Johan Cruyff’s impact on football was far-reaching to say the least. His influence on the game in the Netherlands and Spain has been rightly lauded, and his role in the revolutionary Total Football of the 1970s and his moments of incomparable brilliance on the pitch are incomparable. Few would dispute that Cruyff was more to Dutch football, to European football, than simply a world-class player.
But in 1979, he began a very different project. It would earn him less recognition, less worldwide attention, but Cruyff’s time in America proved both formative and typically influential. His decision was misunderstood by some. Much of the Dutch media saw it as economically driven, perhaps even a publicity stunt. That, though, could hardly have been further from the truth.
Not enough is known of Cruyff’s escapades in the United States. It’s unsurprising that a footballing nation still not taken entirely seriously by many today were considered amateurish, unrefined by the upper-class elite of the footballing world. That included some in the Netherlands, who in reaction to Cruyff’s seemingly questionable destination change, appeared to intentionally forget his existence. Perhaps they had also forgotten of his impact on the progression of the Dutch game in the late 1960s and early 70s.
In America, Cruyff intended to be similarly innovative. He hoped to take the game to another level, to again be more than just a player. But the circumstances prior to his arrival in Los Angeles – to play for the LA Aztecs under long-time mentor and former Netherlands and Ajax coach Rinus Michels – had hardly been ideal.
Following his final season with Barcelona in 1978, Cruyff planned to retire from football. And he did, temporarily. He entered a joint business venture with Michel Georges Vasilievich, a neighbour in Catalonia, who had earned his trust. But that trust ultimately proved unwise. Basilevich blew Cruyff’s fortune on poor property investment, and most notoriously, a pig farm. “Sometimes you don’t realise how foolish you’re being until someone points out that you’re deluding yourself,” Cruyff later said. “Then you honestly have to admit your mistake. That you’re not interested in pigs at all.”
Cruyff was not interested in pigs, but football remained at the centre of his life. His brief disillusionment with the game was soon diminished when the prospect of an entirely different adventure presented itself, an opportunity to make his unique mark on a new culture, in a country still finding its way in the world of football.
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At first, it seemed that Cruyff would follow Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer to the New York Cosmos. He turned out for the ambitious club in an exhibition game, for a healthy fee, but has since revealed that “it was out of the question to play football on a mat”, referring to the artificial pitch at Giants Stadium. So he turned to the West Coast, to his friend and tutor Michels, and to the Los Angeles Aztecs, a club that appeared to be the ideal destination.
Such was the eagerness of the Aztecs hierarchy for Cruyff to make his North American Soccer League (NASL) debut, negotiations over his contract were completed in a single day. Within five hours of an agreement, the Dutchman was on a flight from Spain to America – a 12-hour journey – with the intention that he would play for the Aztecs that very evening. Four hours after landing, he made his debut.
If Cruyff had felt any fatigue, it was not prevalent. He scored twice in the opening seven minutes, unveiling himself emphatically to the watching supporters, before providing an assist and leaving the pitch to a standing ovation. He would go on to score 16 goals and create a further 14 in the 1979 season for the Aztecs, leading them to the conference semi-finals and named as the league’s Most Valuable Player.
Typically involved and typically determined to make a lasting impact at the club, Cruyff was not content with only accolades and praise. He regularly gave talks and provided his own form of promotional work for the Aztecs, attempting to spread his insight and knowledge of the game. “Johan had the intensity of the best kind of development worker,” said Alan Rothenburg, the Aztecs’ owner in 1979. “He was willing to drive hours to talk about soccer for 10 minutes on TV, for nothing.”
And Cruyff was happy, away from the hysteria, the media attention, the pressure of his early career. “America really was a blank slate,” he wrote in his autobiography, My Turn. “Everyone who’d been laughing at my misfortunes was far away in Europe, and I found my place completely in a new world.”
The sale of the club to Mexican investors Televisa brought Cruyff’s time in Los Angeles to a swift end, however. The company wanted to build a team largely around Mexican players, and Cruyff’s $500,000 salary only enhanced their reluctance to keep him in the squad. After just one, reasonably successful, season with the Aztecs, he moved on to the Washington Diplomats, to the capital city and the centre of political intrigue.
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Though Cruyff would later describe his time in D.C. as a “fantastic two years”, it was not without difficulty. On his arrival in 1980 for $1 million, Cruyff was met not with a coach of Michels’ ideology and principles, but instead Englishman Gordon Bradley. It was a change of culture, from west to east, and an equally drastic change in styles of football. As the Washington Post put it, Bradley’s approach was built on “brawn, battle and the long ball”.
Cruyff was by now sitting in a deeper, more central role, attempting to dictate play and launch attacks. But his technical superiority brought with it frustration. “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,” said Dips president Steve Danzansky. “It drove him completely nuts.”
Bemoaning the lack of positional awareness of his teammates, he was known to stop in exasperation, with the ball at his feet. “Somebody please move,” he would shout. “It’s impossible.”
Very few things were considered impossible for Cruyff when it came to football, although his lack of goals had led to criticism from Dips fans. In June 1980, they were bottom of the NASL, and Cruyff had not found the net once. He insisted, though, that he had not been aware of supporters’ expectations.
“I thought my job was to organise the team when I came here,” he said. “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 organisation, I’m going to play spectacularly now. I’m going to play football for the spectator. We’ll start winning games. But no championships. If you want to win trophies you have to play organised.”
And score he did. A superb run of form followed his frustrated announcement, and he ended the season with 10 goals and 20 assists. Cruyff instigated a considerable turnaround in fortunes, but the Dips were eliminated in the playoffs – by Michels’ Aztecs.
Away from football, Cruyff had welcomed the alien, contained atmosphere of America’s capital. “Everything there is politics,” he said, and even he found himself involved. The Dips chairman was a staunch Democrat, and Cruyff was embraced by the party as a result. “The wives of the Kennedys tried to find a house for me, because what I couldn’t get my head around at first was that I seemed to be a famous person.”
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When he first met with the Dips management following confirmation of his signing from the Aztecs, Cruyff was taken to Tiberio, a famous local Italian restaurant in Washington. Amongst the sea of congressmen and senators, he appeared almost irrelevant. But when waiters and chefs started to gather, requesting a photograph with this unknown member of the dining elite, the politicians were left in shock. “That’s when we understood we’d found something very special in Johan,” said general manager Andy Dolich.
Cruyff lived next door to Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defence under John F. Kennedy, who helped him adjust to life in Washington, and was regularly given inside access to Dolich’s running of the Dips. His exposure to the corporate, cut-throat world of the American capital, his involvement with those at the top of football – even at the top of the Whitehouse – were, in his own words, “instructive”. Cruyff had acquired an expertise of the running of clubs from top to bottom, knowledge that he would use to his advantage throughout his coaching career.
Cruyff learned a great deal in America; it was not, as many sceptics claimed at the time, simply a move of desperation, both for financial and career reasons. There was much he admired too. He liked that sport in general was primarily a form of entertainment, not just relentless, unforgiving competition. “Winning isn’t everything,” he wrote in My Turn. “I’ve always devoutly believed that. What’s more important is how you go about doing it.”
Compared to the often restrictive, relentless nature of football in Europe, Cruyff enjoyed the freedom granted to players in the NASL. He liked the way clubs looked out for their players. He liked the country’s willingness to learn, to grow as a footballing nation, and he liked how sport, and increasingly football, was ingrained in the education system. There was much to learn, he claimed, from a nation often mocked for their perceived naivety and incompetence.
For all his praise, football was still in the stages of relatively early growth in America. After all, Cruyff was fronting a television programme in which he “had to explain to viewers how big the pitch was, that the pitch was green and what the lines were for”. He acted almost as a footballing teacher, and he was soon greeted with increasing levels of enthusiasm for his subject.
And it was in Washington that Cruyff got his first taste of philanthropy. The Dips had included in his contract that, at every away game, he would run a training session for disabled children. When the children showed little signs of improvement, Cruyff began to resent his duty, believing his efforts to be futile. But he soon came to appreciate the happiness, the joy that he gave to disadvantaged children, simply content with taking part and making slight improvements.
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This set in motion what would eventually become the Johan Cruyff Foundation, a series of ‘Cruyff Courts’, small pitches set up around the world to provide space for disabled children to play football. By 2016, there were over 200 such courts in use.
After his first season with the Dips, Cruyff was adamant that changes needed to be made if the club were to challenge more successfully. “The demands I’m making to the Diplomats’ management all refer to the internal organisation, practice and the makeup of the squad,” he said. “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.”
But there was no need for Cruyff to have made such demands. With two years still remaining on his contract, Dips owner Sonny Werblin lost interest and the club folded. Cruyff briefly returned towards the end of the 1981 season when the Detroit Express had moved to Washington to become the new Diplomats. The club were haemorrhaging money due to the loss of fans and looked in desperation towards the man they hoped would prove to be their saviour.
Cruyff answered the call. He couldn’t save the Dips, who ceased to exist following the end of the 1981 season, but he did leave them with a trademark moment of genius, a lasting memory of his American sojourn. With 20 minutes played against the Toronto Blizzard, he collected the ball near the halfway line, beat three markers with a turn and sharp acceleration, before advancing slightly and executing an immaculate, looping lob over the helpless goalkeeper from 40 yards out. And with that he would return to the Netherlands, for more success with Ajax and Feyenoord.
“Cruyff really wanted to turn American soccer into something big,” said Bob Iarusci, a right-back who played with the Dutchman for the Dips. Undoubtedly, he made an impact. As with everywhere he played and coached during his distinguished career, Cruyff strived to do more, to see the bigger picture and look beyond the often damaging desire for immediate and short-term success.
Then there was the self-improvement, the learning and development that came with an experience so different to what he had previously been used to. “Even today I’m still a bit proud to have been one of those people, along with Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Neeskens and all the rest, who pioneered the rise of football in that still developing continent,” he later wrote. “When I see how football is improving there, I know it’s just a matter of time before an American team wins the World Cup. As a football lover, I’d think that was great.”
By Callum Rice-Coates @callumrc96