessant allegations that he came to the United States just for the money.

"Listen," he says, "if I wanted money, I would have gone to another club in Spain or England. They pay much more than I can make in the United States. No. I wanted to play. I wanted to do something for soccer, to do something for youth. The only decision was to come here."

For Cruyff, this was the only way to redirect his life and finances. The chaotic, unpredictable European soccer scene was robbing him of the control that marks his play.

FACT: Soccer is the fastest growing sport in North America.
FACT: Johan Cruyff, the most recognized and respected soccer player in the world, wants to join your team.

So states the glossy black promotional folder of InterSoccer Ltd. piled beside Cruyff in the front seat of his car. Cruyff, the folder promises, can "establish brand identity and loyalty" and will work tirelessly to "improve corporate image, make a major contribution to community relations and create new sales opportunities on a national level."

Rarely, says the brochure, does such an opportunity come along.

Right now, the "Opportunity" is torturing the accelerator of his car as he drives home to San Marino after an NASL marketing luncheon in Beverly Hills. He is, for the moment, sold on California, more than willing to give up his fast European cars for the relaxed, laid-back West Coast life. No rush-rush, like New York. No crazy fans like Spain. Easy. Slow. Good for the body and mind. You have control.

Finally, the car slows to enter the winding drive that leads to his gleaming white Spanish stucco house. Inside, the furnishings are straight from the minimal/slick decor out of the pages of Architectural Digest, all light-colored and low-slung except for a pair of oversize cages plastered with KLM stickers. The cages are used to transport Bes and Banjier, a pair of energetic Doberman guard dogs. They have been in Cruyff's employ since a deranged Barcelona fan toting a sawed-off shotgun walked into his home two years ago and tied up everybody in the house. No one was hurt because Cruyff's wife, Danny, managed to slip her bonds, escape and alert the police.

"I don't like to talk about it," says Cruyff, as he leads the way to the patio where a bucket of ice awaits. "But you can't blame me for being afraid of people." He explains that he has allowed no photographs of the house other than the patio. Inside, he has hung no plaques or photographs. The trophies are still in Spain. "Soccer," says the entrepreneur, "stays outside my door."

Business, on the other hand, is ever at his side. Sinking his still swollen ankle deep into the ice, he holds two bottles of wine -- a red and a white -- up to the afternoon sun and points to the labels bearing his insignia: two lions surrounded by a large C. It goes on all the products he markets as president of the conglomerate, Cruyff Associados Barcelona. Asparagus, paella, candies, canned vegetables, wine. There is real estate as well, both here and abroad.

Seated under a giant elm, Cruyff could be any successful burgher gazing at his beautiful, blond wife, the neat rows of flowers, his three children romping in the yard. Susila, 8, and Chantal, 9, play quietly in a corner while Jordi, 5, throws himself into a game of catch with the dogs. Cruyff's benign smile twitches at its corners after he tears open this month's $1,000 phone bill. He straightens in his lounge chair. "Please make your calls home on Sunday," he reminds Danny. "It is very much less expensive."

Snapping and salivating, one of the Dobermans suddenly lunges after Jordi's ball, crashing into a table and turning a visitor pale as a fish belly. "It's really all right," Cruyff says, subduing the beast. "They are very gentle when you learn to control them."

BEHIND CRUYFF'S LEADERSHIP -- AND his 13 goals -- the Aztecs qualify easily for the 1979 playoffs. Their first-round opponent is none other than their bitter rivals, the Washington Diplomats. Following the Aztecs' victory in the opener at Los Angeles, the return match in Washington is another fiercely fought affair. With just three minutes left, Washington ties the game, 3-3, to force a sudden death overtime. It is here that the genius of Johan Cruyff descends on RFK Stadium with the impact of a wrecking ball.

Ten yards inside the Aztecs' half of the field, Sanchez Galindo has won a battle for the ball with Washington's Carmine Marcantonio. With an open field in front of him, Galindo chooses to lay the ball at Cruyff's feet like a runner handing off the baton. Cruyff has said that he is not particularly fast; that he is just able to accelerate quickly off the mark. He covers the next 40 yards in five seconds with the ball nestled comfortably at his feet.

As he bears down on the Aztecs' goal, a Washington defender lunges with his left leg extended. Without breaking stride, Cruyff sweeps the ball right then shoulder dips left, freezing the defender. Suddenly, 18 yards from the goal, he pulls up short as two more defenders careen past him, reaching for the ball with four feet. They sprawl helplessly to the ground in a tangle of churning legs.

Lashing out desperately with a right leg, one of them manages to nick Cruyff's heel, causing the Dutchman to stumble slightly but not enough to subvert his purpose. Cruyff feints a shot to the left, making goalkeeper Bill Irwin commit to the far side of the goal, then curls the ball into the right corner past the diving keeper. As the ball bulges the netting, Cruyff whirls triumphantly, head bent back in jubilation, eyes closed against the darkening sky.

Cruyff's goal advances Los Angeles to the next round of the playoffs, where not even Cruyff's brilliance can save them against the Vancouver Whitecaps (the eventual NASL champions). But for Cruyff, it is the start of a secure and peaceful sojourn here, a journey that this season brought him from one coast to another to play for (ironically) Washington, the Aztecs' rivals he once criticized for "kicking our players because the Diplomats are low in skill."

L.A. enjoyed one season of Cruyff in which he won the NASL MVP and the club came close to a second title.

THE EVE OF SOCCER Bowl '79 finds Cruyff relaxed and playful as he attends a reception in his honor at the Newtherlands Club in New York. Danny Cruyff, tanned and elegant, stands greeting well-wishers near the door; Susila and Chantal twirl delightedly in their party dresses. Impishly handsome, smiling at the center of a clutch of fawning women, Cruyff leans forward to catch what a man whispers in his ear. The change in his face is alarming. With Danny in tow, he walks briskly into the corridor. Their little boy, Jordi, is missing from the party.

"So you lost a kid," the lobby security guard says rudely, unimpressed with whom he is speaking. "Happens all the time. Kid'll turn up."

Were this anywhere in Europe, the place would be teeming with the national guard. Now only Thomas Rongen, an Aztec teammate, runs out into the street to look for the child. A frantic Cruyff and a few guests scour the building. Jordi can't be found.

The search continues for an hour until one of the Dutch guests runs into the party shouting, "I've found him." Instantly, Cruyff is bounding up the stairs after him, into a second-floor men's room. There, in the second stall, standing on the toilet seat to conceal his whereabouts, is Jordi.

Cruyff scoops his son into his arms and carries him downstairs. Cruyff's face is awash with relief. The old fears, like a nagging injury, have nearly hobbled him again.

"You cannot always control the bad memories," he says, quietly.

David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.

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