Football can be cruel. Even the greats are made to suffer. The narrative which has always been put out there is Ajax rejected Johan Cruyff and reneged on a contract. They didn’t. However, they deliberately forced Cruyff’s hand, perhaps attempting to embarrass the player, hoping, and knowing, he would not accept the standard contract and they could stop the massive gate payments. It could be true that they had decided he was past his best and despite everything he gave the club, he was no longer of any use, aged 36. But Cruyff felt the hiatus in the US had extended his career.
The time might have been right, therefore, to go back and speak to Feyenoord. Cor Coster [Cruyff’s father-in-law and agent] had established great contacts at De Kuip, and they had speculatively suggested if the Amsterdammers were having second thoughts or playing hardball, they would be willing to match a similar gate-based deal. When the insults started flying, and it became clear Ajax didn’t want Cruyff, Feyenoord’s proposal came back into the mix. Initially, the proposal might have been filed away under ‘audacious’. Cruyff couldn’t ever sign for Feyenoord. Then when they broke it down, he thought: why not? It would be a challenge. Who were Ajax to treat a legend so shabbily? Feyenoord’s stadium was bigger and held 47,000.
Cruyff clarified the whole saga in My Turn, when he explained, in detail: “At the end of the 1982-83 season, I signed for Feyenoord, Ajax was still my team, but the people running it [Ajax] refused to go along with me. I heard they were saying I was too old and too fat and still putting on weight. I had to deal with all their objections. And they also demanded that I should be satisfied with a normal salary and of course, I wasn’t.” With that, Cruyff’s pride and sense of wrongdoing took him to Rotterdam.
By 1983, Feyenoord had toiled and struggled as lesser sides overtook them. Feyenoord were the first Dutch team to win the European Cup, beating Celtic in the 1970 final, in Milan. But by the early 1980s the feeling among Dutch football fans was even Feyenoord weren’t Feyenoord anymore. They were now another big city side who had struggled and hadn’t won a league title since 1974. Clubs like PSV Eindhoven and AZ Alkmaar had joined the party. Some of their form in the seasons before Cruyff’s arrival was poor to average. In 1979-80, 1980-81 and 1981-82 they finished fourth, fourth and sixth respectively.
Cruyff’s move to Feyenoord could be compared in the modern era to Lionel Messi signing for Real Madrid, or more realistically, in pure football terms, Mo Salah leaving Liverpool to sign for a struggling Manchester United, toiling around fifth or sixth, winning the league and cup double, and being named player of the year. (For clarity, the Dutch Player of the Year is the Dutch Football Association’s award and is voted for by fellow professionals from the top two divisions. This was won by Ruud Gullit. There was also an award voted by influential newspaper De Telegraaf and football magazine Voetbal International, a prestigious press award called the Gouden Schoen, the Golden Boot, which Cruyff won. Continue reading