When contemplating Dutch football, the name Johan Cruyff will never be too many stones’ throws away from the train of thought. Arguably, Cruyff is the most well-known and widely adored cultivator of the beautiful game’s Holy Grail, Total Football. He was the quintessential Dutch thinker and footballer.
To many, the three-time Ballon d’Or winner was a two-club man throughout his playing and coaching career. To picture the Dutchman during his playing days it is a difficult task to envisage Cruyff in anything other than the red and white of Ajax or the red and blue of Barcelona, and, of course, Oranje.
However, Cruyff played in the colours of six different clubs during his career. Of course, his illustrious journey began with Ajax and developed with Barcelona, but the attacker would go on to represent the Los Angeles Aztecs, the Washington Diplomats, Levante, Ajax again and then lastly, he would finish his playing days behind enemy lines.
Four of the top five major football nations have that first match to look out for when the fixtures are released at the beginning of the season – The Classic. Perhaps the most famous is El Clásico of Spain – the battle between Real Madrid and Barcelona twice in a La Liga season. In Germany, there is Der Klassiker between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, then in France, it is Le Classique between Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique de Marseille. Italy, too, has its own iteration with Derby d’Italia between Juventus and Inter.
In this regard, the Netherlands is no different and its classic match is the fiercest that the birthplace of totaalvoetbal has to offer. De Klassieker – a clash between Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax and Feyenoord Rotterdam.
While football in the Eredivisie beyond Ajax may have fallen away from the international gaze somewhat since the great sides of PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord in decades gone by, that does not go to say that the veracity and deep-seated hatred of De Klassieker has ever been cooled.
So, herein lies the story: the season – his final season as a player – in which one of the greatest football players and football thinkers to have ever lived traded being a renowned Amsterdammer, crossed no man’s land and became a Rotterdammer.
To fully understand the magnitude of Cruyff switching the red and white of Ajax for the red, white and black of Feyenoord, two things must be understood; the first of which is that deep-seated hatred between the two.
The rivalry between Ajax and Feyenoord extends beyond football and to as far back as the 14th century when the two cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam earned an official city status. Since then, the Netherlands’ two largest cities – in terms of population – have been in opposition. For an English comparison, the two cities share a rivalry like that of Manchester and Liverpool.
For all of the decadents and appeal to the partygoers of Europe that Amsterdam has, Rotterdam is traditionally more working-class and laboured. If the pair were to be metaphorical siblings, Rotterdam would be the hard worker, putting food on the table and keeping a roof over everyone’s head, whereas Amsterdam would spend what spare cash there is on partying and indulgence.
This has led some to claim that Dutch money is made in Rotterdam, kept in Den Haag and spent in Amsterdam. However, since the Second World War, when Rotterdam was laid to waste by German bombs, the Netherlands’ second city has reinvented itself as a little more free-living.
The cities’ rivalry off the pitch has, without a doubt, been the key factor in what has led to the rivalry on the pitch. The ever-present attitude of ‘if Amsterdam has it then Rotterdam doesn’t want it’ has led to a 99-year long rivalry since the first-ever De Klassieker – a 2-2 draw in Rotterdam.
Even this first meeting between the two was doused in drama and controversy, as the score was 3-2 to Ajax at the full-time whistle. However, after Feyenoord protested what they believed to have been a dubious goal the result was retrospectively changed to share the spoils.
The second thing to understand the full gravity of Cruyff’s switch of Amsterdam for Rotterdam is how engrained Ajax and the city of Amsterdam had been in the Dutchman’s life. Of his own admission in his autobiography, My Turn, Cruyff’s life with de Godenzonen (the sons of the Gods) had begun at the age of five.
In reality, though, Ajax and Cruyff had never been far apart – at first geographically and later in thought. The eventual Feyenoord player was born in Betondorp, just a stone’s throw away from Ajax’s old De Meer Stadion, his father, too, had been a lifelong supporter of the side that his son would one day represent.
However, in his own mind, Cruyff’s journey with Ajax began in 1952 when he agreed to help the club’s groundsman Henk Angle where possible after delivering fruit to sick and injured players with his father. His first time on the pitch at De Meer Stadion with a crowd in the stands would come three years later when he aerated a goal area with a pitchfork during a half-time break.
By 1957 and at the age of ten, Cruyff was an Ajax player as he joined the academy system. Then, at the age of 12 when his father passed away, Ajax ensured that his mother had work by hiring her as a cleaner for the club and the first-team manager at the time, Vic Buckingham.
Cruyff would then begin his journey to masterminding the Total Football that is known and loved today following his first-team debut at age 17 in 1964. The rest, as they say, is history. So, with the two as deeply intertwined with one another as is evident, it seems unfathomable that the Dutchman would leave Ajax for their biggest rival in 1983. Yet, it still happened.
In the summer of ’83, Cruyff was 36 and had spent 11 seasons as a first-team player for Ajax over two spells sandwiching time with Barcelona, the Los Angeles Aztecs, the Washington Diplomats and Levante.
Despite the Amsterdam club having been KNVB Cup winners and Eredivisie champions – having finished four points ahead of Feyenoord who ended the 1982-83 season in second – Cruyff was deemed a superfluous commodity. The man who had plied his trade with his boyhood club for much of his career was informed that he was to be cut loose by the Amsterdam side.
Possibly the greatest football thinker of all time’s playing services were no longer required by Ajax and for Cruyff, the Netherlands’ capital was now all but Gezellig – a Dutch word that does not have an accurate direct translation to English but is an all-encompassing word for the feeling of happiness and warmth in social situations, the feeling of home perhaps.
So, in the ultimate act of defiance after being deemed past his sell-by date by the club so close to his heart, Cruyff crossed Dutch football’s greatest divide and switched Amsterdam for Rotterdam by signing for Thijs Libregts’ Feyenoord. The clear and obvious task for the Dutchman being to dethrone the club which he had helped to put there.
De club van het volk (The club of the people) began the season like a runaway freight train by going unbeaten in their opening six league games. FC Volendam, Helmond Sport, Fortuna Sittard, Haarlem and FC Groningen were all defeated, while FC Den Bosch had forced a draw.
With Feyenoord sitting second in the Eredivisie after the opening six games, Cruyff’s first great challenge with his new club had arrived in the form of De Klassieker. At the Olympisch Stadion in Amsterdam, Feyenoord were annihilated by Ajax, 8-2.
The Rotterdam club had slipped to third in the table, however, fuelled by their hammering from their greatest rival, Feyenoord would go on a 15-league game unbeaten streak to reclaim top spot in the Eredivisie.
As well as their efforts in the league, Cruyff and Feyenoord were also working on the task of bringing the KNVB Cup to Rotterdam from Amsterdam. As the season reached February, Feyenoord and Ajax would have three crunch meetings which would ultimately have huge ramifications for the rest of the season.
On the first day of the month, the Rotterdammers would return to the scene of their demolition in Amsterdam for a Round of 16 cup tie. A 2-2 draw would ensure a replay two weeks later at Stadion Feijenoord, more lovingly known as De Kuip.
In what was already the third De Klassieker of the season, Feyenoord finally managed to get one over on their age-old rival. Needing the help of extra time to do so, Cruyff’s Feyenoord side defeated Ajax 2-1 and knocked the holders out of the competition.
Eleven days later and the Amsterdammers would again be in town, this time for an Eredivisie tie to close the points gap between Ajax and Feyenoord, who were still topping the table. However, a goal from Cruyff and a young Ruud Gullit in a 4-1 victory for Libregts and his side would prove pivotal.
Having lost only to Ajax and FC Groningen, both away from home, over the 1983/84 season, six victories in the final seven games of the season would seal Feyenoord’s first Eredivisie title for a decade from the clutches of Ajax, a feat which the Rotterdam club would not achieve again for another nine years.
The man who was deemed too old and past it for a contract renewal by Ajax had played all but one of Feyenoord’s games in the Eredivisie by the season’s end.
Having already secured the title with league games left to play, though, Feyenoord and Cruyff were not finished with their domination of domestic Dutch football. After knocking Ajax out of the KNVB Cup, NEC Nijmegen and Haarlem were eliminated en route to the final.
Standing in their way of a domestic double was Fortuna Sittard, a side which Feyenoord had already defeated 5-2 and 4-0 in the league season. On the day, though, a solitary goal from Peter Houtman was enough to fully claim Feyenoord’s dominance over their fierce rival who ultimately finished third in the Eredivisie.
The one-time prince of Amsterdam had become the king of Rotterdam and shown Ajax’s hierarchy that nobody writes off the great Johan Cruyff in emphatic style. So, with that, he retired from playing football to take his place in the pantheon of totaalvoetbal-preaching coaches.
On a recent tour of Feyenoord’s stunning De Kuip Stadion, a wizened tour guide recalled the details of Cruyff’s contract with Feyenoord over the 1983/84 season. He explained that the legendary Dutchman knew that he would have to win the people of Rotterdam over, which would be no easy task due to the long-lasting animosity of De Klassieker.
So, his contract with Feyenoord was not the norm of being paid weekly or monthly for his services, he was to be paid on an attendance-based system meaning that the greater the crowd satisfaction, the more Cruyff would earn.
This tour guide recounted that in Cruyff’s first game at De Kuip the stadium was far from full and those that were in attendance still aired their hatred for the former Ajax man. Yet, as the weeks and games rolled by, attendances grew and Cruyff earned the adoration of those that had once hated him.
While little official confirmation of this can be found, the elderly Dutch gentleman did explain that the fact of this was a little-known one. But, it is poignant to believe that in a world which can be consumed by greed and instant gratification, one of the beautiful game’s greatest ever players found his reward in earning the love of supporters where there had once been hate.