August 20, 1979 12:00 PM

Johan Cruyff was 12 when his father died and his mother took a job at the stadium in Amsterdam where Johan played soccer. “Johan knew his mother had to clean locker rooms,” his wife, Danny, recalls, “and you know how dirty they can get. When he signed his first pro contract at 16, he made her promise to stop working.”

Mrs. Cruyff hasn’t cleaned a locker room since. Her 5’9″, 150-pound son went on to become, in the opinion of many, the best soccer player in the world. Now, at 32, Cruyff has come out of brief retirement to play with the Los Angeles Aztecs of the North American Soccer League. Within hours of joining the Aztecs last May he had suited up, and in the first seven minutes against Rochester knocked in two goals. He scored three more times in his next six games. Among those impressed by the performance was Washington Diplomats defender Robert larusci, who told a reporter, “Pelé was magic at 35. But Cruyff is something else. He’s beyond belief.”

Johan, son of a grocer, started playing soccer when he was 4. After turning pro (16 is not unusually young for Europe) he played for nine years with a Dutch team, Ajax, then was signed by Barcelona, Spain for $2.5 million. In 14 years of competition Cruyff led those two teams to six league championships and three European titles. In 1974 he took the Dutch national team to the finals of the World Cup, where it lost to West Germany. He also won three European Player of the Year awards—a feat unsurpassed by any player before or since. But fatigue and pressure (which were responsible for his pack-a-day cigarette habit, he says) led him to retire last November.

Johan signed with the Aztecs for a reported $1.4 million over two years after turning down, so it was said, a $5 million offer from the New York Cosmos. “I wanted to try to build up soccer where it wasn’t popular,” he explains. “Besides, the weather is warmer in L.A.” Because the Cosmos owned the rights to Cruyff, they demanded $600,000 to let the Aztecs sign him. Johan admits he has lost money on investments in Europe, but says it was love of the game that brought him back. He also plans to start a string of soccer camps in the U.S.

Whatever induced him, his impact on the sport in this country has been significant. The Aztecs’ attendance has increased 24 percent since Cruyff joined, and his teammates’ both like and respect him. “No one can read a game better or make the right move in the right situation,” says Aztec coach Rinus Michels, who also coached Johan in Europe.

Johan, Danny, 30, their daughters Chantal, 8, and Susila, 7, and son Jordi, 5, live in a $2,000-a-month rented home in a wealthy suburb near Pasadena, where the Aztecs play home games. But even millionaires know the value of a guilder. When Danny bought some expensive Chinese linen wallpaper for the front hall, she says, “Johan got mad. It’s difficult to decorate the house without spending too much.”

On the whole, the Cruyffs have adapted to the U.S. smoothly, even developing a taste for hot dogs. “People stand in lines quietly here,” Johan says admiringly. “They say, ‘Have a good day.’ ” In Spain, the Cruyffs bought two Dobermans for security because they were concerned about kidnap threats and political violence.

Once, after Johan was ejected from a game for arguing with a referee, all eight Spanish political parties issued protest statements. “It’s not as crazy here as it was in Spain,” he says. “At least here you can go out to the supermarket or to the beach with your wife and kids.”

That could change. The league playoffs begin August 14, and the Aztecs may challenge the ’78 national winners, the Cosmos, thanks largely to the man his coach calls “our nuclear weapon.” In any case, Danny Cruyff is certain she can handle fame in America. Asked what it’s like to be married to a celebrity, she laughs and says, “I don’t know, I’ve never been married to anyone else.”

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