Ever the Diplomat: Johan Cruyff's time in D.C.

Photo by Tony Quinn

Johan Cruyff died at age 68 on Thursday. He is remembered for his time at Barcelona, Ajax and with the Netherlands, but he made an impact in the U.S., too. Pablo Maurer looks back.

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To Johan Cruyff, there was very little that seemed impossible.

Yet in 1980, on a sweltering summer day in Washington, D.C., the Dutch legend had seen enough.

Dribbling up the center of the pitch, Cruyff looked upfield for an outlet. At Barcelona or Ajax, the midfielder had been spoiled for choice. In the North American Soccer League, Cruyff had fewer options. He slowed his run, eventually drawing to a standstill. Perhaps out of reverence, the pair of defenders marking him did as well.

Do something!” Cruyff barked at his teammates up ahead. He repeated the command. No response.

“It’s impossible,” said Cruyff. raising his hands in exasperation. “It’s impossible.”

It was a mantra that Cruyff had repeated many times during his brief stay in the United States. Johan Cruyff, it is often said, was a conductor. During his time with the Washington Diplomats, the Dutchman often felt like nobody around him could even keep a beat.

Coming to America

Cruyff landed in America in 1979. He arrived as a player who’d fallen from grace in his home country, having refused to play for his national side in the 1978 World Cup, chalking that decision up to a disagreement with Argentina’s political climate. Years later, we’d find out his family had been held up at gunpoint during a kidnapping attempt, souring his final days in Barcelona.

He’d made it his intention to retire from the sport after his final season at Camp Nou, in 1978. But financial concerns – Cruyff found himself near broke after a series of failed investments – dictated otherwise.

America, Cruyff thought, seemed an ideal escape. At the time, a host of European stars had come to the North American Soccer League in the twilight of their careers. Pele and Franz Beckenbauer had touched down in New York; driven by the Cosmos’ massive success on and off the pitch, other clubs in the league wanted a piece of the action. The Los Angeles Aztecs made a sizable financial play for the Dutch Legend.

It was an ideal fit: Cruyff’s mentor – former Netherlands head coach Rinus Michels – was at the helm in L.A.. In his debut, only hours after stepping off a transatlantic flight, Cruyff notched a pair of goals in the opening seven minutes. He’d go on to lead L.A. to the conference semifinals, bagging league MVP honors along the way.

But change was in the air. The Aztecs were sold to Mexican media company Televisa, and Cruyff was not in their plans.

Clear across the country, the Washington Diplomats had their own designs on grandeur. Having languished for years on the periphery of relevance, the Dips – and their newfound part-owners, Gulf & Western corporation – were ready to thrust themselves into full view, and purchased Cruyff from L.A. for a million dollars.

Photo by Tony Quinn

Photo by Tony Quinn

It was an investment that paid immediate dividends at the gate – but not on the field. And in the locker room, it very quickly became apparent that some, but not all, had difficulty dealing with Cruyff’s notoriously strong-willed personality.

From the get-go, Cruyff clashed heads with his new head coach, former Cosmos man Gordon Bradley. If Michels’ – and later, Cruyff’s – coaching style embodied “total football,” Bradley’s embodied a win-at-all-costs mentality, often at the expense of the optics of the game. Though British, Bradley’s coaching had a distinctly American flavor: defend ‘til you’re ragged, impose your will physically and lump the ball forward.

It was an affront to Cruyff’s senses, and he made sure his voice was heard, both in the locker room and in the press.

“It became almost a ritual, if they lost” says author John Feinstein, who at the time was the Dips beat writer. “I’d find Johan in the locker room and say ‘So Johan, what happened out there?’ He’d answer – ‘What happened? The coach is an idiot. The players don’t know what they’re doing and they don’t f***ing listen to me.’

“‘This is impossible’” - that was what he’d always say. “‘This is impossible.’”

Unfettered, Cruyff did his best to impose his will on Bradley – one time wiping his chalkboard clean after a team talk and inserting his own directions. After Bradley once insisted on playing Cruyff out of position, a teammate remembers the Dutchman scoffing at the possibility. “If you want me to play with one leg,” Cruyff said, “I will do that. But when I start playing with two again, people will see who’s fault this was.”

Bradley was wary of Cruyff’s influence. Before a nationally televised game against the Cosmos at RFK, he pulled Diplomats defender Don Droege aside to give him some tactical instruction. In the bathroom.

“I still remember talking to Gordon before an ABC game of the week, and he was worried about what he was telling me,” says Droege. “He was looking underneath all the bathroom stalls to see if Cruyff was in any of the stalls while he was talking to me.”

Meeting of minds

By June of 1980, the Diplomats were hovering near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Cruyff, who the press in D.C. had largely panned as a disappointment, had yet to score a goal. Ever the perfectionist, he’d taken on the task of organizing the Dips – on and off the field – but quickly realized that fans in D.C. cared little about nuance and cared more about goals.

“I thought my job was to organize the team when I came here,” Cruyff told Feinstein. “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. But no championships. If you want to win trophies you have to play organized.”

Slowly, Bradley came around to Cruyff. He didn’t have a choice.

“Gordon had his ideology, his own method of playing,” says former Dip Tony Crescitelli. “They butted heads more than a few times. You’d hear them yelling and screaming at each other. Look – one was making $600,000 a year, and the other one was making, I don’t know, $80,000. They invested a ton of money in Johan. But at the end, Gordon relented, and he listened. And we started playing better, we made the playoffs, we were on our way.”

Photo by Tony Quinn

Photo by Tony Quinn

Cruyff started scoring bushels of goals – and assisting on them as well. And while many of his teammates benefitted, there were a few who paid the price for Cruyff’s inclusion.

Sonny Askew, a tough-nosed kid from Baltimore, had become something of a revelation at the Diplomats. With a mop of curly hair, his socks strung low on his skinny legs, Askew had endeared himself to Diplomats fans with his aggressive, attack-minded play.

“I felt invincible in 1979,” says Askew. “I don’t even know if I have the vocabulary to tell you how I felt. There was nothing that could stop me. I felt so strong, so fit, so everything.”

A year later in 1980, he found himself displaced when Cruyff moved into a more attacking role.

At Cruyff’s insistence, Askew was dropped from the starting XI before a match at Fort Lauderdale. “To this day, probably the thing that I regret most was me raising my hand [before that game],” says Askew. “I love Gordon with all my heart - but I said ‘who picked this f***ing team?’ I wanted Johan to know. Gordon came up to me and said ‘my hands are tied.’”

“In particular, the American players who were not used to — let’s be real honest — our soccer environment,” says fellow Dutchman Thomas Rongen, who not only played with Cruyff in D.C. but lived at his Georgetown home. “Back then - white, middle upper-class, your parents bring you to your game, it’s sheltered, very nice. Now for someone to come in and rattle your cage every day, it was tough for them. Because [Johan] demanded, not only from himself but from other players, excellence.”

Many of Cruyff’s American teammates, though, relished the opportunity to play with him. And to Cruyff’s credit, he was almost always happy to help, regularly staying after training sessions to help.

“I remember going to practice,” says Droege. “I hung out basically with Bob Iarusci and Carmine Marcantonio, two Canadian players. We’d start out and take corner kicks where nobody is in goal, and we’d try and curve it into the goal. Cruyff would be watching us, he’d laugh - he’d take it behind the goal, juggle it, kick it on the volley from behind the goal and it would curve around and go in. We’d just laugh like ‘man, come on.’ He made what we were doing look like child’s play.”

“[He was] lightning fast,” adds Crescitelli. “His first five steps were so fast, you’d turn around and he’d be gone. In [1980], I scored 15 goals in 19 games. I learned so much from him. He got a lot of credit - obviously I had a little to do with it, too, putting the ball in the back of the net, but the passes, the pace that he had, sometimes these days I’ll put the tape on and say, ‘Did he just do that?’”

At peace and at ease

Photo by Tony Quinn

Photo by Tony Quinn

Cruyff blossomed off the field, as well. Far from the bright lights of European football, he could walk the streets in D.C. like an everyman. Just after his kidnapping scare, Cruyff bought a pair of Doberman Pinschers. Living anonymously in the states, he quickly realized he didn't need them.

“Johan could walk down the street and nobody would recognize him,” Rongen said. “I spent three months with the Cruyff’s, and we would go out for dinner almost every night, because they never could do that in Barcelona, they just couldn’t. They had to have bodyguards.”

By the end of 1980, Cruyff’s influence on the Dips had been felt. They were rolling – in perhaps Cruyff’s finest American hour, he scored an absolutely spectacular goal against the Seattle Sounders, galloping 60 yards upfield and losing eight defenders in the process (at the 10:16 mark in the video below).

They shattered franchise attendance records and entered the playoffs in form, only to be bounced out in the opening round by who else, Michels and his Aztecs. Gulf and Western had seen enough. Citing losses of $6 million, they pulled the plug on the Dips.

Cruyff wasn’t quite done with the Diplomats.

As the NASL began a prolonged collapse, the Detroit Express relocated to Washington in 1981, re-claiming the Diplomats moniker. Much of their roster was made up of former Express players and the D.C. fan base – who at that point had seen three different professional soccer franchises come and go in 13 years – didn’t take a shine to them.

Desperate, ownership made a pass at Cruyff. He’d returned to Europe for a brief and unmemorable spell at Spanish second-division side Levante, and eagerly claimed another payday in America. His second spell with the Diplomats was far less memorable than the first. Hampered by injuries, he made just five appearances.

On road trips in 1981, Cruyff shared a hotel room with Diplomats midfielder David Bradford, who remembers his time with the former Ajax legend fondly. He also remembers – like so many of Cruyff’s former teammates do – the near-constant presence of a cigarette in his mouth, a habit which would eventually cost him his life.

“They put me in a room with him,” says Bradford. “I think [Diplomats head coach Ken Furphy] was trying to get me a bit more professional or whatever. Because Johan, he’d have one glass of wine after the game, wherever we played, and then he’d say ‘David, I’m going to bed.’ So I’d say ‘okay Johan, I’ll see you later.’

“I’d go out drinking and walk in the room later and it would be full - I mean full - of smoke. It was like you were on fire or something. Because he was a chainsmoker. He smoked one after the other at halftime during the games, but he still ran like a deer.

“I used to say, ‘Holy shit, Johan, can you not stop smoking?’ And he’d say, ‘No, it’s fine David. You drink. I smoke.’”

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