From Leicester to Levante: How Johan Cruyff chose the Spanish second division over England's top tier

After leaving the United States and before returning to Ajax, Cruyff spent a brief period back in Spain with second division side Levante

Johan Cruyff, Holland, Levante,

Image: Peter Robinson / EMPICS Sport

In 1981, Johan Cruyff's American adventure had come to an end, along with many of the teams in the league itself, before it finally folded in 1984.

The North American Soccer League had been home to a number of superstars, Cruyff among them, as he played with the Los Angeles Aztecs and the Washington Diplomats before opting to return to Europe. 

The dream of glitzy, glamorous soccer taking over the sports landscape in the United States had not come to pass, and the Diplomats found themselves in severe financial troubles. 

Cruyff, looking for a place to ply his trade away from the artificial surfaces that were popular in the United States, and perhaps even a return to international football in time for the 1982 World Cup, had his sights set on Europe, provided the wages were right. Of course, he would have loved to return to Barcelona or somewhere else in Spain, and said as much after playing in a charity game there towards the end of the year in 1980.

At that point, as Emilio Nadal, Chief Press Officer of Levante outlines, the club that eventually secured his signature had spent the last few years struggling with financial problems. 

"It was a tumultuous situation, because Levante were going through a pretty chaotic economic crisis at the end of the 1970s and start of the '80s, and the team was in the Second Division. They had put together a squad, a very competitive squad, but one that didn't have any standout players. However, all of them were geared towards working together, and were well-drilled with a manager that had the full backing of the players; Pachín [Enrique Pérez Díaz], a former Real Madrid player". 

The suggestion that Cruyff needed some liquid assets and his fondness for the Spanish game meant that the chance to sign him went from being a rumour to a very real possibility for clubs who would be able to stump up the cash.

Because of their financial problems, as well as the club's position in the second tier, the negotiations became increasingly complicated. 

"On the one hand it seemed that a player like Cruyff would never end up at Levante, and on the other hand it seemed they would not be able [to get him] because it was such a prolonged process", adds Nadal. "It was first announced in January, but by the end of February there was still no confirmation. When the two sides hit that impasse, a lot of contradictory reports began to surface".

A (Cruyff) turn in the road

One of those reports was that the legendary Dutchman was headed to Leicester City, which is where Jeff Livingstone, editor of In Bed With Maradona picks up the tale. 

"It was pretty much a perfect storm. Leicester had a very young side, and they were struggling in the English First Division at the time. [Manager] Jock Wallace had been used to so much success with Rangers that this was something that was alien to him [...] and there was a pretty widespread belief that they needed some sort of totemic figure on the pitch, a leader of sorts". 

There were few players that could fill that role more ably than Cruyff, who would not only "allow them to pack Filbert street every week without exception", but would also change the way the team played.

"It wasn't just so much what he could actually do on the ball, it was his influence in terms of tactics and what he could deliver on the pitch," adds Livingstone. "The manager, in some respects, could almost take a back seat and let Cruyff dictate terms. For a lot of clubs that would have been fairly terrifying, but for Jock and Leicester [...] if he was able to keep the club up, it was a win-win all round". 

One of the young players in Wallace's ranks was a certain Gary Lineker. Image: Phil O'Brien / EMPICS Sport

The deal that Leicester were putting together to lure the former Ballon d'Or winner was certainly impressive, and would have seen Cruyff earning something in the region of £4,000 a week.

To put that in context, Livingstone points out that "some of the best paid players at Liverpool by the tail end of the 1980s were still only picking up around £2,000 per week [...] it would have been very much world record territory at that stage".

The remuneration package was not the only consideration however; Cruyff still felt he had plenty to offer at the top tier in Europe (something he went on to prove with Ajax and later Feyenoord) and Leicester would have put him back in the spotlight.

"In 1981, the biggest clubs in Europe would not have been sending scouts across to watch top flight soccer in the U.S. because it would have been considered very much a retirement home. 

"The opportunity to see a player of Cruyff's ability play in one of Europe's top divisions would have given English teams like Manchester United, Nottingham Forest and Arsenal who were keen on signing him, as well those further afield such as Barcelona, Ajax and some of the teams in Germany, a chance to have a look at him in more close quarters". 

By all accounts, the negotiations were more than just idle chit chat, as "The Sun went relatively big on this at the time, they did actually cover the story and say that this is going to happen [...] so it was a lot more than a little bit of a side rumour. They were very much convinced that this was going to happen, as were Leicester City". 

Image via The Fox Fanzine

It never came to pass in the end, as he headed to Levante, leaving many to ask how such a global superstar could have changed football in England.

"What we can look at is Cruyff's influence, and in terms of modern day football you would struggle to pick out anybody who's had as much influence over football over the last 40 years. Even now, in the Barcelona teams that we've seen be so dominant over the last ten years, you can trace a direct line back to Cruyff's influence within the club.

 

"The thought that maybe you could have had Cruyff setting things up for a very young Alan Smith and Gary Lineker as well, it's fascinating to imagine what that would have done [...] I've got no doubt that he would have made a huge impact on English football".

Homage to Catalonia

In the end, the climate had just as big a role to play in his decision as the money did, but there were also other advantages to arriving at a team that had a lower profile than the giants of Europe he'd been at before. 

"He liked the idea of returning to Spain, because he knew Spain," says Nadal. "It was a country in which he felt at home; he liked the climate, he knew he would be able to play and, clearly, he knew he was joining a team in the Segunda and that he would possibly get some sort of favourable treatment because he was Johan Cruyff [...] He also stated in some interviews that it would allow him to be close to Barcelona".

Image: Peter Robinson / EMPICS Sport

Although Levante did have a long history, having been founded in 1909, they had spent the majority of their time in the third and fourth tiers of the game in Spain, the Segunda División B and the Tercera, and were a long shot to bring in one of the game's biggest stars.

Nadal recounts how "Helenio Herrera Gavilán, who was the manager of Barcelona at the time, said in a press conference that he couldn't believe that Cruyff would ever sign for Levante, and it got to the stage where he said publicly 'I'll eat my hat if he signs for them' - when he did sign, he had to say that it was only a joke". 

Cruyff's move shocked the sporting world to some extent, and Levante had gambled a lot on his arrival helping them to secure promotion to the first division. Before he signed, they had been pushing for promotion and had even been top of the table, but the Dutchman failed to have the desired effect. 

"They started to lose games, and in a sporting sense, were unable to achieve the objectives that they had set out. He had a huge impact at the start, but it fizzled out as the team started to slip down the table and eventually finished tenth. There was a period of turbulence in which Pachín left and was a replaced by Joaquim Rifé, who Cruyff had known from his days at Barcelona, and people assumed he'd had a hand in that". 

The Cruyff effect

The tall tales of Levante's directors looking for payments from opposition teams to field Cruyff were one of the controversies that marred his time at the club, as well as claims that he had been allowed to break club rules on wearing the official training gear and travelling with the team, but the financial impact was the one that had the most lasting effect.

The suggestion that, as Livingstone states, "Levante offered an awful lot more financially than they were able to deliver", seems to have been on the money, as Nadal outlines:

"A few years after they signed Cruyff, the club dropped from the Segunda to Segunda B, and because of unpaid wages, they were then sent down to Tercera; dropping down two divisions in one year. As a result, it's always been said that Cruyff bankrupted Levante. 

"The sensation that I have is that they mislead him here, and they didn't pay him anywhere near the sum they had agreed to. When he left, they couldn't liquidate all the assets they needed to in order to pay him so they gave him some of the grounds behind the stadium [...] Later on, he left them that property, for which Levante received a considerable sum when they began to develop the grounds around the stadium. All in all, I think his behaviour towards the club was always respectful". 

Neither was it all bad when it came to his time in the city of Valencia, as he brought a huge amount of outside interest to a country that was still opening up to the wider world after nearly 40 years under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

Journalists from France, England and Holland arrived to fill up the modest press box of the second division club, all thanks to the mere presence of Cruyff. 

"It's clear that Levante didn't achieve their sporting goals with Cruyff here," concludes Nadal "but he never stopped being an emblematic figure of world football that played for our club. I think the fact that he was here, even if it was just for a few months, is something to be proud of".