More than a decade after he first led Ajax of Amsterdam to the top of European soccer, Johan Cruyff is back with his original team.
After four years of playing in the North American Soccer League and the Spanish second division, Cruyff was thought by many observers here to have come to the end of a brilliant career. But he has survived.
His short bursts near the goal, his accurate long passes and his command of play at midfield have pushed Ajax to the top of the Dutch league and won renewed respect for the recently struggling club.
Until a goal by George McCluskey with one minute to play stunned 65,000 spectators here Sept. 29, Ajax was certain of advancing past Glasgow Celtic, the Scottish champions, to the second round of the prestigious European Cup. McCluskey's goal broke a 1-1 tie -- which would have been sufficient for Ajax to win the two-game series -- and came two minutes after Cruyff was kicked in the ankle and forced to leave the game.
Despite the loss, Ajax showed it is once more to be reckoned with in European soccer, reminding fans here of the Cruyff-led club that swept to European Cups in 1971-73. Cruyff was named footballer of the year in Europe in 1971, '72 and '74.
"Ajax is still a very immature club, and that makes Johan's presence most important," said Ajax Coach Aad De Mos. "He makes all the decisions on the field. He is the team's conductor. He gives the younger players the confidence to play a more aggressive, more open game.
"And it has been difficult for Johan. He joined the team under terrible clouds: the press, the fans. They all really believed he was . . . 'washed up,' an American phrase."
When the Washington Diplomats folded after the 1980 NASL season, Cruyff left the United States for Spain -- after parts of three seasons in Los Angeles and Washington. He hoped the move would put him back to the heady level he had been when he left Ajax for Barcelona in 1974.
He signed for the 1980-81 season with Levante of the Spanish second division, hoping to improve his play and lift the club into the first division. But Levante performed poorly, Cruyff did not mix well with the other players and the ailments in ankles and knees that had bothered him for years persisted.
Unhappy in Spain, Cruyff joined in midseason the new Diplomats team, which had moved from Detroit, but was slowed by injuries. When that team also folded, he rejoined Ajax for the 1981-82 season. His return, as well as the purchase of Jesper Olsen from Denmark, was calculated to raise the spirit of the once-proud organization. In Cruyff's first year back, Ajax was champion of the Netherlands.
His skills were top-flight. He ordered his teammates to play better than they thought they could. He finessed referees, as he has done everywhere he's played. And he became chief publicist for Ajax and Dutch soccer.
After averaging 10,500 a game in attendance the season before, Ajax drew 25,000. With a contract giving him one-tenth of the gate receipts, Cruyff profited nicely.
"He saved the club," contends Rob van Willingen, sports editor of the Rotterdam daily, Algemeen Dagblad. "His comeback has been remarkable."
Cruyff has only good memories of his two years in Washington, although the collapse of the Madison Square Garden version of the Diplomats in 1980 perplexes him.
"I had a super time. Fantastic time," Cruff said. "I learned a lot -- about life in America and friendships and the other things that can be more important than football. I was very happy, especially in Washington, and my neighbors were excellent. The whole family enjoyed it . . . "
Cruyff found the level of play in the NASL "quite high." Still, he believes the league can do much better.
"The professional game in America must be brought to the same standards as . . . in Europe. No more 35-yard lines for offsides, for instance (in Europe, offsides occurs from midfield). Play the game the way the youths play it.
"The point system for wins and losses is also wrong in shootout games," said Cruyff. "In America, the winning team of a shootout earns the normal six points for the win, even though it took the shootout system to win. The winning team should earn less for a shootout victory than it would for a game it wins by outscoring its opponent in regulation time. The NASL should do it as the reserve teams in Holland do."
In the Netherlands, the second-class teams -- those not in the premier division -- are awarded three points for winning. If a game is tied at the end of regulation, a penalty shootout takes place and the winner is awarded two points.
Cruyff sees the NASL as an adventurous organization that must buck tradition to sell a new sport.
"The NASL has mixed its clubs properly with young Americans and older European players," said Cruyff. "Some people think the older (European) players in the U.S. is a sign of poor play, but I think the opposite. The older players improve the technical play of the younger (American) guys, and then that improvement trickles right down to the small boy with a ball in the park. And that's where you need the growth of soccer skills: in the younger children, who learn the game from slightly older children.
"The other thing is that older European players then have a place to play for good money.
"I can't compare 10-year-olds here with 10-year-olds in America, but I know the main thing to do is to get the kids playing," he continued. "Then there are more, and better, players. It's easier to choose from 10,000 good players than from 10. And then once the U.S. makes a good show in a competition like the World Cup, interest spreads through all the kids."
Cruyff has his own youngsters -- his teammates -- to teach. It is him they look to in times of crisis.
And when Cruyff retires?
"I would like very much," he said, "to go back to Washington and run a soccer clinic there. That would make me happy."