When Prince died last month, someone on my Twitter feed posted a snapshot of the page in a book they'd written that told an anecdote involving the singer. Less than a day had passed since the announcement, and already a writer was crying out, "Prince is dead, buy my book!" Well, as I'm always told, publishing's a business just like any other.
|Cutting through the bullshit: Cruyff in DC|
It's taken me a few weeks to write about Johan Cruyff. The day after his death, one of my publishers contacted me to write a piece about the Dutchman and his time in the North American Soccer League. They would try and place it with a newspaper. Good publicity for the book, you understand. It wasn't a good time, and in any case, I didn't want to. There were dozens of Cruyff appreciations being hacked out, as you'd expect. Nothing I said was going to add to the narrative, and I'd have been left with the same sensation I had when I saw the Prince tweet - Cruyff is dead, read all about it! I do read obituaries and I've also been paid to write them, so I'm not trying to come across as morally aloft. But there's a difference between using words to deal with your upset and manufacturing them to push your bloody book (again).
During these past few weeks, though, I did think about Cruyff a lot, just as I had done while writing 'Rock n Roll Soccer'. During that time, I thought how magnificent it would be to talk to him about the NASL. Doubtless, my publisher would have been happy too. But I really did want to know what he'd thought of the league, of the USA, why he went there, and what was his view of soccer there now. I wanted to know what he thought way more than I wanted to know what Pelé or Franz Beckenbauer thought. Cruyff, I imagined, would have torn it up and prompted me to start all over again. He would have said the unexpected, the slanted, the unpopular, the bizarre, the interesting. Not may soccer players manage that.
In many interviews I conducted for the book, I maybe suggested certain things in my questions. Thus prompted, the interviewee might agree, or they said, "You know, I'd never thought of it like that, but I think you're right." How great for the writer's ego! What I loved to hear, however, was the moment when they said, "No, it wasn't like that at all. That's bullshit. This is what it was like." I thought that Cruyff would do that with every question. He would make me feel small and stupid. Like the player and the person he was, he would come at every topic from a completely fresh angle, varying his replies from the ludicrous to the enlightening. It's a certainty that he would have made me write a better book.
|Leading from the front: "He was|
the ultimate team player."
The players who encountered him in the NASL loved to talk about him. Who wouldn't want to remind people that they played alongside him? Or against him, like Rochester's Damir Šutevski, who admits in a game where Cruyff scored twice for LA (even though he only played one half, in his first game for six months), "I covered him but I couldn't stop him. He took me to the cleaners." Carmine Marcantonio of the Washington Diplomats recalls trying to compete with Cruyff and LA in a playoff game in 1979, and takes up the tale of chasing the player when he received the ball at the top of his own penalty area. "He got the ball, I caught up with him, I tried to grab his shirt, but I couldn't bring him down and I went down and dislocated my finger trying to hold him back. He went upfield with the ball, faked out two or three defenders and scored the winning goal. There's a picture with four of us on the ground and Johan putting the ball in the empty net."
Cruyff was promptly signed by the Diplomats for the 1980 season, "and that was one of the best years I had, being teammates with Johan", says Marcantonio. "He was the ultimate team player. He took more pleasure in assisting and would pass to a team-mate to score." Cruyff scored 10 goals, but also registered 20 assists in 25 regular season games. However, Bob Iarusci and Don Droege - also both on the Diplomats' team that year - agree that Cruyff disturbed the equilibrium of what had been a fairly successful side, and that he more or less usurped team coach Gordon Bradley when it came to tactics. Droege personally wasn't bothered: "I'm just a lowly American player, and I'm just happy to be out on the field. But the English players like Alan Green, Bobby Stokes, Jim Steele, Matt Dillon - you bring in a player like Cruyff and the whole dynamics are gone." Droege didn't recall any truth to the rumoured story of Cruyff wiping Bradley's chalkboard clean so that he could give his own team-talk, but adds, "I do remember talking with Bradley in the bathroom and him checking under the stalls to make sure Cruyff wasn't in there listening to us."
Cruyff claimed at the time he was in the NASL to help promote and develop the game in the US, but it was also thought that, like Pelé, he came out of retirement because he needed cash after making some poor investments. It's no longer relevant. It's only important that he graced the league with his superior enigmatic touch for a handful of years. "He was a great individual," says Marcantonio, "in that he almost wanted to run the show on the field, but wanted it done in a team concept. Johan was very domineering. Like any great player, he didn't shut up." And for that we can only be thankful.
(The story of NASL soccer in Washington DC, and Cruyff's role in turning around the Diplomats' 1980 season, can be read in Chapter 8 of Rock n Roll Soccer, 'Broken Teams in Dysfunctional DC: Cruyff, the Dips, the Darts and the Whips.' Buy it now for just $£ etc. etc.)