Johan Cruyff
Johan Cruyff Credit: Tony Quinn

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D.C. United is inching closer to signing English international superstar Wayne Rooney. Reports out of the United Kingdom earlier this month claim that the Everton forward and former Manchester United legend has agreed to terms with D.C. United, a multi-year deal which would make him by far the most expensive signing in the club’s 22-year history.

Signing Rooney—a man who’s scored more goals for the English national team than any other player and amassed some 17 million Twitter followers along the way—is the latest in a series of moves United has made to signal its intended return to local and national relevance. For years, the club has languished at RFK Stadium while watching the majority of Major League Soccer surpass them in attendance and results.

D.C. United’s moment may have finally arrived. Just weeks before moving to Audi Field, its brand-new, $400-million-dollar jewel at Buzzard Point in Southwest D.C., the team looks poised to step back into the spotlight.

But Rooney isn’t the only high-priced signing a D.C.-based soccer club has ever made. He’s not even the greatest player a local club has ever lured. 

Thirty-nine years ago, the North American Soccer League’s Washington Diplomats found themselves in a similar bind, struggling to gain a foothold in D.C.’s sports scene and in need of a major boost. Their owners didn’t just go out and sign a big name. They signed the greatest midfielder to ever play the game. 

Johan Cruyff came to the United States in 1979 at age 32. He’d originally intended to retire from soccer a year earlier, but financial concerns (a series of bad investments that had nearly bankrupted him) dictated otherwise.

The NASL seemed like the perfect fit. America had gone soccer-mad, and a host of European megastars had already touched down in the U.S.; Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer had made the New York Cosmos a powerhouse. Across the country, the Los Angeles Aztecs wanted their own star. They lured Cruyff, a three-time European player of the year, out of retirement.

The former Barcelona legend impressed immediately. Hours after touching down at LAX, he scored a pair of goals in a seven-minute span. He’d go on to lead the Aztecs to the playoffs that year, nabbing league MVP honors in the process.

But change was underway in the Aztecs front office. The club was sold and new ownership quickly sought to offload Cruyff.

Credit: Tony Quinn

Enter the Washington Diplomats.

The club had been around since 1974 but had struggled, like so many other teams in the NASL, to duplicate the magic of the Cosmos. Flush with cash after a sizable investment from new owners Gulf & Western, the management jumped at the opportunity to sign Cruyff.

In 1980, they paid the Aztecs a $1 million transfer fee for Cruyff—some $3.5 million today—and inked him to a three-year deal reportedly worth $4.2 million in today’s dollars. At the time it was a near-unheard of sum.

Almost overnight, the Diplomats were thrust into the spotlight. Attendance soared. Local media, for once, took note.

On the field, though, things were off to a rocky start. When Cruyff originally arrived in the states, he’d signed on to play in Los Angeles for his mentor and former coach, Dutch legend Rinus Michels. In D.C., he found Gordon Bradley, a Brit who played a different brand of soccer than Michels, at the helm.

Gone was Michels’ insistence on playing “total football” with a focus on grace and beauty, interchangeability and support. Bradley’s win-at-all-costs mentality, short on tactics and oozing with grit and brawn, replaced it.

Cruyff, who died of cancer in 2016 at the age of 68, had grown accustomed over the years to sitting back in a central role, directing the movement of his teammates, and slicing apart opponents. In D.C., though, nobody would listen. More often than not, the notoriously vocal Dutchman would make his voice heard during the game, pulling up over a ball, raising his arms, and screaming “somebody do something!”

He made his voice heard after the game as well.

“It became almost a ritual, if they lost,” says Washington Post sports columnist John Feinstein, who found himself on the Diplomats beat in the late ’70s. “I’d say, ‘So Johan, what happened out there?’ He’d say, ‘What happened? The coach is an idiot. The players don’t know what they’re doing and they don’t fucking listen to me. This is impossible.’ That was what he’d always say. ‘This is impossible.’”

By mid-June, the Diplomats’ front office was starting to worry. Though ticket sales had increased, the club sat at the bottom of the league and Cruyff hadn’t scored a single goal. The press had started to label him a bust, which grated on him.

He began to impose his will on Bradley, going so far as to erase his coach’s pre-game instructions from the chalkboard, replacing them with his own. “I still remember talking to Gordon before an ABC game of the week,” says former Diplomats defender Don Droege. “He was looking underneath all the bathroom stalls to see if Cruyff was in any of the stalls while he was talking to me. He was scared of him.” 

Credit: Tony Quinn

Cruyff abandoned his hope of bringing his organized brand of soccer to the Diplomats.

“I thought my job was to organize the team when I came here,” Cruyff told Feinstein at the time. “Sure, I could score goals. I’m not worried about that in the slightest. In fact, that’s what I’m going to do now. Forget about organization, I’m going to play spectacularly now. I’m going to play football for the spectator. We’ll start winning games. But no championships. If you want to win trophies you have to play organized.”

The change was immediate and drastic. Cruyff scored double-digit goals and assisted on many others. At the insistence of ownership, Bradley ceded a bit of control to Cruyff, who axed certain players from the lineup and replaced them with others more suited to his game.

“He was the greatest player who ever lived,” says former Diplomat Tony Crescitelli. “His first five steps were so fast, you’d just turn around and he’d be gone. You’d just make a run, and you didn’t even have to look for the ball. You’d look down and it’d be at your feet. Johan would find you.”

“His sense of acceleration and fluidity with the ball was simply incredible,” adds former D.C. United head coach Thomas Rongen, who played in the midfield for the Dips. “He was one of the guys who was faster with the ball than without it. Not too many players in the world can do that. Ronaldo can do that. Messi can do that. He owned the game.”

Cruyff was thriving off the field, too. He moved into a stately home in Georgetown and embraced the relative anonymity D.C. provided him, often riding a bicycle from his home to training sessions at RFK. 

He poured his heart and soul into selling the game in the U.S., recording a weekly segment for D.C.’s CBS affiliate in which he’d teach the basics of the game and hosting a clinic for disabled children before every away game.

Rongen saw this all first-hand. He lived in Cruyff’s house for four months. After a long night out, Rongen once fell asleep in a neighbor’s backyard.

“I get woken up by a man, and he goes, ‘Do you live here?’ I said I did and told him I had a bit of a headache. He goes, ‘Alright, let’s go have a cup of coffee.’ So I walk in the house, and he goes, “This is my sister, Eunice Shriver.” A few hours later, I go to Johan and say, ‘Who are the neighbors?’ and he says, ‘Oh, those are the Kennedys.’”

Back at RFK, the Diplomats were rolling. They charged into the playoffs and played in front of record crowds—but in a cruel twist of fate, they were sent home in the opening round by Michels and his tightly organized Aztecs.

Feinstein remembers arriving back in Washington after the loss.

“We got on a people mover [at Dulles], heading to one of the terminals there, and as we’re pulling up you could see there were a couple of hundred fans there, waiting to greet the team,” he recalls. “There was a band playing. Johan was in a panic.”

“Don’t they know we lost?” said the Dutchmen.

“In Europe,” says Feinstein, “had there been fans waiting for you, you’d be calling the police for protection. He couldn’t grasp that they’d cheer for the team if they lost.”

Gulf & Western was less enthusiastic. Citing losses of some $6 million in 1980, they pulled the plug on the Diplomats at the end of the season.

Cruyff would make one last swan song in D.C. In 1981, the Detroit Express relocated to D.C. and rebranded as the Diplomats, hoping to cash in on the old club’s goodwill. Midway through their campaign, they made a move for Cruyff, who had returned to Europe.

At halftime of a game against Toronto that year, Cruyff sat at his locker chain-smoking, as he so often did during his career. “He turned to a group of us,” says former Diplomat David Bradford “and told us that [Toronto’s] keeper had been playing off his line the entire game. He told us he was going to punish him for that.”

Early in the second half, Cruyff gathered the ball near midfield, turned, and from 45 yards out struck a perfectly weighted, beautiful chip that sailed over the keeper’s head and into the goal.

“It’s my fondest memory of him,” says Bradford. “How could you ever forget it? I got to play with fucking Johan Cruyff. It was ridiculous.”