Soccer

When Mr Cruyff went to Washington

The late Dutch legend made his mark in the US even if he failed to turn soccer into a major sport there

Cruyff during a game for the Los Angeles Aztecs.
Cruyff during a game for the Los Angeles Aztecs.Peter Read Miller (Getty)
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Johan Cruyff had only been in Washington a week, but already knew the streets better than the locals. It was March 1980 and the new Washington Diplomats forward was traveling in a taxi when he spotted a huge traffic jam up ahead. He asked the driver to make a right, but the cabbie was reluctant to change the route. Cruyff stood firm, however, and ended up guiding the driver through a zigzag of streets to avoid the holdup.

The anecdote, which first appeared in a Washington Post article published at the time, reveals a lot about the character of the Dutch soccer legend, who died on Thursday at the age of 68.

Cruyff talked, lived and played with energy, assurance and dignity in the United States – the country that had given him a second chance. In 1978, aged 31 and worn out, he had announced his retirement, but the following year he picked up his boots again after receiving a juicy offer to play in the burgeoning US league, which was looking to raise the profile of soccer in the country by importing international stars.

Cruyff talked, lived and played with energy, assurance and dignity in the United States – the country that had given him a second chance

After being wooed by the New York Cosmos, where Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer were already playing, Cruyff ended up signing for the Los Angeles Aztecs, which was coached by his mentor and Total Football exponent Rinus Michels, whom he had played under at Barcelona.

Cruyff was happy and at ease in the US, where he could walk the streets and go out for dinner with his family without being disturbed. He had returned to soccer, he told The Washington Post, because he had felt “a vacuum in my life.” It was not, he insisted, for economic reasons: “I made some bad investments, but that's not the major reason I came to America. If money was the major reason for playing again, I would go back to Europe and earn more money there than here.”

That said, he admitted that he was keen to promote his personal businesses in the US. “Pelé and Beckenbauer were like missionaries in spreading the word about soccer,” says Andy Markovits, an expert in US sports culture. “Cruyff was simply one of the many.”

Even so, Cruyff was a sensation. In his only season in Los Angeles he was crowned player of the year, scored 13 goals in 23 games, led the modest Aztecs to the semifinals of the championship, and doubled attendance at the Rose Bowl.

Then, shortly after the start of his second season, he surprised everyone by signing for the Washington Diplomats, which had agreed to pay him a $1.5 million salary, an unheard-of figure at the time.

However, this time adapting was not so easy. His strong personality and his philosophy of the game brought him into conflict with coach Gordon Bradley, who favored a more result-oriented approach. Cruyff issued his own orders to his players – the majority of whom looked up to him - and disobeyed the coach. “If you want me to play with one leg, I will do that. But when I start playing with two again, people will see who’s fault this was,” he once said, a former teammate told Four Four Two magazine.

As he did with the taxi driver, he ended up imposing his view on Bradley. After a disappointing start, Cruyff started playing more independently and the team more offensively midway through the season. The victories started piling up. He also scored a wonder goal, chosen as the best of the year, in which he beat several players on a 50-meter run (you can see it in the video below from the 10.16-minute mark).

Cruyff won the respect of his colleagues, who remember his generosity and his compulsive smoking habit. He also increased attendance by 60% at the stadium and led the team to the playoffs where it fell in the first round to his old club, the Aztecs.

But the Cruyff phenomenon failed to solve the Diplomats’ money problems. Coinciding with the decline of the league, the team changed owner the following season and let the Dutchman go. In 1981 Cruyff played in Spain for a few months with second division side Levante and returned briefly to Washington to play 10 more games. Plagued by injuries, the Dutchman would end his playing days in the Netherlands.

Cruyff won the respect of his colleagues, who remember his generosity and his compulsive smoking habit. He also increased attendance by 60% at the stadium

When he arrived in Washington in 1980 Cruyff presented himself as a soccer “entertainer.” His aim was to cement its popularity and turn it into a major sport in the US. “I am not a savior of soccer in Washington. The youth will do that in years to come. But I am here to help,” he said.

Soccer has still not yet become a major sport in the US, but it is now a lot more popular than it was back then. As one of his Diplomats teammates, Canadian Carmine Marcantonio, said in 2007: “Cruyff made us a major league.”

English version by Nick Funnell.

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