His Feyenoord teammate Sjaak Troost once compared him to cheating on him in the presence of his wife. Not just cheating on her, in fact, but insisting on maintaining eye contact throughout.
Imagine the shock. It was Johan Cruyff. The legend itself. The man who had inspired Ajax to three straight European Cup wins in the previous decade before returning from his adventures in Barcelona and beyond to win two more Eredivisie titles for the club.
“Johan was Mr. Ajax”, says Troost Sky Sports.
And now, at the age of 36, he was leaving them for his rivals Feyenoord.
What followed remains one of the most fascinating stories in Dutch football history. A story centered on his most unique individual. Without doubt, the most important figure in the game.
This season at Feyenoord, his last as a player, provided the perfect punctuation mark to his career. It wasn’t Cruyff in his prime, the version that had won a trio of Ballons d’Or, the 1974 World Cup star tour. But maybe that revealed even more what made him great.
Cruyff did it his way.
And if you didn’t agree, he would prove you wrong.
He returned to Ajax in 1981 and quickly battled the Eredivisie title which was ceded to AZ Alkmaar. Soon he became the figurehead of a dynamic Ajax squad which was bolstered by the groundbreaking performances of teenager Marco van Basten.
“At that time, he came back as a big star”, says Van Basten Sky Sports. “I grew up watching the big Ajax teams and the national team. It was a great stimulus for me.
“I was very proud and very happy that we knew each other so well. After joining the Ajax team, we became friends and he even became my advisor. It was very special.
“And then he went to Feyenoord and became my opponent.”
In the summer of 1983, Cruyff found himself at odds with Ajax’s board of directors. A glorious playing career was drawing to a close, but – as it often was – he was already the de facto coach. Cruyff never just participated, he took over. Seeds were sown for it to stay.
And yet, after two successful seasons, the decision was made not to renew his contract. The superiors were happy to let him go. The deal to keep him was considered too expensive given his years of advancement. At 36, what harm could really let him go?
At first Cruyff was shocked. It was his club and since the death of his father, we felt even more at home. It is said that even until the day the contract was signed – June 15, 1983 – he expected the decision to be overturned. It was not.
Now he was angry and revenge was on his mind.
“He came to Feyenoord because Ajax didn’t listen to him,” said Troost.
For one of the game’s great minds, it was inexcusable.
If there was any discomfort about the transfer to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, the feeling was mutual. He was a man who came to define Ajax. And he wasn’t going to come quietly.
“Some players struggled with this at the start,” admits Troost.
He wasn’t one of them himself. Although he was later part of the squad that won Euro 88, Troost is magnanimous enough to say that even this team does not compare to Cruyff’s.
“In my opinion, the best Dutch national team in our history remains the national team in 1974,” he said. “So for me that wasn’t a problem because I still think he’s the best player that ever existed. Being allowed to play football with him was indescribable.”
It was clear from day one that Cruyff was serious about the challenge.
No one really knew what to expect until the first workout. But during the first medical exams, the veteran turned out to be among the fittest on the team.
He had spent his vacation playing tennis every day. During pre-season training, he led the morning six-kilometer race through the forest, an image of concentration.
“It was amazing,” says Troost, “not an ounce of fat and just focused on winning. Sure I saw it took a lot of effort from him but what do you want at 36?”
“So much respect. Wow.
“Soon everyone was very happy with him and he was admired by all.”
He was a man on a mission.
Play for Feyenoord. To play against Ajax.
Even so, there were issues on the pitch at first, not least because of the ideas he had passed on to a young Ajax side which now included Ronald Koeman as well as Van Basten.
It would take time for Feyenoord to adopt these models – something that became clear when the first Klassieker arrived in mid-September. A beating motioned.
Ajax won 8-2 in Amsterdam.
“We were down 3-0 quickly but when we came down to 3-2 everyone was waiting for the 3-3,” Troost recalls.
“When it became 4-2, it was over.”
The game had been hanging in the balance for an hour, Feyenoord had even been dominant, but the result spoke for itself and Ajax managers were the ones celebrating smugly. Van Basten had scored a hat-trick. Ajax had shown that they had evolved. It was a humiliation for Cruyff.
Not that he saw it that way.
“Johan told me if you lose 1-0 or 8-2 the points stay the same.”
Looking back, with the game between the teams so early in the season, Ajax were benefiting from the legacy left behind. Feyenoord was still learning the ways of Cruyff.
“If you saw Johan play football you were already in awe, but when you played with him it was amazing,” says Troost. “At the beginning it was certainly difficult for many players to get Johan because he is not thinking of a step or two ahead but of three or four.”
This is how Van Basten also remembers it.
“Over the years, when you get a little bit smarter, the game gets a little easier physically because you solve a lot of things in your mind,” he explains.
“The way he played the last few years was wonderful to watch and very interesting. I played with him and against him, I trained with him. Even then he made it so easy.”
Ajax might have had Van Basten but Feyenoord had their own quality young players. Ruud Gullit was emerging as one of the country’s most promising talents. Soon he formed a formidable partnership with Cruyff in the field. Feyenoord went 14 undefeated.
By the time of the return meeting in Rotterdam in February, the balance of power had already shifted. Feyenoord had knocked Ajax out of the cup after a replay. But the coup de grace came in front of 58,000 fans at De Kuip as the champions were put to the sword.
Gullit opened the scoring from the start, Cruyff himself added a second within minutes. When it was all over, Feyenoord had won 4-1 and Ajax managers were no longer celebrating.
As Cruyff saw, Ajax always had good players, but Feyenoord now had the highest team ethic. Their movements were coordinated, while their opponents played individually. “The schemes are done,” he said of his former team. “The discipline is gone.” They lacked a leader.
Cruyff had proven his point.
For Troost, who would spend the rest of his career at Feyenoord at one club, before taking on the role of sales manager, this season will always have magical memories.
“It was my first championship so it was very special”, he said, “but for people this championship remains very special because of Johan Cruyff and young Ruud Gullit.”
The only regret is that it didn’t last longer.
“I learned a lot from Johan and I certainly would have liked to play football with these men for another year because then my own football career would have been different and I probably would have played more international matches too.”
There was a point during the season when Cruyff noticed that Feyenoord didn’t need him anymore. He had reshaped things and put them on a new path. With the team in flight and on their way to a first title in a decade, it was a charming sighting.
In this case, he was wrong.
“I already missed it after the first game of the new season,” Troost said.
Without him Ajax have duly regained the title and it would be almost another full decade before Feyenoord’s next Eredivisie success. Long before, Cruyff had made peace with his former club, guiding Ajax to more European glory in 1987. Forgiven but not forgotten.
His legend was only reinforced by his season of revenge.