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Beckham's a path once trodden by Cruyff

Only the next five years can tell whether David Beckham's projected $250m from playing for LA Galaxy is too much.

It's interesting to know that in 1979 it took only three quarters of a million for the Los Angeles Aztecs to make another superstar, Johan Cruyff, come out of retirement.

If Becks can repeat the Dutchman's first day in the City of Angels all money talk will be forgotten in no time.

Cruyff arrived by plane to LAX on the 19th of May and went straight to the Rosebowl stadium to play against the Rochester Lancers. Within ten minutes he had scored twice and also assisted for the third goal in the second half. But why did Johan end up in the States and how did he fare?

Six months before, Cruyff had retired in a unique farewell match. Barcelona were obviously invited, but they were unavailable and Bayern Munich were considered the next best opponent for Ajax that day.

Amsterdam's Olympic Stadium was packed while millions watched at home for what was supposed to be an exhibition match between the two leading club teams of the Seventies. However, on the day of the game, the German visitors were made to feel less than welcome and were abused from the terraces.

'There was no one from the organisation at the airport, the hotel was second rate and the mood in the stadium quite hostile', explained the then Bayern captain Paul Breitner.

'I thought, we don't have to take this. We decided to turn it into a show, a Bayern show.' Ajax were humiliated 8-0. Bayern played without Franz Beckenbauer, who had already joined New York's Cosmos. When recently asked if this would have happened had he been there, Der Kaiser was adament: 'Niemals!' (Never!)

Johan Cruyff returned to his home in Barcelona, where more trouble struck. He had lost most of his investments after putting his trust in the wrong guy. Fraud or stupidity? We may never know as Cruyff did not press charges against one of his best friends at the time, investor Michel Basilevitsj.

Within months he decided to start playing again. The Cosmos had a preliminary contract to be the first to negotiate with Cruyff if he would like to return on the pitch.

The owner of Warner Brothers offered $4m in three years, but Cruyff had noticed what his predecessor Pele had been expected do. He would not submit to any commercial activities for Warner as it might interfere with his own affairs.

Then the Aztecs showed their interest, which had everything to do with the presence of coach Rinus Michels in Los Angeles. They already had a large Dutch contingent with former international Wim Suurbier, Leo van Veen and tall striker Huub Smeets. Cruyff immediately felt at home.

Let's forget about tactics from now on. I will play for the public
Cruyff at Washington Diplomats
Being away from the spotlight and the pressure of cynical Spanish defenders, who were looking for his legs rather than the ball, he loved being on the pitch again.

And the fans loved him too. In the three years before, the Aztecs had an average attendance of about 8-9,000, which was rather disappointing considering they featured George Best in their team. Cruyff managed to attract some 5,000 more per game, yet this was still not enough for the owners to make a profit.

Although he scored the goal of the season in the play-off against the Diplomats, was voted the MVP of 1979 and created a lot of goodwill in the area, the Aztecs had to let him go as they could not afford his salary for another year.

The next season, Cruyff returned to the States to play for Washington Diplomats. The club had opted for Kevin Keegan first, but when that fell through they went for the Dutch master, hoping that attendances in the capital would finally pick up.

They did, but not enough to make money. For Cruyff it was a difficult year. Not only did he suffer from various injuries, probably caused by the astroturf, he was also mainly occupied with disagreements with coach Gordon Bradley and several of his team-mates.

Whereas most of the Aztecs players took the advice of the notoriously verbose Cruyff, the Dips players were not interested.

The Diplomats were known for a rough English Third Division-style football which was as far away from Total Football as possible.

At first Cruyff tried to pull everyone up to what he thought was their right place, which for some was the bench. When the team refused to listen and they kept losing, he decided he should be the one to change.

He dropped his role as leader and started playing for himself and for the public.

'I can score goals. Don't worry. I will. Let's forget about tactics from now on. I will play for the public', he said. 'We'll win games this way, but not the championship. If you want to win a title you need to be organized on the pitch.'

Cruyff meant that American soccer and its players just could not cope with the tactics of the European game.

And the audience would rather have seen a bicycle kick go over the bar than a simple tap-in in the net. Cruyff was right. From then on he started scoring, the team started to win and did qualify for the play-offs, which had been doubtful halfway through the season.

There they met the Aztecs, who had done amazingly well without Cruyff and still played in the style that he liked. The Dips were close to knocking them out, but an injury-time winner was not allowed to stand.

The Aztecs won the shoot-outs and a consequent mini-game to go into the semi-finals. The season was over for the Diplomats. So too was their entire existence as the owners folded the club. Their licence was taken over by Detroit Express for the following year. Cruyff did return for a couple of games, but they could not qualify for the play-offs.

In the Dutch language book Johan Cruyff – De Amerikaanse jaren writer Pieter van Os looks back on Cruyff's time in the States. It points out that the maestro felt really well and also played some good football.

And he was very interested in helping the American public understand the game as he took all the time in television shows to explain how it is played. Although in those days it was believed he only went to the NASL for the money, the book suggests Cruyff really felt he chould help popularise football in the States.

Van Os spoke with several Americans who are still in awe about his performances. Maybe there are some Soccernet readers who remember him and can tell out of their own experience.


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