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Hard to explain

It was nothing more than a throwaway remark on a Catalan radio show last week, but within hours sports pages were filled with stories about Johan Cruyff's refusal to go to the World Cup in 1978.

Triggered by a book written by his former friend - now foe - Carles Rexach, Cruyff said that a kidnapping at his house in 1977 led to him staying at home.

It was a surprise to see that The Guardian, The Times and several other British papers had rather big articles about the rewriting of a thirty-year old yarn, until I noticed the Wikipedia entry on Cruyff in English.

While the German reader is told that the real reason never surfaced, the English version blames political reasons. 'He refused to play in a country where he believed torture and murder to be perpetrated by the junta', it says.

This quote appears in several articles in last week's papers, which might explain hype. It is, however, total nonsense. Of all the reasons Cruyff might have had, a political boycot was definitely not one of them.

The Spanish Wikipedia mentions that Cruyff had a contract with Puma, while the Dutch national team were sponsored by Adidas. This would indeed create a problem in the days before the final in Buenos Aires when Arie Haan was almost seduced with a couple of thousand dollars to wear Pumas while other players asked for more money from Adidas.

Without a doubt Cruyff would have been in the middle of this row as boot deals had always caused consternation in the camp but he has never mentioned it as a reason.

Cruyff is a family man and even the suggestion of a training camp would cause a frown. During the 1974 World Cup in Germany he had been separated from his wife for more than a month and stated he did not want the same experience four years later.

The book Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff by Frits Barend and Henk van Dorp contains two interviews from that time. As always, his answers were in riddles.

It was widely assumed in Holland that his wife, Danny, had the final say after the infamous pool incident in Hiltrup during the 1974 World Cup. In the small hours after the semi-final defeat of Brazil, members of the squad were celebrating in the team hotel. It's alleged that several players and some young girls ended up naked in the indoor swimming pool.

Someone tipped off newspaper Bild Zeitung, who ran a headline of 'Cruyff, Sekt, nackte Mädchen und ein kühles Bad'. According to Auke Kok's superb book 1974 We were the Best, Cruyff subsequently spent hours on the phone the day before the final to convince his wife nothing had happened.

Kok references several witnesses who saw Cruyff sweating on the phone next to the registration desk, while the archived hotel bill shows hefty charges to support the theory. Therefore it was assumed that Cruyff's refusal to go to Argentina was due to a ban imposed by his wife.

More interesting than the kidnapping story, which was quite well known in Holland, is that Cruyff last week claimed that his wife was somewhere in the Spanish mountains during that stage of the World Cup and could not be reached by phone. So she did not know about the swimming pool incident and he never called her. It was therefore the kidnapping that kept him at home and not his wife.

A story in another recent book says that Danny flew from Spain to Amsterdam on Saturday to travel to the final the next day, which does not fit very well with either of these stories.

What exactly is going on here?

It all started when someone on a recent talk show suggested that Cruyff had done a u-turn on his return to Ajax because his wife had told him so. Then Carles Rexach published his book and also claimed that she always had a big influence over his career.

Cruyff clearly had enough of the scapegoating of his wife - or the suggestion that he takes orders from her - and recorded the now famous interview on Radio Cataluna. When asked why he never bothered to set the record straight before, he said that he found it rather convenient to have his wife blamed for the situation and not himself, while she herself did not mind.

So after more than 30 years Danny seems to be exonerated. Obviously, the kidnapping was a horrifying and traumatic experience and may have washed away the last doubts of going to the World Cup. However, Cruyff cannot get away with blaming it as the real reason for staying in Spain.

Few in Holland fell for the story and stick to the old 'Danny version'. A house guest at the Cruyff-mansion in Barcelona once recalled him being dimissed to the kitchen by saying: 'Cruyff! Get us some sugar.' To which he quietly obliged.

She can also be blamed for Holland missing out on the World Cup in 1970, and then probably winning it, why not, when Johan had to go on a trip to Milan with Danny to buy shoes for her shop in Amsterdam. He returned too late for the Dutch training camp before their decisive qualifier against Bulgaria and was subsequently dropped. A draw ended all hopes of a trip to Mexico.

It's better to look on the bright side - Cruyff is one of the few professional players who married young and kept his marriage alive over all these years. He also managed to keep himself, his wife and children away from the wrong kind of tabloid headlines.

His son Jordi has praised Johan as a very considerate and playful father and that his childhood was a very happy one, although his father was away quite often.

So, for Johan Cruyff his family may have been even more important than his football career, which may have prompted him to leave that crazy world behind at the end of 1977-78 as he had already suggested in 1974. At the same time he may have also decided that he would not leave his wife alone for another month again, considering he due was to retire anyway. A perfectly good reason, but apparently not one to mention at the time.

And would Holland have won the final in 1978 with him? Holland would probably have beaten Scotland or Peru then and progressed into the second round group with Argentina and Brazil. That would have been some spectacle!

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