Johnny Rep: the Dutch master who lit up French football

Johnny Rep: the Dutch master who lit up French football

Born as a baby boomer on 25 November 1951 in Zaandam, a small city close to Amsterdam, John Nicolaas Rep became one of the greatest Dutch football players of the 20th century. Handsome Johnny, who defied the ageing process, looks back now with just one regret: “When I stopped playing as a professional, I tried to get rid of the name Johnny. I was almost 40 years old, but somehow it didn’t work out.” In a life of success, such a menial failure seems fair. 

Despite losing his cheeky boyish looks and bright blonde hair, even at 60, people are happy to refer to him as Johnny. “When he was a young kid, he was already very different from the others. All the kids walked back home from school using the sidewalk. Not my Johnny. He came back over the rooftops. He was a kid who was always playing outside, who went on adventures with friends or alone,” his mother said when Rep’s star started to shine. There were always rumours about his personal life. Even though he got married at the age of 21, women, drinking and partying were never far from his daily routine. “Johnny is a very cute boy. But only when he sleeps,” Rinus Michels’ Ajax successor Stefan Kovacs once said.

Unsurprisingly, Rep had a love-hate relationship with arguably the most dominant football player in the history of the game – Johan Cruyff. On the pitch they were the perfect couple. Cruyff’s outside-of-the-boot right-footed passes would spin through many defences, with Rep often already on his way to finishing the gifts in the most spectacular ways. From the first moment they met each other on the pitch, they had a connection which was based on intuition; a shared feeling of space behind enemy lines. 

Off the pitch, however, they had various issues. Cruyff was his mentor, but the disciple Rep didn’t always follow his master’s guidance. Cruyff was known to demand loyalty from all those around him, and saw the rebellious Rep as disrespectful. The great number 14 would often settle these arguments on the pitch during matches, by giving impossible-to-control passes or by pointing at him after a mistake. 

Cruyff would be the first to admit that Rep’s speed and bluff brought essential elements to the Netherlands’ brilliant Totaalvoetbal. Rep had character, which Cruyff later as a coach searched and found in a player like Hristo Stoichkov. He had the poison and fearlessness that would give a team the ability and strength it needed to succeed at the highest level, when most average players would buckle under the pressure.

Like most of the players who played by relying on their intuition, discipline was never Rep’s forte. Although the Dutch machine of the 1970s became famous for its free-spiritual football, played by a team full of mavericks and artists who could have been mistaken for a rock band on a football pitch, composing perhaps the most beautiful notes ever seen, the ability to stick to their roles and play within a defined structure was vital to their growth. 

Essentially, only Cruyff could do what he wanted. Even superstars like Rob Rensenbrink and Willem van Hanegem – brilliant, maverick footballers in their own right – had to listen to the orders from Cruyff and Michels. The idea that Rep had difficulties with this Spartan regime became clear in his answer to the question on where he enjoyed his football most: “I would say that I had the happiest time in France.”

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In France he would play his richest game, becoming one of the biggest stars in Ligue 1 during the late 1970s and early-80s. Redeemed from his mentor Cruyff and the strict Dutch way, L’Ange Blond – The Blond Angel – took Bastia and later Saint-Étienne by the neck and would drag them to glory with his genius.




After the 1974 World Cup, Rep returned to Ajax where he would endure, in own words, the worst season of his career, after which he moved to Spain to join Valencia for two years, playing alongside a future star of the World Cup in Mario Kempes and Paraguayan forward Carlos Díaz. Together. The “Three Musketeers” formed one of the finest attacking trios to play in LaLiga at the time.

After two years of numerous ups and downs, Rep and his agent decided to buy out his contract, moving out of Spain. He had several offers from around Europe, but largely thanks to agent Michel Basilevitch – the man who became famous due to his role in Cruyff’s investments in the pork industry, which later would lead to the Dutchman’s bankruptcy – he ended up in Corsica, at Bastia, a tiny club for a global star like Rep.

On the other hand, the salary was good – the wages in France were higher than in Spain at the time – and the club, with Yugoslav winger Dragan Džajić as their superstar, ended third in the league the season before Rep’s arrival, which meant that they would play UEFA Cup football in 1977/78. That Corsica was considered to be the most beautiful island in the Mediterranean made the decision to step into France even easier.

Quickly after his arrival in Bastia in the late summer of 1977, Rep became familiar with the chaotic Corsican culture. After signing the contract, it took a while before Bastia would pay him his signing bonus, so he didn’t take part in their first competition match. After a 2-0 defeat at home against Monaco, the club begged Rep to play, which he refused as long they didn’t pay the promised sum. 

As Rep didn’t have a proper pre-season, he asked Ajax doctor John Rolink – a famed figure in Ajax’s golden years during the 70s who was later accused of handing out drugs to several players before European Cup matches – for a supplement that would help him playing the match without the necessary physical preparation. 

After taking a pill, and with his signing-on bonus in his pocket, Rep would go to the stadium and enter the dressing room. He shook hands with his teammates and walked onto the pitch with them for the first time. In one of Rep’s biographies, Rep: A Stirring Life, by Mike Schots, one of his old friends, who was there that day, mentioned that the Dutchman was below par, although his direct running, clear skill and graft endeared him to the locals. The Turchini had a new hero.

Alongside Rep, Bastia had several other talented players in 1977/78, a campaign that would go down as perhaps the club’s finest. Midfielder Claude Papi and defender Charles Orlanducci, who would spend almost their entire careers at the club, midfielder Jean-François Larios, on loan from Saint-Étienne, and midfielder Félix Lacuesta made up the bulk of his finest contemporaries.

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Together with a few solid players from the French-Basque regions and some local Corsicans, they formed a great team under the supervision of coach Pierre Cahusac. According to Rep, “He was definitely not the best coach in the world, but I played well under him. Before a match, he just told me to play football with my coyons, which was exactly my style of play.”

With the support of a raucous crowd – some of whom would fire live ammunition into the air after a Bastia goal – the Stade Armand Cesari became a nightmare for the visiting clubs. At home that season, Bastia would only lose against defending champions Monaco and Bordeaux. 

However, other than a brilliant 4-0 win over Saint-Étienne, they couldn’t emulate that form on their travels. Nevertheless, they finished in fifth and Rep bagged 18 goals in 30 matches, living up to his billing as the team’s premier attacking force. 

However, it wasn’t their performances in Ligue 1 that made Bastia famous around Europe, but a successful journey in the UEFA cup. In the first match of the first round, Bastia played Sporting CP with Rep as a spectator. He still had one match suspension left from his last season at Ajax. Without him, Bastia managed to win 3-2. In Lisbon, Rep scored an equaliser three minutes before time and assisted a winner soon after, dragging the French side into the second round. There they faced Newcastle United, who they overcame with two victories. The games in England was, according to two-goal Rep, one of the best matches he ever played: “I could do everything that night like I was floating over the pitch.”

After Bastia defeated Torino and Carl Zeiss Jena, they played the semi-final against Grasshoppers Zürich as Corsica went crazy over the performance of their local outfit. After a 3-2 defeat in Zürich, Bastia had to win at home to secure a place in the UEFA Cup final and become the first French club to reach the showpiece event. With an injured Rep sitting behind the goal, Bastia would win 1-0 thanks to a superb Papi goal. 

Rep recovered just in time for the UEFA Cup final against PSV Eindhoven, who boasted stars like goalkeeper Van Beveren, Van der Kuylen and the Van de Kerkhof twins. Before the first leg, a huge storm rattled above Corsica and flooded the pitch as 15,000 supporters packed the Stade Armand Cesari. The match would usually have been postponed, however the World Cup in Argentina would start in six weeks so any delay was impossible according to the FFF.

The match ended as it started – with a 0-0 score. The final turned out to be a bridge too far for Rep and his teammates, losing 3-0 in Eindhoven. Nevertheless, Bastia and all Corsicans enjoyed an unforgettable journey, with the class of ‘78 forever immortalised in the club’s history. At their apex stood a blond superstar who was quickly becoming the king of the island. On the mainland, too, they loved him, deeming him Best Foreign Player of the Year in 1978.

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After a successful, albeit painful, 1978 World Cup, Rep returned to Bastia to find out that some of his better teammates had left and their replacements weren’t up to scratch. Only another Dutchman, defender Wim Rijsbergen, brought some extra quality to the team and together they would fight against relegation during 1978/79.

Rijsbergen noticed that Rep was the bon vivant of the team. He was the big star, extremely popular and he knew everybody you needed to know on the island, hanging out with the feared leaders of the local mafia. Together they would have dinner in all the great restaurants on the island and go to local nightclubs. Those “friends” helped Rep out when he encountered trouble after a long night out and an adventure between the sheets. With his passion for breaking the rules, Rep fitted in perfectly with this macho culture. 

On the pitch, Rep continued as always, enjoying incomparable moments of genius and days when he looked like he longed for the pub. Rijsbergen said: “When the weather was bad, the stands were empty or he just did not want to put effort, Johnny could hide on the pitch. When he needed a new contract, the stadium was packed or he just had a good day, he always delivered. He was a pure adventurer and had huge self-confidence. That is an important quality for a football player.”

At the end of the season, Bastia finished in 14th, just seven points above the relegation zone. Rep scored 15 goals in 35 matches, became the team’s captain, was voted Player of the Year, and had the time of his life. But all good things must come to a close. That summer, Bastia could no longer pay Rep’s salary and the Dutchman decided to sign for Saint-Étienne, at the time the biggest club in France.




Rep arrived in Saint-Étienne together with a French midfielder from Nancy who later became the biggest European football star of the mid-80s – Michel Platini. Their arrival brought 5,000 spectators to the first training session and huge expectations for the coming season, with Rep as the biggest foreign star in Ligue 1 and Platini as the most promising French footballer of his generation. 

Together with players like Larios, Rocheteau and Janvion, they formed one of European football’s original hipster sides, blending staggering talent with flair and joy. Their hearts and minds were set on domestic and European glory. 

Over coming seasons, Saint-Étienne would have to compete with teams like Aimé Jacquet’s Bordeaux, boasting Trésor, Giresse and Tigana, and the Nantes of Bossis and Halilhodžić. At the begin of the 80s, Ligue 1 was a spectacular competition and attracted some of the world’s top players, partly thanks to their handsome salaries.

To finance their expensive squad, Saint-Étienne paid the salaries partly from the revenues of Stade Geoffroy-Guichard. Sometimes they would only report half of the spectators to the French tax authorities. This is how they created a black slush fund to pay their big stars. Rep didn’t ask questions as long as he received his money on time. His famous no fear attitude that made him immortal on the pitch didn’t leave him when he stepped off the green either.

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At the time of his first big pay, he was already a hero for the Stéphanois after he scored three goals against Widzew Lodz, counting a young Zbigniew Boniek in their line-up. Despite a 2-1 defeat in Poland, Les Verts reached the second round of the UEFA CUP. That the single Johnny Rep of local rock band Mickey 3D, which contains a voice clip of the match against Lodz, stayed at the top of the charts for a few weeks in 2004 shows the lasting impression Rep left behind in the summer of ‘79.

The biggest triumph of the Saints that year came a month later when they met PSV in the second round of the UEFA Cup. The first leg in Eindhoven ended in a 2-0 victory for the Dutch giants, coached by former Saint-Étienne player Kees Rijvers, who helped Les Verts to win their maiden league title in 1957. Rijvers was looking forward to the match in Saint-Étienne, with a 2-0 lead and most of the UEFA Cup winners of two earlier before still on the pitch. They were full of confidence and didn’t fear the famous Green Army in southern France. 

Rep knew he had to motivate his teammates for the match against his countryman. In interviews for the local newspapers, he tried to provoke his teammates by talking about their opponents and their legendary coach. Besides Rep cutting words, Les Verts prepared their players in a way which was normal in France before a big European match: with the infusion of special “liquids”. Years later, Rep remarked: “I couldn’t stand needles and blood at the time, so I didn’t take part in this specific preparation, but most of the players did. They didn’t stop running on the pitch. I tried it once, and I have to say I felt terrific the next day. Multiple clubs in France used these methods. You could say the French were far ahead of the Dutch and German clubs.”

A few minutes after kick-off at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, PSV goalkeeper Jan Van Beveren turned around to pick the ball out of the net for the third time. Larios, Platini and Santini succeed in scoring against the best Dutch goalkeeper of 20th century in just six minutes, dribbling through the wilting Dutch defence at will. Eighty-four minutes later, L’Ange Blond scored the sixth from the spot, leaving coach Rijvers disillusioned on the bench. It was his biggest defeat as a manager.

In his latest biography, Maverick, by Mark van de Heuvel, Rep remembers that his performance that night and his interviews beforehand had a big influence on his total number of just 42 caps for the Netherlands. Rijvers had told him in person that they would never be friends again after he discovered how Rep motivated his teammates.

A year later, Rijvers became head coach of the national team and, after a disastrous 1-0 defeat against France in qualification for the 1982 World Cup 1982 in Spain, Rep would never play for Oranje again, even though he was still one of the best players in Europe.

Despite monumental victories against PSV and Lodz, Saint-Étienne couldn’t beat eventual winners Borussia Monchengladbach, losing both of their ties in the quarter-final. “That was typical for our team, we could win from everybody, but we could also lose against everybody,” Rep later said. “Our defence was too slow and the club sometimes bought players we didn’t need and didn’t buy players we definitely needed. For example, we had three right wingers but no striker. That is why I played most of my matches for Saint-Étienne as a left winger or second striker. I didn’t mind which position I played as long I had the freedom to move.”

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Rep finished his first season in Saint-Étienne with 15 goals and third place in the league. That summer, Patrick Battiston signed for Les Verts and together with goalkeeper Castaneda they improved the weak defence, making it possible for the southerners to make the last step to glory. 

Led by their iconic duo, Platini and Rep, Saint-Étienne became champions in 1981 after a tight battle with Nantes. It was Rep’s first title and came eight years after he won his last one with Kovacs’ Ajax in 1973. Unfortunately, they lost the final of the Coupe de France against Bastia after a winning goal from Roger Milla in Parc the Princes.

In Europe, Les Verts would make history by stunning Hamburg, and wilder European football, in a 5-0 win over the Germans. HSV had finished as runners-up in the European Cup the year before and they would eventually lift it in 1983, belonging to the top teams in Europe at the time with players like Magath, Kaltz and Hrubesch.

Nevertheless, they couldn’t do anything to stop Rep, who didn’t score but showed the world he was still amongst the best. He received some heavy tackles from Kaltz, but as a genuine pro on the pitch, he stayed calm, knowing that his special treatment would open the door for others. The years had made him maturer. In the big matches he knew that with his experience, skill and fearless attitude, he could show younger players like Platini how to blossom into a truly world-class talent.

However, Saint-Étienne again had to bow to their opponents in the quarter-finals, losing both matches against eventual champions Ipswich, led by Dutch masters Frans Thijssen and Arnold Mühren.

The 1981/82 campaign started with major disappointment when Saint-Étienne were knocked out of the European Cup tournament before it even began. In the preliminary round against East German champions BFC Dynamo, Les Verts drew at home and lost the away leg 2-0. It was the moment when fractures in the dressing room became rifts, with silos forming and backstabbing normal.

According to Rep, the divisive manager Herbin was most culpable in the demise: “Herbin was not a good coach at all, he was just lucky to have some very talented players in his team. I did not like his management style. With him in command, everything was based on nepotism.”

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In the league, Saint-Étienne ended second behind a Ralf Edström and Manuel Amoros-led Monaco. In the Coupe de France of 1982, they again reached the final, this time against Paris Saint-Germain. After a 2-2 thriller, penalties would decide the victor, with Rep coolly slotting away his effort, the third of the shootout. 

After ten penalties, defender and club veteran Christian Lopez failed to keep his nerve as Les Verts finished as runners-up again. Rep scored just eight goals in 34 matches, with signs that his speed was slowing; everybody in and around the club felt that his golden days were behind them. 

The fight between once-close friends Platini and Larios over an alleged affair hammered the final nail into the coffin. In the summer of 1982, Platini and Larios left Saint-Étienne, and the French tax authorities started to investigate the club to find evidence that could prove the rumours about huge cash payments outside the books.  

Without Platini, Saint-Étienne could no longer compete in the top flight and sunk deep into the relegation zone. The slush fund affair had a huge impact on the club, something Rep couldn’t ignore it: “At a certain moment I received so many letters from the tax authorities that I started to feel uncomfortable.”

The party was over and Rep had decided that he wanted to leave France, taking measures to keep most of his money. Saint-Étienne finished in a lowly 14th in 1982/83 and coach Herbin left the club. Rep finished his last French campaign with seven goals in 34 matches and snuck out of France with the same speed at which he would between defenders on the pitch. After six successful seasons in France, L’Ange Blond returned home and signed a contract at PEC Zwolle, an ambitious club from the east of the Netherlands. 

After he left, he avoided France for many years, largely because he still had a considerable sum of tax to pay. “When I returned back to the Netherlands, I felt homesick, I couldn’t fit in anymore. I missed France, the French people and their way of living.” France had made him a huge international star and Rep, the fearless blond maverick with a penchant for bending the rules, would go down as one of the great Dutch footballers in history, despite his paltry 42 caps and near-misses.

By Roel Cramer @cramer_raa

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