The shrill ring of a telephone breaks the mid-morning silence in a trendy Amsterdam apartment. Enjoying a restorative lie in after a nasty bout of flu, a woman climbs out of bed, wearily ruffles her blonde, bobbed hair and pads through to the living room to pick up the phone.
“Sorry, he’s not here right now. He’s gone to a meeting at Ajax.”
“Yes it is Danny. Hi. Actually, wait a second. He said you might call — I think he’s left a statement for you. Let me see if I can find it.”
“Here it is, I shall read it for you:
“The negotiations with Levante have not broken down but we have still not come to an agreement. My father-in-law will arrive late tonight due to problems with his flights. We will then have all the information we need, and tomorrow, over dinner, we will discuss them. I will therefore give my definitive response tomorrow night or at the very latest by noon the following day.”
“Is that ok?”
“Well, look — personally, I love Spain and would love to go back, and everyone has told us what a beautiful city Valencia is.”
“Yes. Well, he’s had a lot of offers, but unless there’s a twist, he will go to Levante. Like the statement said, he will clarify it tomorrow one way or the other.”
“No problem. You’re welcome. You too, bye.”
As promised, when the phone rang the following evening, it was Johan Cruyff himself who answered and gave the most decisive of answers.
“We have studied the offer at length and read the reports from the club. We believe the deal can benefit everyone. So, it is decided, I will play 19 games for Levante with the objective of gaining promotion. After that — we will see.”
The following day’s newspapers excitedly broke the news, even reporting a possible debut that Sunday against Sabadell. But soon, that typically clear and direct Cruyffian intention met the more opaque and muddled world of Segunda division club finances. It would be another month, one involving the Spanish Federation, the players’ association, Leicester City, and a cameo from Barcelona coach Helenio Herrera’s underpants, before a 33-year-old Cruyff finally arrived as the most unlikely recruit in Levante’s promotion push.
Exhausted by life in Barcelona, Cruyff bid farewell to Camp Nou in May 1978. He flirted with retirement, but was besieged by mounting debts from a spectacularly bad pig farming investment and a tax bill that incoming Barça president Josep Lluís Núñez refused to pay. Cruyff was soon listening to overtures from the North American Soccer League. The Los Angeles Aztecs offered him the opportunity to reunite with his mentor, Rinus Michels, while also overtaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as California’s highest-paid athlete. Despite six months of inactivity, Cruyff completed paperwork in Spain before boarding a flight and making his NASL bow at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena that very evening. Cruyff and Michels barely had time to get reacquainted before Cruyff hurried out on to the pitch, scoring two goals in his first seven minutes of stateside action.
Body and mind reinvigorated by the California sunshine and a spell with the Washington Diplomats, Cruyff returned to Europe at the end of 1980 feeling there was plenty more football ahead of him. He was even eyeing up a return to the Dutch national team, who were midway through their 1982 World Cup qualification campaign. Remarkably, on the club scene, the first to show interest were Dumbarton, of Scotland’s second tier. Manager Sean Fallon even flew to Amsterdam in an attempt to pull off an amazing coup but he was unable to tempt Cruyff to the chilly banks of the Clyde.
Nevertheless, second-tier football was not something that Cruyff was dismissing out of hand. Indeed, despite interest from Arsenal, Chelsea and Espanyol, it was Levante of Spain’s Segunda division that emerged as the club most likely to strike a deal.
Levante possessed an audacious dealmaker of their own in club president, Francisco Aznar. Where others saw the prohibitive wage demands of an ageing superstar, Aznar visualised packed stadiums, a surge in club membership, prestige friendlies and a lucrative tour of North America. Involved in a tight promotion tussle, Aznar believed Cruyff’s arrival would be the perfectly timed boost to separate themselves from the pack. Cruyff and his agent and father-in-law, Cor Coster, agreed, and Cruyff prepared to fly to Spain to make his debut on the 1st of February in Levante’s Nou Estadi.
There was one problem. For all of Aznar’s glimmering visions of the future, he hadn’t been a particularly timely settler of debts in the past. Levante owed the current squad and former players close to 13 million pesetas (€78,000) in unpaid wages. The Spanish Federation felt more than a little uncomfortable with proceedings and refused to sanction the transfer.
Despite that and further issues with Cruyff’s preferred sportswear supplier, Aznar was adamant: “He will play for Levante. I’m not some kid doing all this as a stunt.” Convinced that Cruyff’s Spanish comeback game would draw a huge crowd, Aznar was keen for record gate receipts to remain in Levante’s coffers. He assured reporters that Cruyff would arrive in time for the club’s next home game against Getafe on the 15th of February.
Others were less convinced that the deal would be done. The topic of Cruyff’s future was, naturally, a constant at Barcelona press conferences, something that manager Helenio Herrera eventually found some humour in. Unconvinced that Cruyff would end up in Segunda, the iconic coach declared to reporters: “I bet my underpants that Cruyff will not sign for Levante.”
As February wore on, it seemed increasingly likely that those undergarments would remain snugly around Herrera’s waist. By Valentine’s Day, Cruyff was still in the same Amsterdam apartment, answering calls from Spanish journalists with an increasingly exasperated tone. “There’s nothing happening. Levante’s attitude just doesn’t seem serious and I’m tired of waiting. I’ve seen no signs of life from them at all.”
Into the void arrived Jock Wallace and Leicester City. Wallace had convinced the board that Cruyff could help lift his young side out of the relegation zone while packing out Filbert Street in the process. Reports put City’s offer at £5,000 per game, doubling the previously unheard of figure Hibernian had lured George Best back from the NASL with. Wallace’s grand vision of Cruyff orchestrating his young side never came to pass. Indeed, the club’s young striker, Gary Lineker, would have to wait a few more years before Cruyff was directing him to a position on the right-wing.
Aznar had tested Cruyff’s patience to the limit, but the Leicester link had finally concentrated minds at Levante and lawyers were dispatched to Amsterdam to finally sign a deal. On Friday the 27th of February, Cruyff was back on Spanish soil at last. Touching down at Barcelona’s El Prat, he was whisked through the arrivals lounge — a carrier bag with his customary two duty-free cartons of Camel in hand. He briefly stopped to speak to the journalists who had been running up their newspaper’s phone bills with daily calls to Amsterdam.
“I’m finally here – the negotiations dragged on, but finally, everyone is happy. I’ve decided to play for Levante because life in Spain is good. The football is high quality and the weather is amazing. It’s true that playing in Segunda seems a little strange for a player of my quality, but not everything in life is about money or prestige. Levante offers a nice life, a good sum of money and a chance to get back into the business world. I can’t really ask for more”
Pinning the Levante club crest on Cruyff’s lapel was a beaming Aznar, who was only too keen to proclaim victory over those who had doubted the deal, “With this deal, I’ve shown I’m not just some bluffer. The debts? Oh please! We owe nothing. The Federation has received the necessary payments and the squad has been paid. Right now, we have 5,000 members, but with promotion we will have at the very least 21,000. I’m certain of that. And we already have the tours of Europe and America arranged.”
With that, Cruyff and Aznar went speeding down the Mediterranean coast to Valencia. While Cruyff met his new teammates and settled into his beach villa at Platja del Saler, Aznar was still frantically trying to get the transfer sanctioned by the Federation. Finally, just after 10pm on Saturday night, Cruyff was officially registered and able to make his debut in the following day’s fixture at home to Palencia.
Johan Cruyff el 1 de marzo de 1981 en su debut en Segunda División española en un Levante 1-0 Palencia. pic.twitter.com/Ke8k7gxMiP— KAISER (@kaiserfutbol) June 12, 2019
As Sunday morning broke, Helenio Herrera was the recipient of a surprise visitor as he sipped his morning coffee. An enterprising photographer had stopped by to ask for a snap of Herrera’s underwear. Herrera took it all in good humour —“I lost the bet! You have to recognise that Levante have pulled off a great signing. Congratulations to them.”
Down in Valencia, the turnstiles clicked round at an unprecedented rate as Levante took gates receipts of 5.5 million pesetas — five times their usual match-day takings. Cruyff took to the field in an uncannily familiar, azulgrana striped shirt and managed the full 90 minutes in a 1-0 win. Despite the result, he and his teammates seemed on different pages for most of the game. “We certainly lacked some understanding, but that’s natural as we only trained together for half an hour. But I’m convinced we can get promotion as long as my teammates understand my play and listen to my recommendations.”
The points took Levante third, just a point behind the co-leaders, Rayo Vallecano and Castellón. It was a promising start for Aznar’s masterplan but as the media spotlight was drawn away by the dramatic kidnap of Primera’s leading goalscorer, Barcelona’s Quini, matters became more complicated for Levante.
Granada welcomed Levante and Cruyff to town with open arms. The bumper crowd and the extra charge levied on club members were enough to clear that season’s outstanding bonuses and debts. What’s more, the home side cruised to a 1-0 win with Cruyff and his colleagues again on different wavelengths. It was Granada’s best performance of the season, seemingly inspired by the buzzing atmosphere, a point picked up by reporters and Levante coach Pachín. Pachín’s observations did little to curry favour with Aznar or Cruyff, and he was soon replaced by a former Barça teammate of Cruyff, Joaquim Rifé.
Wins became scarce as Cruyff failed to click with teammates on or off the field. Levante soon faded to 10th in the table and there were some odd happenings at away fixtures.
While the exact details of Cruyff’s financial arrangements with Aznar were never known. It was widely presumed that Cruyff took a healthy cut of the extra gate receipts his presence had generated. Levante were welcome to make those arrangements for home matches, but it was rumoured that for away fixtures, Aznar, Cruyff or both believed they were due a cut of the paydays their hosts were enjoying and negotiated to that effect.
Cruyff habitually travelled to away games with Aznar, arriving long after the rest of the squad. On the eve of Levante’s fixture in Vitoria against Alavés, Cruyff returned urgently to Valencia, citing his wife’s ill health. Marca, though, relayed a story that Aznar had requested a payment of a million pesetas from the Alavés board for Cruyff to appear. Eyebrows were raised, but Cruyff also withdrew from the Dutch squad that midweek — his first call-up in four years. Whatever had happened behind the scenes, the Alavés board was in no position to negotiate with their gate receipts embargoed to resolve a dispute over Jorge Valdano’s transfer to Zaragoza.
The fans in Vitoria were quietly disappointed, but the Andalusian public were far less forgiving a few weeks later. Cruyff was mysteriously scratched from the starting line up at the very last minute leaving the rest of his teammates to take the field to a cacophony of boos from a huge home crowd. The subsequent 3-1 defeat to the ten men of Linares finally put paid to Levante’s faint promotion hopes.
If Aznar had harboured dreams of being carried aloft by delirious supporters celebrating a famous promotion, then the reality was a far more ignominious experience. Levante’s final home game of the season and Cruyff’s last game for the club came in a passive 0-2 defeat to relegation-threatened Recreativo de Huelva. Sections of the home support were convinced that Levante had sold the game. Remarkably, even manager Rifé publicly doubted the integrity of his own goalkeeper. As the game drew to a conclusion, Aznar was surrounded by hordes screaming, “Tongo, tongo” — ‘fix, fix’.
On the day he once thought he was destined to lead Levante triumphantly to the next level, Aznar ended up fleeing through the neighbouring tennis club in fear of his own safety.
With the club in disarray, Cruyff returned to Amsterdam. An international comeback had been rendered moot by the Netherlands’ failure to qualify for the forthcoming World Cup, but Cruyff felt there was still some top-level football in him. And he was right. A glorious return to Ajax yielded back-to-back league titles and a Dutch Cup. As well as a fairytale end to his playing career, it was a lucrative move. Cruyff and his father-in-law convinced Ajax to agree to a rather familiar-sounding deal. The club would split the additional gate receipts Cruyff generated, paying half the amount directly into his pension fund.
By the end of the second season, Ajax were regularly drawing crowds of 50,000 to the city’s Olympic Stadium. The club’s board told Cruyff he was earning far too much money. “But aren’t you earning as much as I am? You’ve never had so many spectators,” came the reply.
Feyenoord were only too willing to match the deal. “That was very interesting, of course, because they had a stadium for 47,000 people,” recalled Cruyff of his move to Rotterdam. There he delivered one of the biggest ‘up yours’ in football history — winning a league and cup double with Ajax’s bitterest rivals in his final season as a player.
If Cruyff had returned to winning ways, back in Valencia, Levante were slipping back into old habits too — racking up debts off the field while struggling for points on it.
The same afternoon that Cruyff and Jesper Olsen were playfully tapping home a two-man penalty routine in Amsterdam en route to another title, Levante were toiling to a 2-2 draw at UD Vall de Uxó in Spain’s fourth tier. Unpaid debts had finally exhausted the patience of the authorities and Levante suffered an administrative double relegation.
As for Aznar, he had resigned just days after fleeing through the tennis courts, leaving behind a financial mess. Players and staff barricaded themselves in the stadium for nine days and nights demanding the payment of outstanding wages. What remained of the board sought to avoid them, holding meetings at the now infamous tennis club.
Despite everything, a photograph of Cruyff in Levante colours hangs proudly in the boardroom at the club’s Ciutat de Valencia stadium. Francisco Aznar primarily remembered, through that sepia lens of time, as the man who once brought Johan Cruyff to Levante.