Third time’s a charm: A pragmatic marriage between Cruijff and Feyenoord

While he made history at Ajax and invented the modern Barcelona, Johan Cruijff finished his footballing career at Ajax’s arch rivals Feyenoord. It was a match made neither in heaven nor hell, but a pragmatic marriage based on shared feelings of revenge against the Amsterdam side rather than actual love or affection. But for a season, it worked, with Feyenoord winning their first double in almost twenty years.

There he stood. It was a sunny afternoon in the spring of 1983, and in front of Johan Cruijff, photographers were wrestling to get the best shot. Cruijff, the man who first led Ajax and then Barcelona to European glory, who showed the world that football can be a form of aesthetics too, had just signed a one-year deal with Feyenoord – the perpetual enemy of Ajax, Cruijff’s boyhood love. He had his hands in his pockets, his head bowed down a bit, looking at the pitch. It was the 15th of May 1983, close to 5:30 PM, and Johan Cruijff had made a transfer that shocked the world of football. It wasn’t the first time Cruijff and Feyenoord had been flirting, but it was the first time the Amsterdammer had responded to the Rotterdam side’s advances with a similar eagerness.

In 1964, just months before Cruijff made his debut for Ajax, board members of the giants from Rotterdam had made contact with the teenager. They had seen him play multiple times in the Dutch U19 league and after an impressive display with the national youth squad in England, Feyenoord were ready and willing to do business with the precocious talent. It was all planned to perfection. When Cruijff would step off the ship that sailed him home to Holland, two board members would pick him up, drive him to Rotterdam, and sign him for Feyenoord.

The plan failed. Ajax board member Martin Bremer heard about the deal, drove to the same pier and picked up Cruijff right in front of a disappointed Guus Brox, the manager of Feyenoord. Just months later, Johan Cruijff made his Eredivisie debut for Ajax in a game at GVAV (now FC Groningen), instantly scoring his first Eredivisie goal in a 3-1 loss.

Seven years later, Brox again tries to lure Cruijff to De Kuip. It is 1971, a year after Feyenoord’s European Cup win, becoming the first Dutch team to do so. The scorer of the winning goal in that famous final against Celtic, the prolific Swedish striker Ove Kindvall, is looking for a return to Sweden, leaving behind a legacy that – as it turns out til this day – tons of strikers would struggle to follow up. Feyenoord are ready to sign another world class striker. Gerd Müller is approached, but is too expensive. They try Jurgen Grabowski, but Feyenoord’s defensive line, with the tough Rinus Israel (nicknamed ‘Iron Rinus’) and Theo Laseroms (‘Theo the Tank’) don’t want a German playing in the city scarred forever by the Nazi bombardment of 1940 and kick the hell out of him in a friendly game. After that game, Grabowski decided to stay at Eintracht Frankfurt.

Eventually, Feyenoord get in touch with Cor Koster, Cruijff’s manager. Feyenoord have heard Cruijff can leave Ajax for 1.2 million guilders (somewhere around €550,000), but only if he signs for a foreign team. Brox and his board members have an idea. They will pay Belgian side Waregem to sign Cruijff, pay his salary for the first six months as well, and then get him to Rotterdam anyway. Waregem are interested, and so is Cruijff. They reach a deal: Cruijff, just months before winning the European Cup with Ajax, will sign a five-year contract in Rotterdam, earning 125,000 guilders a season, a huge salary for a footballer at the time.

But then Barcelona show up. They want to do business with Feyenoord and in a bar in Rotterdam, hours before the two teams play a friendly game, they reach another agreement: Barcelona will sign Cruijff and loan him out to Feyenoord. But the deal falls through, as Barcelona anticipated that the borders would open eventually for foreign footballers and it turned out that now would not be that time yet.

In the end, Cruijff signs a new seven-year deal with Ajax, leaving Feyenoord behind wondering: Was he actually interested in moving to Rotterdam, or did he use Feyenoord’s interest to negotiate a better deal at Ajax?

In 1983, Cruijff signs for Feyenoord at last. Somewhere in the spring, Cor Koster calls Feyenoord’s chairman Gerard Kerkum and instantly asks him if he wants to sign Cruijff. Of course he wants to, Kerkum explains, but he expects the superstar – now 36 – to ask for too much money. Standard Liege and Paris Saint-Germain are interested as well, and look more serious contenders for Cruijff’s autograph.

However, in the end it is Feyenoord where Cruijff signs a one-year contract. After having a big fight with Ajax’s president Ton Harmsen, who thinks Cruijff is too old, too arrogant, and wants too much money, he is eager for revenge. And in Feyenoord, who had not won a league title since 1974, he finds a perfect ally.

The transfer is a shock to many. Cruijff, the icon of the historical Ajax side who conquered Europe in the early seventies, becomes a Feyenoord player – a move akin to Sir Bobby Charlton signing for Liverpool, or Ferenc Puskas moving to Barcelona.

Some fans take up protests. “Feyenoord forever, Cruijff never” is probably the most civilized protest banner in the stadium. “Cruijff fuck off”, reads another. Just weeks before his signing, he was whistled at during a friendly game. – I remember my late uncle telling me how he boycotted Feyenoord and De Kuip for a year, simply because seeing Cruijff in a Feyenoord shirt would “make his eyes burn”.  – And he wasn’t the only one; many fanatical fans left the stadium, or whistled when his name was announced as part of the line-up. Of course, “Feyenoord forever”, but Cruijff as a Feyenoorder? Never.

In the end, Cruijff finally brought many fans back to a stadium that was getting emptier and emptier every season. As part of his contract, he received five guilders for every fan that entered the stadium if attendance exceeded 22,000. On average, some seven thousand fans extra show up during home games that season.

The marriage between Cruijff and Feyenoord was short, practical and never full of love. But it worked. For the first time in 19 years, the club won both the league and the Dutch Cup. His legacy at Feyenoord has been food for discussion until this day. Did he lead Feyenoord to the double all on his own? Or was he just another piece of a puzzle that was close to completion anyway?

The truth is probably somewhere in between. With the reliable defender Ivan Nielsen, the talented midfielder Ruud Gullit, and the prolific goalscorer Peter Houtman, Feyenoord already had a strong squad. But with his arrogance and pedantry, Cruijff unquestionably added spirit, mentality and intelligence to the team. Inevitably, he started changing things at Feyenoord. After losing 8-2 to Ajax, which turned out to be the last loss of that season, his influence grew. After the winter break, Pierre Vermeulen – a popular forward – was dropped from the team and replaced by Stanley Brard, an academy graduate playing as a left midfielder in the reserve team, with the simple purpose of becoming the legs of Cruijff. Like the Cruijff transfer itself, the move was unpopular, but it worked.

Cruijff’s time at Feyenoord was limited to one season. While the club tried to sign him for another year, he had done his trick: getting revenge over Ajax, the love of his life, the one that deemed him too old and not good enough anymore. He played his last professional game against PEC Zwolle on May 13 1984, almost a year after signing his contract, and was part of some friendly games afterwards, including one on a Wednesday evening somewhere in March 1985 in Saudi Arabia, where Feyenoord played a local side (and weirdly lost 2-1).

There’s a beautiful video of Cruijff leaving the pitch after his substitution against PEC. He walks through the tunnel leading to the dressing rooms – alone, with only one cameraman following him. In the dressing room, he takes of his shirt, pulls off his socks and the bandage on his ankles, nips from a bottle of Heineken and stairs into space.

It’s all over now.

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