50 years on: How Johan Cruyff came to FC Barcelona

50 years on: How Johan Cruyff came to FC Barcelona

It wasn't easy. It didn't happen overnight. The story of how the legendary Dutchman came to Catalonia culminated on 13 August 1973. But it began a long time before...

FC Barcelona had been interested in Johan Cruyff from the late 1960s. Vic Buckingham, the English coach at Camp Nou at the time, and the very man who had handed Cruyff his debut at Ajax when he was only 17, recommended him as a potential signing. However, in that era Spanish football had a ban on foreign imports. All the same, president Agustí Montal and his board approached the Dutch superstar, who was clearly very interested in somehow making the move to the Catalan capital.

Soon after, plans were afoot for the restrictions on foreign footballers in Spanish football to be eased, although there was widespread concern that this might lead to a sudden surge in transfer fees. Barça tried to close a deal by introducing a clause that specified that everything would depend on the decision of the National Sports Delegation. In early 1970, the club signed a private agreement with Ajax and Cruyff, which was due to expire on June 30 of that same year. However, although the assembly of Spanish clubs was expected to vote unanimously in favour of the opening of borders for foreign footballers, something happened that caused them to change their minds. On March 9, they surprised everyone by voting to continue the ban on foreign imports.  


The situation was resolved, to a large extent, thanks to the ambiguities of the law that, since the late sixties, had allowed the signing of South American players by Liga clubs. As long as they were children of Spanish parents and had not won international caps for their countries, they were deemed 'natives' and could be signed. As many as 60 such players arrived, many of them with false documentation. Of course, while anything that happened at Barça was scrutinised in the extreme, other clubs were allowed to get away with all kinds of shady deals. So aggrieved was Agustí Montal that he commissioned a study by lawyer Miquel Roca i Junyent which concluded that, of the sixty 'natives', 46 were dubious because they had arrived with falsified birth certificates or had been registered by the most untoward of procedures.

The Barça president threatened to make this report public, and although it took a long period of pressure to get there, the administration ended up conceding. In May 1973, at the behest of General Franco's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Spanish football federation authorised the hire of foreign footballers from the 1973/74 season. Cruyff, at last, was free to come. But now the club had to go back to the negotiation table. By this stage, Cruyff had become a huge name and major clubs all around Europe had been making inquiries of their own. After all, in the three seasons that had passed since the original agreement was made, Cruyff had led Ajax to the European Cup three times, and it was only natural for the likes of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Juventus to be interested in securing his services.

Neither Amsterdam nor La Coruña

Agustí Montal and Armand Carabén, the CEO of FC Barcelona, who was married to a Dutch woman called Marjorie Van de Meer, travelled to Amsterdam to try to sign Cruyff for the second time. But Ajax president Jaap Van Praag made it clear that he wasn't interested in selling. Barça, who had already signed the Peruvian Hugo Sotil, were so convinced that they weren't going to get their man that they set their sights instead on Bayern striker Gerd Müller. But the German federation refused to allow its players to leave before the 1974 World Cup. Meanwhile, Cruyff was rebelling and was bravely pressurising Ajax to let him go where he had chosen.

Cruyff was so insistent that Van Praag realised he'd have no option but to sell. He agreed to meet Carabén in La Coruña, where Ajax were playing in the Teresa Herrera trophy. It seemed that the deal would happen quickly, but nothing could be further from the truth. The meeting, which was held at the Hotel Atlántico in the Galician city, lasted little more than a quarter of an hour. The Ajax president demanded three million dollars, an exorbitant amount for that time. Carabén refused and that was the end of that.

Johan, rebel

A few days before this meeting, on 28 July 1973, Cruyff and Barça had reached a private agreement in the player's lawyer's office that would only be valid if there was a transfer agreement with Ajax before August 10. This pushed the Dutch striker to make a new move in his bid to wear the blaugrana jersey. "Either I go to Barça or I hang up my boots", he said in a statement. "If Ajax won't to sell me, I'll go to court." He promptly phoned Carabén, who cut short his holiday on the Catalan coast to travel to Amsterdam.

Ajax and Barça were doomed to understand each other more than ever, but Van Praag didn't want to miss the chance to make an exorbitant financial profit and, in a new meeting with the FC Barcelona CEO, asked for two million dollars, still far more than what Carabén was willing to pay. Then Cruyff added fuel to the fire by hinting to the press that he wouldn't play against Groningen on the opening day of the Dutch championship. Finally, he did, and he also scored two goals and gave an assist. But his divorce from Ajax was already as good as done and dusted.

13 August 1973

The day after the match in Groningen, 13 August 1973, Ajax and Barça met at 12.30pm in the Alpha Hotel. But at 11am the same day, Van Praag met Cruyff at the Esso Hotel, located very close to the Alpha, and offered him a substantially improved contract, as well as the captain's armband. But the player was adamant that he wanted to go to Barcelona, and not just for financial reasons. That's also why he said no when four Dutch businessmen immediately reacted by offering him the same amount he would be getting at Barça. Ajax were checkmated.

At 12.40pm, the meeting began in room 1043 of the Alpha. On one side of the table,Barça CEO Armand Carabén and coach Marinus Michels. On the other side, Ajax president Van Praag and two economists, De Boer and De Witt. Waiting impatiently in the hotel bar were Johan Cruyff, his lawyer, Joncker, his father-in-law and agent, Cor Coster, and Carabén's wife, Marjorie Van der Meer. The meeting lasted more than three hours and Carabén left twice to call President Montal in. Finally, at 3.55pm the Barça CEO, visibly exhausted, announced what he had been waiting to announce for so long: "It's done!"

Debut on 28 October 1973

Johan Cruyff's official debut in a Barça shirt would still have to wait for two and a half months, once his signing period had closed, on August 13. The matter had ignited heated debate in the Netherlands because the Dutch Federation, with Japp Van Praag behind it, refused to authorise the transfer of the footballer, claiming that it had to be processed between July 1 and 31. The Ajax president went on and on creating one inconvenience after another. It once seemed that there would be no clearance until December, but the situation eventually got sorted somewhat earlier. In any case, although he couldn't play in official matches, Cruyff did appear in four friendlies against Bruges, Kickers Offenbach, Arsenal and Ourense, and those games were so well attended that they had already begun to pay for his signing. Finally, the Dutchman made his official Barça debut on 28 October 1973, against Granada. And that was the date when Barça history was truly changed forever.

September's BARÇA MAGAZINE will include full details of the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Johan Cruyff.

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