Johan Cruyff plays soccer the way Picasso drew—with economy, precision and a surpassing excellence that puts the observer in awe, soars above the competition, even the subject matter. The 32-year-old Dutch midfielder-forward, who four weeks ago became the North American Soccer League's biggest catch since Pelè, has been like a bracing shot of Dutch gin for the Los Angeles Aztecs. They were 5-2 when Cruyff (pronounced kroyf) arrived; after beating the Detroit Express 3-1 in the Rose Bowl last Saturday night, L.A. was 10-4 and challenging the powerhouse Vancouver Whitecaps for the lead in the NASL's National Conference Western Division. The Aztecs have racked up 22 goals in their last seven games, after scoring eight in their first seven outings. Those days were, as they say in Los Angeles, "B.C."—that is, before Cruyff.
"We used to dream about the playoffs," says the Aztecs' captain, Defender Bob Sibbald. "Now we're thinking about the championship."
"I felt like a desert prophet who hadn't found his people," says Los Angeles Coach Rinus Michels, who coached Cruyff for 10 of Cruyff's 14 European seasons with Holland's Ajax and Spain's Barcelona clubs and also when he played for the 1974 Dutch national team that lost the World Cup final to West Germany. "Now the Aztecs and American soccer have a nuclear weapon," says Michels. "There are no words to describe Johan's ability. Let's just say he has the best skills and mental approach and can read the game better than anybody I've seen in the last 15 years."
Cruyff, waif-faced and frail-looking at 5'9", 150 pounds, has scored five goals and had five assists in his seven games here, but he has made an equally important contribution by doubling the Aztecs' average attendance in the 104,699-seat Rose Bowl to more than 12,000.
This increase in attendance pleases Cruyff greatly. Pursued by the Cosmos even before his retirement from European soccer last November and offered nearly $1 million a year by them as recently as last month, Cruyff instead chose a two-year, $1.4 million package from L.A. Part of the deal is that he will get a substantial bonus if attendance goes up. Add to that the presence of old friend Michels, the Southern California weather—a prime consideration for Cruyff's glacially beautiful wife Danny—and the freedom to run his own marketing venture, Inter Soccer Ltd., a 6-month-old U.S. company he controls, and no wonder Cruyff agreed to become the highest-paid athlete in Los Angeles. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar gets $625,000 per year.
Cruyff joined the team four weeks ago, after six months away from the game, and scored two goals in the first seven minutes of his American debut. Now he is almost in game shape, a nagging groin pull having nearly healed. Cruyff is a man of intelligence and thoroughbred skittishness—a confirmed nail-biter, a lip-chewer, a half-pack-of-Camels-a-day smoker. He is by turns impish, arrogant and brilliant. And, like Pelè before him, he has adjusted so rapidly to his role as the "savior" of American soccer that he already is indulging in one of his old habits—avoiding practice.
The other day he lay in the shade of a pair of big water coolers in the corner of the practice field near the Rose Bowl, keeping a weather eye out for Michels while the rest of the team ran laps.
"Pelè brought American soccer to 60% of its potential. My job is to raise it to 75%," he said in slightly accented English. Cruyff speaks Spanish, Italian and, of course, Dutch. Although he has joyously taken on a Southern California tan, some things about America don't appeal to him. AstroTurf, for instance, and the NASL's 35-yard offside line—as opposed to the midfield offsides that is standard in the rest of the world. And it bothered him when only 5,894 fans turned up in Boston to watch the Aztecs play the Tea Men. "I've practiced before more people than that," he sniffed. Nevertheless, his commitment to America is more than monetary. "I owe something to the game, and America is the place to pay my dues," he said. "I want to see the sport do well here. I want to see the 'pewblic' come out for it." He grinned. "Pewblic isn't right, is it? Is it a dirty word? I'll get it right someday."
An Amsterdam gamin whose grocer-father died when he was 12, Cruyff grew up to lead his teams to six league championships and three European Cup titles, as well as to the '74 World Cup final. He was named the World Cup MVP that year. When he retired, he was worth $14 million, a million for each of his seasons. But bad investments and even worse relations with his business managers impelled him to return to soccer.
Like Pelè, Cruyff is unabashedly aware of his position. "There are 'stars,' then there are 'star-stars.' I am one of those," he says. "It's easier in Brazil, where the game is so individual, but in Europe you must be a team player first, then a star. When Pelè and I played together on a World Star team in 1975, we were both curious about what the other could do. But it rained so hard we were up to our ankles in mud. We both laughed and nothing was settled."
Cruyff isn't the sort to demand limousines and private suites, however. Although he has rented a $2,000-a-month home in upper-class San Marino, where he spends his off-hours quietly and privately with Danny and their three children, he is very much a team man. He is often the last one out of the locker room, where he has looked on indulgently while teammates performed a berserk, naked version of the twist. Or he's in a hotel lobby gobbling Kit Kat bars with Aztec rookie Winger Angelo DiBernardo, last year's top NCAA player from Indiana. Or he's enjoying a postgame Heineken's with the Aztecs' resident flake, Goalie Bob Rigby.
"He's just one of the guys," says Rigby, marveling at the fact. "When Pelè came to the Cosmos [Rigby's team then], he was already over the hill, a celebrity rather than a contributor. But Cruyff is on top of his game. He is so special I don't know what to say about him. When he came out for the first game, I thought the refs were going to get down on their knees."
"I have a lot of enemies in Europe because I control a team on the field," says Cruyff. "I tell people what to do because I know. That's the reason I can't play in Europe again. And I wouldn't want to. Every Sunday for 14 years in front of 100,000 people. The pressure was insane. We got death threats in Spain. Kidnap threats, too. It's so relaxing to think of a little 30-game schedule and the freedom to walk down the street without the price going up when they hear your name.
"Of course I have to provide results. But I have another job here. To put on, a how do you say, a spectacle."
Cruyff doesn't so much play soccer as conduct it, like Leonard Bernstein. He is so gifted that he has mastered all field positions, and Michels has been starting him at forward of late instead of his usual mid-field position, so he can get a better grip on scoring. "That's where I start," Cruyff says, "but I go wherever I seem to be needed at the time."
His energy seems limitless. Hair flying, hands, arms and head in constant motion, he directs teammates into position or indicates runs or simply does a lot of fancy third-base-coach stuff to confuse the opposition. Cruyff also talks constantly, to teammates, to the man marking him, to the referee, to himself.
Against the San Diego Sockers last week, it took him only half a minute to get going. When a cleared ball came out to Aztec rookie Midfielder Larry Hulcer, Cruyff swiveled his head once, taking in the whole field, fixing the position in his mind. With a theatrical wave of the hand, he directed Forward Chris Dangerfield into the penalty box in front of Socker Goalie Alan Mayer and then sprinted away toward the left-corner flag, timing his run perfectly to avoid being trapped offside. He took Hulcer's pass by outrunning it, in the process throwing off his shadow of the evening, and neatly heel-passed the ball to Dangerfield, who volleyed a hard shot past Mayer for the goal. Time: 48 seconds. Although Cruyff scored a goal himself in the second half, the Aztecs eventually lost 4-3 in a shoot-out.
"Cruyff has eyes in the back of his head," DiBernardo insists. "He knows where all of us are and who's open. We're not the Dutch National team, so we're out of position a lot, but even then he knows."
"That comes from God," says Cruyff, matter-of-factly. "You can practice skills for years, but I honestly don't know how I learned the strategy of the game. It's just in me."
Ty Keough, the Sockers' rookie midfielder, also is taken with Cruyff's magic. "He only turned it on out there for about 15 minutes each half, but God, what he did was simply perfect," he says. "I couldn't even play. I just watched. I thought, damn, that's why I'm in this game. It can be played that perfectly."
"People often argue in Europe about who is the genius, me or Michels," says Cruyff. "The truth is that we are one mind about soccer. In practice, he's the boss. On the field, I take over. We think alike, so it's like I take him on the field with me."
Saturday night against Detroit, Cruyff and the Aztecs didn't look as if they were playing a U.S. version of Total Soccer, the name given to the style practiced by Michels' Dutch National squad, in which fullbacks overlap at midfield, forwards defend and everyone whirls in a storm of action. Los Angeles was slightly ragged on defense and had a bit of trouble on the wings, but was certainly better than a host of NASL teams. And 10,397 chanting fans, who wave orange and white banners—not the Dutch flag, as some believe, but the Aztecs' team colors—let them know it. With 13:22 left in the game, Cruyff, who earlier had dashed astonishingly—if fruitlessly—through the Express defense, made a throw-in pass to Striker Walter Wagner, who volleyed a shot into the net for the Aztecs' third and final goal. It was Cruyff's fourth assist in his last four games.
"We still have a long way to go," he said afterward, "but we are the beginnings of a team. Can you imagine the work I'd have to do on the Cosmos? Everyone out there does his own thing, they're all big shots. Whew, I'm glad I came to Los Angeles."
Trevor Francis, the magnificent English striker and a top contender for European Footballer of the Year for this season, was playing his first game for the Express as a loaner from Nottingham Forest. After the game, he spoke of Cruyff. "I made my national team debut against him," Francis said. "He played then like he was supposed to. Perfectly marvelous. And tonight, too. It's still there. He's the world's best player. It's as simple as that."
And the Aztecs, who hope to meet the defending-champion Cosmos in the playoffs—they can't meet in the Soccer Bowl, because both are in the same conference—are banking on the idea that it may indeed be that simple.