Johan Cruyff: The American Years

March 28 at 4:37 PM
 
 Johan Cruyff (By Tony Quinn)

We, the Dutch, don’t usually revere our sport stars. But last Thursday, when the news about Johan Cruyff’s death broke, the country was in collective shock, in complete disbelief. Cruyff was immortal, we thought, despite his recent lung cancer diagnosis. Days of press coverage and tributes since then revealed not only deep adoration for his sheer genius but also strong nostalgia for our own past. Memories of Cruyff led to flashbacks of our own youth, since Cruyff had always been there, on or off the field, as a key figure.

Surely, he was a world-class soccer player and coach, who modernized the game of football. More importantly, he helped shape our national identity over the last 50 years, perhaps even more so than the House of Oranje, whose kings and queens have ruled the Netherlands for centuries. For many of our baby-boomer parents, he was the voice of youth who smashed through walls of conservatism. For our generation, he put our small country on the map globally and made us proud to call him the equal of Pele and Maradona when conversing with any foreigner.

Of course, we all grew up learning about his legendary heroics at Ajax, Barcelona and the Dutch national team. Images of famous wins, impossible goals and beautiful dribbles, repeatedly shown on television, were etched forever in our memory, long after Johan retired. However, stories about his time playing for the North American Soccer League were strangely absent from his biography. Almost a decade ago, we decided to find out why.

We uncovered that this period in his long career was very much misunderstood by Dutch media, who believed he came to the United States only to fill his pockets. After months of interviews and research, we were able to paint a different picture about Cruyff’s American adventure. He left a mark on the game here, inspiring a new generation of American players, and learned about club management, marketing and philanthropy, which would greatly influence him in the next few decades.

In the following essay, we are sharing excerpts from our book, “Johan Cruijff. The American Years” (published in 2007), illuminating how Cruyff revived his career and put on display both his gifted talent and combative nature in a country just discovering the sport of soccer.

*****

Three Washington Diplomats executives awaited Johan Cruyff at Dulles International Airport. The player considered one of the greatest of all-time was to return to the North American Soccer League for a second season.

He’d spent 1979 with the Los Angeles Aztecs. In his first game, fresh off the plane and badly jetlagged by the long trip and nine-hour time difference with his native Netherlands, Cruyff had scored twice in his first seven minutes and gave an assist before coming off. He would bag 14 goals and 16 assists, lead his team to the conference semifinals and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player.

The Diplomats, ambitious, newly cash-rich and eager to emulate the dominant, star-studded New York Cosmos, had landed Cruyff, not quite 33, for the 1980 season.

When Cruyff emerged from the international arrivals section, he walked over to the Diplomats’ officials with a perplexed look. “Oh, they’re outside,” he said, having figured out whatever it was that was confusing him.

“Who’s outside?” asked Andy Dolich, the club’s commercial director. “Excuse me?”

“Yes, my fans, they’re apparently outside,” answered Cruyff.

There was nobody waiting outside. Just their driver.

Cruyff, for once, said nothing.

As with most anything the man ever uttered – and his utterances were endless – it’s hard to ascertain if he meant what he said or was merely making a point. He’d already spent a year in the United States, after all, and would have known not to expect the thousands of crazed fans who greeted him upon his arrival as “The Savior” in Barcelona in 1973 when he first left Ajax.

The Diplomats’ management took Cruyff to Tiberio, a famous, local Italian eatery, where Washington’s movers and shakers ate. None of the senators, congressmen or other power brokers recognized him. And then, to the stupefaction of them all, every busboy, dishwasher and cook in the restaurant trickled out into the dining room for a picture, autograph and a chat with him.

“That’s when we understood that we’d found something very special in Johan,” says Dolich.

*****

He didn’t have much of a choice. That was the consensus in the Netherlands. Johan Cruyff had failed at becoming as successful as a business entrepreneur as he had been a footballer. After retiring from Barcelona as a player in 1978, he’d entered into a commercial partnership with Michel Georges Basilevich, a neighbor of his. Basilevich, a fantastically charming Russian-Frenchman, had won Cruyff’s trust and, apparently, his wife Danny’s heart. “He’s the most beautiful man in the world,” she publicly proclaimed. Together, they bought stately buildings and invested heavily.

Things soon fell apart. Basilevich, given total control over Cruyff’s fortune, blew through the money in a matter of months. Companies they’d bought into promptly went bankrupt. To the glee of the Dutch, who had long scoffed at Cruyff’s fixation on money, their pig farm alone lost millions of dollars.

Cruyff’s agent and father-in-law, Cor Coster, announced that he was broke, that Basilevich was a fraud – Coster had thought so all along – and had ruined his son-in-law. “Johan has to get back to work,” said Coster.

The NASL was known to Europeans as a place where well-established stars would go to cash in and party for a few years, before retiring fully. So when Cruyff said he was joining the Aztecs by choice and didn’t need the money, few believed him.

Still, Cruyff insisted that he wasn’t broke, no matter what his father-in-law claimed, and that he’d never had to play soccer. “If that had been the case I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” he told The Washington Post. “Without enjoying the game, it’s impossible.”

Cruyff claimed he could have made much more money by returning to Barcelona, which had offered him $3 million for the 1978-79 season, which he’d turned down to retire. Barca was allegedly still offering over $2 million. He signed with the Aztecs for $500,000 a year.

“I’m only doing things I’m excited about,” he said. “And this what I’m excited about.”

Still, he was derided as a money-grabbing liar. Throughout his first two American years, Cruyff all but disappeared from the Dutch scene. The NASL was hardly broadcast on TV in the United States, let alone in Netherlands. Every so often a Dutch soccer writer would show up, trail Cruyff for a few days and report back what the Dutch had chosen to believe in the first place: Soccer in the United States was an abomination and Cruyff was washed up. That this might be a complete fallacy occurred to no one, not even after Cruyff returned from his adventure in North America and led Ajax and Feyenoord to three consecutive league titles from 1982 through 1984.

*****

He thought he was being clever. Cruyff was convinced his retirement after the 1977-78 season would be final. For a tidy $500,000, he signed a short-term contract with the New York Cosmos that bound him to play two exhibition games and bought the star-studded club a first option, should he ever change his mind about playing.

So when he decided to resume his career, he was locked into the Cosmos agreement. But Cruyff had no interest in playing for the Cosmos. German star Franz Beckenbauer had warned him that the club would make him go to all types of promotional activities, the way they had with him and Pele. And they wouldn’t take that obligation out of his contract.

Cruyff would rather play for the Aztecs anyway. His father in Total Football, Rinus Michels, was the head coach there. He’d brought him up at Ajax and coached him again at Barcelona and on the Dutch national team that reached the 1974 World Cup final. Together, they had revolutionized the game. And Michels had assembled a supporting cast of Dutch players who understood the system, and, more importantly, understood how to support Cruyff on the field.

But there were still those contractual rights he’d signed over to the Cosmos. The contract called for a $1 million buyout. The Aztecs eventually agreed to fork over $600,000, payable over three years.

Cruyff neglected to mention all of the above when he arrived in Los Angeles, though, and came up with a more convenient explanation. “Cosmos drew a lot of fans with Pele,” he said. “Even after he left they drew a lot of fans. So I thought my job should be on this coast.”

As Alan Rothenberg, the Aztecs owner in 1979, remembers, “Johan had the intensity of the best kind of development worker. He was willing to drive hours to talk about soccer for 10 minutes on TV, for nothing.” Cruyff happily gave clinics and spread the good word for the Aztecs. He was delighted to do the promotional work.

Cruyff’s lone season with the Aztecs was fairly uneventful, given his own high standards. After the 1979 season, Rothenberg sold the Aztecs to Mexican company Televisa, which didn’t much care for paying his hefty salary of $500,000 a year and would rather build a team around Mexican stars.

The Diplomats bought him for a million dollars, matched his salary and took on the remainder of the debt owed the Cosmos. But English coach Gordon Bradley was no Rinus Michels. Bounced from the Cosmos, where he’d gotten in the way of the eccentric Giorgio Chinaglia one too many times, Bradley had built the Dips the only way he knew how to: on brawn, battle and the long ball.

Bradley’s static system was an assault on Cruyff’s soccer sentiments, predicated on motion and fluidity and interchangeability. In those days, Cruyff liked to sit deep and launch the attack from a central role. But he frequently found himself frustrated with his immobile teammates. Defender Nick Mijatovic recalls him getting exasperated and standing still with the ball at his feet in the middle of a game. “Somebody please move,” he would plead. Then he’d raise his arms and, as he so often said in his NASL days, declare: “It’s impossible!”

All season Cruyff would yammer away. Always instructing, pointing, explaining. “When the board bought Cruyff they should have gotten a few bales of cotton too,” teammate Bobby Stokes said at the time. “To stick in our ears.” Teammates complained to the press that Cruyff was chipping away at their confidence. The board, meanwhile, got pelted with Cruyff’s requests, on behalf of the entire team, for upgrades like first-class travel, shorter practices (Bradley’s were long and tough in spite of the oppressive summer weather in Washington), a more convenient travel schedule and so on.

When Bradley wouldn’t pander to Cruyff’s beliefs, the latter found a different solution. “After a team talk, Johan would walk to the blackboard and erase all Bradley’s formation and notes,” recalled Thomas Rongen, another former teammate and compatriot, who went on to have a long coaching career in the United States. “ ‘We’ll be doing this very differently, of course’, he would tell us. And then he’d tell us how we’d actually be playing.”

Club president Steve Danzansky understood Cruyff’s predicament and tried to mediate. “He was like a great musician – with perfect pitch – who was forced to play in an orchestra where everybody around him was playing off key,” he says now. “It drove him completely nuts.”

In the end, Cruyff got his way. Of course. Teammates were shuffled around and some were added to and dropped from the lineup, at his behest. Most admitted that, indeed, the team benefited.

*****

One of the players now out of a starting job was Sonny Askew, one of the league’s few emerging American stars, who had done well for himself in a barren soccer land. An audacious winger, he had featured prominently for the Dips in previous years but didn’t fit Cruyff’s ideas on how he’d mold the shambles he was surrounded with. “I was from East Baltimore,” says Askew. “In ’79 I got a contract for $60,000 and Nike gave me another $5,000. I was on the U.S. national team too that year. But then Johan came, and everything changed.”

Not long into the season, Cruyff demanded that Bradley take Askew out, mid-game. “It’s either him or me,” he told Bradley, according to Askew.

Askew says Cruyff disliked him for not deferring to him on the field. “In the game, they all gave the ball up to Cruyff,” he says. “The whole time, continuously. But I didn’t, out on the right wing. I went my own way. And that drove Johan nuts.”

Still visibly angry Askew recounted that he and Cruyff had a major brawl on the training ground. “Teammates had to pull us apart.” John Feinstein, the famed American sports journalist who covered soccer in his early days at The Washington Post and was fascinated with the star power of Cruyff, still remembers the conflict: “Johan was probably correct, he needed supporting players who could do the physical work for him, not a kid who thought he was good enough to ignore Cruyff.”

After breaking a bone in his foot, Askew missed the last weeks of the season. “Two teammates said to me, ‘You lucky dog, now you don’t have to deal with all the bullshit anymore,’ ” says Askew. “I certainly wasn’t the only one who was unhappy.” Marginalized, he quit the team after the regular season ended. Askew, a man of brittle psyche, was left deeply bitter by his confrontation with Cruyff, which essentially cut short a promising career.

*****

In spite of his many complaints and struggles, the NASL was a good fit for Cruyff. He liked the blank canvas, the chance to build something from scratch in his own image. He liked that NASL clubs understood that professional sports are entertainment and adapted to the wishes of the fan. “I’m an entertainer,” he often said of himself.

He liked that the league experimented with the game. He was an ardent fan of the 35-yard shootout, which were used instead of penalty kicks to decide games. He spent a great deal of time thinking about the best way to approach the shootout. In the end he decided on making the ball bounce up on the artificial turf, making the goalkeeper commit to intercepting it high or low and then either dink it over him or slide it under accordingly.

Bob Iarusci, a Canadian right back, played with Pele on the Cosmos and Cruyff on the Dips. He too attests that Cruyff was a natural ambassador. “Pele was useless to you outside of the field,” he says. “He was a self-centered man. Cruyff really wanted to turn American soccer into something big. They said that of Pele too, but with him I question if it wasn’t really only about the money.”

Cruyff was obviously invested. He stayed after practice to tutor the young American players. He’d taken a shine to them; they were the future of the game here, after all. He asked the Diplomats’ management to create a second and third squad for younger players to get minutes and repetitions in, and he grated against the notion of high school sports. They held the American player back, he argued, by preventing them from getting their soccer education in a professional environment, a sentiment that wouldn’t gain currency in the U.S. soccer mainstream some three decades later. While the reserve teams never materialized, the Dips added 10 young American players to their payroll, far more than most NASL teams.

*****

By June of the 1980 season, the floundering Diplomats were heavily scrutinized. Things weren’t working. They had lost six of their last seven and The Post had labelled Cruyff the “biggest disappointment since Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.” He had yet to score a goal that season. The critics didn’t much care that he was far from a striker by this point in his career and concerned himself with “organization” – a favorite buzzword of his, describing the team’s shape and roles and tasks.

He was fed up. The changes he had advocated weren’t taking root. And he was made the scapegoat, which he publicly said was unfair since American fans didn’t have the know-how to criticize anyway. “I thought my job was to organize the team when I came here,” he told The Post. “Sure, I could score goals. I’m not worried about that in the slightest. In fact, that’s what I’m going to do now. Forget about organization, I’m going to play spectacularly now. I’m going to play football for the spectator.”

“We’ll start winning games,” Cruyff prophesized. “But no championships. If you want to win trophies, you have to play organized.”



In their next game, against the San Jose Earthquakes, the injured Cruyff converted a penalty, gave an assist and helped set up two more goals, in just 35 minutes on the field. He earned and converted another penalty in his next game. And in the one after, he scored twice and gave three assists. Cruyff walked off to a standing ovation. He would end the season with 10 goals and 20 assists.

But the Dips were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. By Michels’ much-better organized Aztecs.

*****

During the offseason, Cruyff told a Dutch newspaper that “the demands I’m making to the Diplomats’ management all refer to the internal organization, practice and the makeup of the squad. Because if we proceed down the same path, we probably won’t do any better than last year. We’ll make the playoffs and quickly be knocked out.”

It was a moot point, in the end. Even though Cruyff had two years remaining on his contract, owner Sonny Werblin lost interest in the money-bleeding Diplomats and shuttered the club.

His two years in the NASL had nevertheless been formative for Cruyff. American sports journalism awoke in him an interest in becoming a soccer analyst – he’s written columns and provided television commentary for some 15 years since retiring as a manager. He learned how to manipulate club management, something he would do time and again in various roles at Ajax and Barcelona, becoming something of a kingmaker for two of Europe’s most storied clubs. He learned how to negotiate for a share of the ticket revenue from home games in his contract. He learned about philanthropy, eventually leading to his Cruyff Foundation, which builds urban soccer courts all over the world. And, crucially, he gave up on the fanciful notion that he was going to be a business entrepreneur and returned to soccer as his core business.

*****

Cruyff was deeply happy in America. He liked the American culture, where achievement was revered and the pursuit of money wasn’t frowned upon like in his Calvinistic home country. He liked that the NASL clubs didn’t baby their players and granted them the liberty to live their lives away from the field. He and his Dutch teammate and pal Wim Jansen spent road trips exploring new towns. When the Dips came to New York City, Cruyff and Jansen decided they’d see the city from atop the World Trade Center. They were confronted with a long line though, an intolerable prospect to Cruyff. He reckoned they ought to go to the second tower, which wasn’t open to tourists. After being turned away at their first attempt, Cruyff rented a pair of blazers and got them through the second time around. “We took the elevator to the top floor,” recalls Jansen, “and spent a lovely hour checking out New York.”

It was in Washington that Cruyff’s only son Jordi – named after Catalunya’s patron saint, to the region’s eternal gratitude – played in his first competitive soccer game. About 15 minutes in, recalled Rongen, who stayed with Cruyff at the time, the father turned to him and said, seriously, “God, he’s really no good at all; that’ll be interesting with a last name like his.” A year later, Jordi would enroll in the Ajax academy. He went on to play for Barcelona, Manchester United and the Dutch national team.

*****

August 16, 1981. The Diplomats had brought Cruyff back for the home stretch of the season. The original Dips had dissolved after Cruyff’s first season but were reincarnated when the Detroit Express moved and assumed their place and name. In a panic, its ownership, which was hemorrhaging money and would soon run out, had brought Cruyff back to draw the many fans that had abandoned the team.

Cruyff had been hampered by injuries and would play only five games in all but he appeared in the Dips’ last game of the year, as they wouldn’t make the playoffs, at home against the Toronto Blizzard. Twenty minutes in, he picked up the ball near the halfway line with his back to goal. He shook off three markers with a turn and burst of speed. Ten yards on, he looped a long, slowly arcing lob over goalkeeper Blagoje Tamindszic, scoring from 40 yards.

“That guy was a magician,” recalls Jim Messemer, a backup goalie on the ’81 Dips. “When we were smoking a cigarette in the locker room beforehand, Cruyff told me Toronto’s keeper always stood too far in front of his goal when the ball was at midfield. He said then he’d lob him if he got the chance. A little later he soared one over that Yugoslavian keeper’s head.”

It was Cruyff’s last act in America.

********************

Friso van der Oord is a management consultant and passionate fan of the beautiful game who resides with his family in Bethesda, Md. Pieter van Os is a journalist, writing for the Dutch daily newspaper NRC. He resides with his family in Warsaw. This essay was translated into English by Leander Schaerlaeckens.

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