Wednesday, July 3, 2013


Johan Cruyff – he was discussed for many months. Practically the whole nation begged him to play. Same nation was also quick to accuse him of complete lack of patriotism. Ernst Happel tried to persuade Cruyff to change his mind – and also said he did not need stars, but a team. At the end, Cruyff is still discussed and speculated about. There is no denying the simple fact he was needed by Holland and not only because he was the biggest star in the world: the real problem was the aging of the team without adequate replacements of the stars. His leadership was very important too. Naturally, Holland wanted to go far at the World Cup finals – and for this Cruyff was needed. But he refused to play and did not change his mind. And the mystery of 'why he did that' remains. The problem is Cruyff himself - he 'talked in riddles'. So is the conventional opinion, meaning his real meaning had to be guessed somehow. Meaning also interpreting his words, quite literally: Dutch journalists did not even joke, when saying for years that Cruyff did not know Dutch. In Spain a TV comedy show existed for years – may still does – based entirely on Cruyff's Spanish. Bitter, yet serious, journalists suggested for years that of the three languages Cruyff speaks his English is best. Football players are rarely good speakers, but Cruyff was special case: he often changed his mind in public and his linguistic skills were convenient excuse – he was misunderstood or not understood, and always ready – at a later date – to 'clarify' things. Since business was always on his mind, his 'relativism' is actually understandable: words largely depended on the current state of business options and propositions. Hence, 'riddles', 'misinterpretations', things 'clarified' years later, and so on – but what the truth was would be always a mystery. Instead of truth – competing versions, all somewhat plausible. Cruyff was talkative and opinionated – unfortunately, it would have been better for understanding, if he was not.

Back in the summer of 1975 Cruyff was invited to play in a friendly for Paris SG. 'Guest appearances' were nothing new or unusual, but after the match Cruyff chatted with the brass of the French club and verbally promised them to join Paris SG. He liked Paris, wanted to play for the club – so the story goes, apparently true enough, because Paris SG approached Barcelona with a proposal and expecting transfer negotiations. Barcelona appeared surprised by such proposal and flatly refused: Cruyff was not for sale. So, what did really happen? It is not even interesting to find out: the most important part of the story is linguistic – Cruyff was in a position to dismiss everything, because of misunderstanding. It could have been a mere polite talk – when asked about joining Paris SG, the star politely, as good manners require, said that, yes, he would be happy to play for the club. In general. One day. He did not mean 'right now', unfortunately, the French misunderstood and acted mistakenly. Such explaination was so obvious, that I think nobody even tried to hear it from Cruyff. After all, 1973 was still fresh memory – when Cruyff maintained for months that loves playing for Ajax and nobody else; he was not going anywhere – and the same time his negotiations with Barcelona were public knowledge, creating also very public tensions with the other Ajax' players. Press and hype, a word here, a word there – it was always more of a business tool, used to get a better deal. But the mystery remains – was it only business? After all, Cruyff knew the art of silence – many words he said willingly, but not about private matters. And not about really serious things. So why he did not play in 1978? Many versions exist.

According to the general – and most immediate to casual readers – source, the Wikipedia, Cruyff refused to play for political reasons. This version is perhaps the one entirely wrong. Cruyff was explicitly apolitical. He said it many times: politics have no place in football. And he was consistent practitioner: his only political stance was about Barcelona. He liked it there, but also it appears carefully calculated pose – his public 'love' of the city, giving his newborn son a Catalan name, his off-hand mentioning of Catalunia, his mockery of Real Madrid, his appearance for the controversial – and illegal by UEFA rules – 'national team of Catalunia'. He gave every sign of 'belonging', except the real political one: supporting the explosive independence issue. He always avoided real politics – but he also never missed a personal gain. The general political mood was strongly against the Argentinian military regime; to speak against it plausible – may be spoke 'in general' against it, when asked a direct question. May be he gave impression he was somewhat revolted by what was going on there. In any case, he was not dismissing or 'clarifying' political interpretation of his refusal. He just let it stay. It was convenient version, for it sounded plausible and confused critics a bit.

Retirement. Just after the end of the 1974 World Cup Cruyff said he was not going to play in 1978. He was going to help during the qualifications, but was all. The reason was age – he thought he will be too old and retiring. He was 31 in 1978 – hardly the end for a top player – but it looked like he was really quitting. His contract with Barcelona ended – it was not renewed, nor there were negotiations with other clubs. In the fall of 1978 a testimonial for him was organized – one of the most bizarre testimonials ever – between Ajax and Bayern. His last game. Well, he played 6 or 7 years more after his 'last match' – how to trust his words then? But it looked like he was seriously thinking of retirement in 1978 and changed his mind later. May be retirement was not very strong argument in the spring - playing one more tournament, postponing quitting for one or two months was hardly a big deal – but the cause was plausible too: he said it 4 years earlier and was true to his word.

Personal reasons. Family, tiredness, vacation – all goes together. For years players complained about playing at international tournaments: they were tired after a grueling season, they needed vacation and rest, a time with their neglected because of football families. Another month of competitive football was just too much – patriotism was fine, but they were people too. This is classic and eternal whine, quite plausible too – and reason for many players to refuse playing for their national teams. No player ever hesitate to tell the press how tired he is and how badly he needs wife and beach – just every other stiff, right? Why Joe, the plumber, is free to take vacation, but Joe, the footballer, must go to work and extra month? And with laughably little of no pay on top of that? Cruyff said so quite a few times as well – in the spring of 1978 he declared 'I have had enough!', which came close to both retirement and just needing a brake badly. Used to his 'riddles', the Dutch press was quick to bite back – 'Have had enough of money, or football?' Seemingly, of football... for tired as he was, he signed a contract with British TV to word as their commentator during the finals – along with Brian Clough.

But years later Cruyff reveled his 'true reasons': and they were personal. He suffered a brake-in in 1977, and his wife was under kidnapping threat. He got scared and concerned and decided to stay with his family. It was really tough time – even to keep it secret, as he did. The story is plausible enough for more than single reason: kidnapping was real threat during the terrorist 1970s. Given the Argentinian situation, political kidnapping of public figure like Cruyff – or his family – was very likely. On top of it Cruyff already had the scare – he received death threats when Ajax visited Buenos Aires in 1972 to play for the Intercontinental Cup with Independiente. Back then the coach of Ajax had to improvise security for Cruyff – Barry Hulshof was assigned to go everywhere with Cruyff as a bodyguard. In the same time Cruyff was really attached to and protective of his family – his personal life was guarded and hardly ever discussed in the press. There were practically no scandals in the yellow press. Whatever came to the general public was very clean image:
A typical photo of Cruyff's personal life – giving soccer lesson to his son Jordy.

This picture is perhaps the 'raciest' ever photo of Cruyff's private life – yet, a perfect 'happy family' shot.

No doubt, a lot was orchestrated and cultivated by him, but his family life was boring and conventional. There was no evidence to the contrary – Cruyff was a happily married man, dedicated and protective. Hence, unpleasant situations had to be avoided: like the scandal just before the 1974 World Cup final, when West German tabloid published 'sensational story' of massive orgy in the Dutch camp. Many girls, booze, wild behaviour, and Cruyff was the midst of it – the story eventually was proven entirely untrue, but Cruyff, according to witnessing teammates, spent hours on the phone trying to convince his wife the story and the pictures were fake. To many, this was the reason Holland lost the final – the pressure from the scandalous news affected the team, and particularly Cruyff was no able even to concentrate on the game, troubled by family concerns. Not wanting to risk family happiness seems entirely plausible in his case.

Business. Of course, Cruyff was always associated with business. He was always speaking with emphasis on business – and was ever ready to pose for anything suggesting money, no matter what criticism may be triggered by that. According to this angle of the saga, he tried to convince the Dutch federation to use new kit manufactured by his own firm. The Federation refused – and he refused to play at the World Cup. It is plausible story – jump-starting a new venture with high-profiled free advertisement: the magic Dutch national team, led by the Arch-magician himself. Televised across the world, reaching millions of viewers. Typical Cruyff – after all, he was charging for interviews for years. With time, a long list with detailed pricing was made – and readily presented to 'customers' – of everything from autographs to endorsement of products and TV adds. Cruyff was constantly criticized for that, but especially in Holland, he was understood and excused too: taking care of his own profit is plausible. Of course, Cruyff used all possible means to get what he wanted, including the press – many of his 'riddles' were uttered for business purposes: to influence ongoing contract negotiations in Cruyff's favour. He was not bellow veiled and not so veiled chantage, he was excellent manipulator and very shrewd negotiator. A moment from the 1974 World Cup was well remembered, particularly in the Dutch Federation: after winning against Bulgaria, Cruyff carefully studied the contract with a sponsor, paying a bonus for each goal scored by Holland. Then immediately went to claim – and received! - a bonus for the goal Krol scored in his own net. The contract did not specify the net... A small detail, trumped on his famous private kit, different from the one used by the national team. So wanting Holland to play with his own production in exchange for joining the team was very, very likely.

These were and are the mail lines, every one with variations. And often elements from different lines were combined, for everything was possible. The man himself still adds 'riddles', fueling the fire of speculations. But there is one more line, rarely mentioned and almost never analyzed thoroughly. It is purely sporting line: Cruyff refused to play for Holland because of Ernst Happel. Our hero never said anything suggesting such reason. Happel, on the surface, appeared willing to have Cruyff in the team. Yet, Happel did not make any special effort to change the mind of Cruyff, and the other master of 'riddles' said few words, easily interpreted as statements against Cruyff: Happel maintained that he needed a team, not stars, was one and another often repeated was that Holland need to get rid of 'Cruyff's syndrome'. Happel never elaborated what he meant by that, so one interpretation of his words easily stands for 'get rid of Cruyff'. Since there was nothing direct and personal, Happel' real meaning was and is open for any speculation – but his words were surely not warm or welcoming the superstar. As for Cruyff, his relations with coaches may be summarized into three groups: work together as equals; ignore them; and feud and get rid of them. Cruyff had huge influence on and off the pitch, he was excellent tactician, and great reading of the game. Michels let him do whatever he liked, listened to the player, followed his advice. Kovacz, Fadrhonc, Knobel – seemingly, they were ignored and Cruyff run the show. He clashed with Hennes Weissweiller, staged a boycott, and got the great coach fired at the end. But Ernst Happel was different animal – a conflict of two strong wills was inevitable, and Cruyff was going to lose the fight. Happel was not known for even considering players' opinions; he was not the man to be ignored; and it was impossible to get him fired – largely, because his contract was very short, only for the duration of the World Cup finals. The occasion itself worked against Cruyff - the World Cup is not the right place for scheming against the coach. Since Cruyff and Happel had different visions of the game, peaceful collaboration was very doubtful. A confrontation was most certainly to be won by Happel – and Cruyff would lose in disgrace. After all, Happel did not even blink when dismissing his own favourite player, Wim van Hanegem. Very likely neither man wanted to work with the other and the way things developed there was no need even to talk about it. Officially, neither said anything directly hinting of personal dislike – the most Happel said was 'With Cruyff, we have one kind of team; without him – another kind. What kind precisely? This remains to be figured out yet.' Cruyff was already in the past, let's see the future – may be Happel was saying that, but certainly nothing against Cruyff. Simply, no need to talk about him any more. Cruyff talked about other things, not touching Happel either – when he was officially a TV commentator, then it was different... but it was different job, requiring critical approach – anybody would agree on that.

So, Cruyff was out.

Waiving a 'good bye' to Barcelona's fans. Looked final and that was all that mattered. The single, simple fact – Cruyff was not going to play for Holland in Argentina. And he was consistent in one thing - he never expressed regrets for his decision.