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Once upon a time a ruthless Spanish king ruled over friendly Holland, and the Dutch, hating his dominion, rose in revolt. But the mean old king sent an even meaner old general, the Duke of Alba, to repress the revolt, which he tried to do by killing an awful lot of inoffensive Dutch. It has taken Holland 400 years to wreak its revenge upon the Duke of Alba, but it has finally succeeded—bloodlessly. A Dutch king now reigns over Spain. He is Johan Cruyff, who many feel is the greatest soccer player in the history of the sport, the legendary Pel� notwithstanding. Even worse for Spain, Cruyff will return to Holland and represent his own nation when World Cup play begins June 13.
Cruyff, Johan. Born: 25 April 1947. Married, three children. Height: 5'8". Weight: 146 pounds. Current team: Club de Futbol de Barcelona. Position: center forward. Dutch football Player of the Year, 1967, 1968, 1969. European football Player of the Year, 1971, 1973 (second man to win the award twice). Member, Dutch national team in World Cup competition, 1974. With an income of around $400,000 per year, the highest-paid professional in European (and quite possibly world) soccer.
But this curriculum vitae tells as much about Johan Cruyff as the Manhattan telephone directory says about New York City. To understand the Cruyff phenomenon you have to watch the man in action, witness the dazzling effect of his reactive powers, his speed, his balletic footwork, his strategic and tactical command of the playing field. But more than this, you have to hear overflowing Barcelona Stadium resound as one voice, cheering on their imported hometown hero. You have to watch the protective and really tender way he is treated by the directors and coaches, his trainers and especially by his teammates. "Johan is that lucky athlete who has found his time and his place," says Barca's manager, Armando Carab�n. Cruyff is more straightforward. "Do you miss your home in Holland?" he is asked. " Barcelona is my home," comes the reply. "I am happy here."
For Cruyff's glory is Barcelona's. The team, the city and the man became inextricably linked when Barca bought him from Ajax of Amsterdam in 1973. There was risk involved. There was no guarantee Cruyff might not turn out to be as ill-suited for Spanish soccer as West German Midfielder G�nter Netzer and Argentine Winger Oscar Mas, both of whom are ending disappointing seasons with Real of Madrid. But where Real's owners may cry into their sangria over the $600,000 and $288,000 shelled out for Netzer and Mas, it would have been hemlock time at Barca headquarters if the Cruyff gamble failed. To wit, the Club de Futbol de Barcelona paid $2� million to acquire Cruyff. He is not called "El Holand�s de Oro" for nothing.
The only thing that could justify such an expenditure, not to mention amortize it, would be success—lots of it. And that is exactly what Barca got. To understand what Cruyff did for Barcelona, you must keep in mind where the club was when the Flying Dutchman made his debut on the last Sunday of October '73—fourth from the bottom of the 18-club first-division league.
Barca is one of the oldest soccer clubs in Spain, probably the richest and surely the one with the most pride, reflecting as it does the strong Catal�n linguistic and regional independence. It has been a source of unending frustration and disappointment to its owners and to the people of Barcelona that Barca usually came out on the losing end in its rivalry with the two Madrid teams, Real and Atl�tico—symbols of Spanish centralism and Francoist authority. At best the club would end up second or third in the league. Then two years ago the directors decided to fund a renaissance of Barcelona soccer. In a masterstroke they lured away Europe's greatest coach, Rinus Michels, the Dutch cleanser from Ajax of Amsterdam. It was not spoken of at the time, but by this coup Barca also hoped to obtain several of Michels' best players at Ajax—most notably Johan Cruyff, who was known to relish money and adulation. ( Holland has its favorite soccer stars, but Dutch reserve is an iceberg compared to the frenzy with which the Catal�ns worship Cruyff.) Last summer an 11-year ban against importing foreign players was lifted by the Spanish soccer league, and Barca lunged for Cruyff. As it turns out, there was never the slightest question that he wished to move to Barcelona. Not only was Michels already there, not only did Danny (Johan's wife) much prefer the balmy Costa Brava to rainy Holland, not only were the Spanish offering him vastly more money (and moneymaking opportunities), but Johan surely sensed what one journalist wrote: "In Amsterdam Cruyff was a prince, here he is a god."
So it was that Cruyff arrived in Barcelona one fine day last fall. The club's directors did not have to hold their collective breath very long before their gamble started paying off. At an exhibition match early in September, Cruyff's presence enhanced the gate by 25%. He played brilliantly, scoring twice, assisting on three other goals and leading Barca to a 6-0 rout of a Belgian team.
Cruyff made his debut for Barca in league competition in late October, when the team was fourth from the bottom with only two wins and three draws in eight games. From that moment commenced a victory march that had not been seen since Attila the Hun swept across Europe. In more than five months of high season play El Club de Futbol de Barcelona did not lose a single match, racking up 26 consecutive victories or draws and clinching the league championship seven weeks before the season was over. Sweetest of all was the win over Real of Madrid in early March, and it was more gratifying than anyone dared hope. Barca won 5-0, and on the Madrile�os home ground, no less.
Undeniably, Cruyff was most responsible for Barca's transformation. Individually, he was spectacular: 16 goals and dozens of assists, making him the third highest scorer in Spain. "But it went so much beyond his ability to score," teammate Carlo Rexach says. Hugo Sotil, another teammate, agrees. "Johan revolutionized our team. He directed us on the field. I have played against the best. Against Pel� himself, but Cruyff is as good, if not better, than Pel� at his peak."
Cruyff cannot explain how he does what he does. "I just play football." But wherefrom his uncanny anticipating of the next move and countering it? "I watch closely and I imagine what will happen next." Which is about as helpful as what Nijinsky said when asked how he managed to soar so magnificently: "Well, I just leap into the air and pause a moment before coming down."