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When Johan Cruyff played Philadelphia - and when he didn't

The soccer world lost one of the greatest players in the sport's history Thursday morning when Dutch legend Johan Cruyff succumbed to cancer at 68.

The soccer world lost one of the greatest players in the sport's history Thursday when Dutch legend Johan Cruyff succumbed to cancer at 68.

Cruyff was best known in Europe for his many accomplishments with Ajax, Barcelona and the Netherlands' national team. But in America, he was most renowned - at least for a time - for spending two years in the North American Soccer League. He played for the Los Angeles Aztecs in 1979, and the Washington Diplomats in 1980.

When news of Cruyff's passing broke, I decided to take a look through the Inquirer and Daily News archives to see how he played against Philadelphia's team at the time, the Fury. Although the Aztecs and Fury did not play each other in 1979, the Diplomats and Fury faced off twice in 1980: once each at RFK Stadium and Veterans Stadium.

The first meeting was in D.C. on April 13. Cruyff played all 90 minutes as the Diplomats won, 3-1. There were no day-of-game previews in either the Inquirer or the Daily News, but there were staff-written recaps in both papers.

Reporting from Washington, the Inquirer's Danny Robbins wrote:

In the Daily News, Mike Kaine offered a bit of foreshadowing:


Later in the season, the Diplomats traveled to Philadelphia to play the Fury at Veterans Stadium. Cruyff didn't play in the game.

It was no secret by then that Cruyff was averse to playing on artificial turf. It was even less of a secret that the Vet's carpet was the stuff of legend, and not in a good way.

But as it turned out, turf wasn't the reason why Cruyff wasn't in the box score. He pulled a muscle in his right thigh in Washington's previous game, against the New York Cosmos.

The Inquirer's headline was "Fury won't have to battle Cruyff." Robbins wrote:

Yes, you read that attendance figure right. The Fury drew tiny crowds to the Sports Complex in what turned out to be their final season of existence. The attendance for their home opener was just 9,574, and the average crowd for the year was 4,778. Later in the year, the Molson brewery bought the team and moved it to Montreal, where it was renamed the Manic and became quite popular.

The Daily News' game preview was written by the late, legendary Phil Jasner. You may know of him more for his many years covering the 76ers, but Phil was quite a soccer expert too. He passed his love of the world's game on to his son Andy, who writes features for the Union's website and other outlets.

Phil's story focused more on the fact that both teams came in with 3-7 records than the fact that Cruyff wouldn't play:

This time, the Diplomats were 2-1 winners with a goal in the third minute of sudden-death overtime. Robbins wrote:


Phil Jasner finished off his recap with this zinger:

There's one more notable twist to this story's plot. Cruyff moved from Los Angeles to Washington in part because the Aztecs' ownership wanted to offload his salary. As the Philly Soccer Page's Steve Holroyd wrote last year, Fury coach Eddie Firmani - who had previously risen to great fame while in charge of Pelé's New York Cosmos - wanted to sign Cruyff, but the Fury's ownership wasn't willing to write the check:

Firmani had even higher aspirations, but ran up against an ownership group not eager to spend cash. He was bitterly disappointed when the Fury did not lift a finger after 1979 NASL MVP Johan Cruyff became available when new owners in Los Angeles did not want to deal with his salary. "Yes, I wanted Cruyff very much," Firmani told Fury beat writer Tim Panaccio*, "[but] I realize the resources are not the same here [as with the Cosmos]."

* - That's the Inquirer's Tim Panaccio, who went on to be the paper's Flyers beat writer for many years.

On the whole, these are just a few fleeting anecdotes in the great life of one of the most extraordinary soccer players the world has ever known. But for those in Philadelphia who don't know all the history - including yours truly - today is a day to commemorate such moments.