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 Pel�, 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 White-caps 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 Pel� 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.
"Pel� 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 Pel�, 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 Pel� 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."