As soon as the news broke Wednesday that the Washington Diplomats had acquired Dutch superstar Johan Cruyff, reports began flying that the 34-year-old master, whom many have considered the best soccer player in the world, is beset by injuries.
Cruyff was reportedly hampered by an ankle injury while playing with Levante, a second division team in Valencia, Spain. Cruyff also is supposedly recovering from minor groin surgery performed in the last month, and it is said that could permanantly slow his once amazing movement.
A soccer writer for Progresso, an Italian newspaper based in New York whose news service is covering a tournament in Milan, Italy, in which Cruyff has been participating, said yesterday that Cruyff is out of shape.
"Our soccer bureau chief said Johan was removed after the first half of a game two days ago," said reporter Andrea Rodilant. "He just hasn't recovered from the surgery he had about a month ago. But the people who ran the tournament aren't that surprised. Cruyff told them he was still recovering when he agreed to play."
Cruyff, who is expected home in Amsterdam today, has not yet been reached for comment. Jimmy Hill, the Diplomats' principal owner, and Duncan Hill, his son and general manager, say Cruyff will need only a week of rest to return to form.
When asked if he had talked to doctors about Cruyff's health, Duncan Hill replied, "No, but we know he's fit." How did Hill know? "Because we have a very peculiar way of doing things around here. We asked Johan and he said, 'I'm fit.'"
Rodilant said he is not surprised to hear Cruyff is returning to Washington, although the Dutchman indicated three months ago that there was no chance of his playing in America again.
Cruyff agreed to join the NASL team July 1 against San Diego -- the Dips' 19th of 32 games -- and is expected to arrive in Washington by June 28. Supposedly, he will play for less than the $600,000 he made last season for the Diplomat team that was later disbanded, to be replaced by the former Detroit Express.
"It's a pattern for a lot of aging European players," Rodilant said. "Cruyff may have slipped by European standards but he's still superior to the NASL players."
"He's still the best in the world," Duncan Hill said.
Even if Cruyff is healthy and dazzling, he may have trouble fitting in with a fairly successful Diplomat team that has grown accustomed to playing without a demanding superstar.
"It took last year's Dips 13 or 14 games to adjust to Johan," striker Paul Cannell said after the team's 2-1 loss to the defending champion Cosmos Wednesday night at RFK Stadium. "If it takes us that long we'll be in trouble.
"It makes our marketing approach look a little silly, too," Cannell continued. "At first, we were the superteam with no superstar. Now, oh, goody, goody, we've got our own superstar. I'm glad to have Johan, though. At least with all the money he's making he'll be able to buy us all a few beers."
David McGill, the team's 20-year-old all-purpose player, wears jersey No. 14, the number Cruyff has worn through most of his career. "I ain't giving up this number," McGill said in a half-serious tone after Wednesday's game. "I'll take a battle to get it off me. Johan can have No. 13."
When asked if he was ready to play beside a perfectionist who has been known to shout at teammates for making the slightest mistake, McGill replied, "Johan is the greatest I've ever seen. But if he starts the hollering and screaming at me, it's going to go in one ear and out the other." McGill is one of the Dips who is most receptive to criticism from veteran teammates.
All of the half-dozen Diplomats interviewed Wednesday and yesterday said they look forward to playing with Cruyff.
"I can see it now," Cannell said. "Johan will fly to the first practice in a Concorde."