The other Johan: The Neeskens story – part three

Johan Neeskens

This is the third and final part of our series on Johan Neeskens, the Dutch football legend but the lesser-known of the Johans at the time – you can read part one here, part two here.

A friendship eroded

On the pitch, just like in their Ajax and Netherlands days, both Neeskens and Cruyff were like brothers and it showed in the telepathic way the played together as they knew where the other was at all times. Even off the pitch the two could not be separated as they lived on the same street, about 100m apart, and went round each other’s for dinner with their families.

With silverware eluding the Catalan side, it was the two Dutch superstars who were tasked with taking the side back to the very top that the club experienced in the 1973/74 season. However, the two’s relationship off the pitch started to erode with rumours of Cruyff’s payment demands upon Neeskens’ arrival in ’74 being seen as one of the contributing points. It is said that the striker insisted that his Dutch compatriot better not be paid more than him once signed, with this news getting back to an aggrieved and disappointed Neeskens.

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Others say it was the annoyance on the pitch with Cruyff’s lack of contribution due to continuous fouls on him, resulting in heated exchanges between the two that spilled over off the pitch. What is known, is that the relationship between the two began to dwindle near the end of their playing time together at Barça, which ended in 1978.

Furthermore, the bond between the two was seen to have been dealt a further blow when Neeskens was not considered by Cruyff to be his assistant coach when he returned to the Camp Nou as manager 10 years later.

The road to the 1978 World Cup

With the memory of finishing runners-up in the previous World Cup 4 years earlier, the desire to go one better resonated around the Dutch camp as they entered a tournament, that had now had politics infiltrate it. The Dutch had initially contemplated boycotting the tournament due to the fact that the host country, Argentina, had undergone a military coup a couple of years earlier and was now under the rule of Jorge Rafael Videla.

Many at the time felt the event being held under such requests by the new President was a way of using national propaganda to seek legitimacy on the world stage but, after assurances this was not the case, all of the teams decided to participate.

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Compared to the last World Cup, there were some major absences as the coach who took them to the final 4 years ago, Rinus Michels, left his role and their prolific talisman in the form of Cruyff had decided to briefly retire. The striker decided to hang up his boots after helping assure the side’s passage into the tournament.

his was to be the tip of the iceberg, as one more blow came when another star player in Wim van Hanagem announced his withdrawal from the squad on Dutch TV due to Holland’s Austrian manager Ernst Happel refusing to guarantee him a place in the team and a complex hierarchical conflict with teammate Arie Haan.

However, with stars such as Neeskens, Rensenbrink, Rep, Haan and the van de Kerkhof twins, the Netherlands were still seen as a side that could go on to win a tournament

The 1978 World Cup

Without Cruyff, the pressure was now on Rob Rensenbrink and Johnny Rep to fill the void of goals, but they were to be aided by Rene van der Kerkhof and Neeskens, who had been pushed into a more advanced role than fours year prior. Indeed, a few of the team had been pushed further forward to help the balance of the side, with Arie Haan and Wim Jansen now in midfield, despite being primarily defenders.

Happel’s men got off to a good start in the first match of their first-round group, as they defeated Iran 3-0 will all 3 goals coming from the under-pressure Rensenbrink. However, a 0-0 draw with Peru and a 3-2 loss to Scotland saw the Dutch finish second in their group, behind Peru, but still through to the Second round.

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In what was a much tougher group, consisting of reigning champions West Germany, Italy and Austria, Neeskens and his teammates went up a few gears as they battered Austria 5-1. A 2-2 draw followed against West Germany, in a rematch of the final from 4 years prior, before the Dutch sealed their place in the final by finishing in top spot with a 2-1 win over the Italians.

Awaiting the Oranje, was host nation Argentina in what was to be another classic World Cup encounter in front of a hostile atmosphere of more than 70,000 fans, in River Plate’s El Monumental stadium.  The match was thrown into controversy before the kick-off, without a ball being kicked, when the Dutch accused the Argentinians of delaying the match after the hosts came out onto the pitch five minutes late.

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In return, the Argentinians questioned René van de Kerkhof’s plaster cast as the winger had played in it previously without anybody questioning it, but was now instructed to re-bandage it. The Dutch retaliated by threatening to walk off the pitch, but once the tensions had been cooled, the game then commenced and it was the host nation that opened the scoring in the 38th minute with a goal from Marìo Kempes. An 82nd equaliser from Dirk Nanninga, from a lovely lopping cross by Neeskens, saw the game go into extra time, however, Kempes’ second and a third from Ricardo Bertoni saw the host nation go on to lift the trophy at the expense of the masterful Dutch.

Farewell Blaugrana

As the disappointment of another World Cup final seeped in, the now 28-year-old had the chance at another piece of European silverware, but this time in the European Cup Winner’s Cup. In the final, held at the St. Jakob Stadium in Basel, Barcelona faced German side Fortuna Düsseldorf in a tight encounter as the game finished 2-2 and went into extra time. As the final whistle blew after extra time, it was Barcelona that were up in celebration as they won 4-3 to win the 19th European Cup Winner’s Cup, in what was to be Neeskens final trophy with the club.

The departure of the world-class midfielder came as a result of two incidences, with one being the then President, Raìmon Carrasco, wishing to bring in a more prolific midfielder to help take some of the load off the club’s strikers. The addition of Austrian Hans Krankl from Rapid Wien in the 1978/79 season added some goals but it was still not enough if Barcelona were to return to the top of Spanish football.

With the election of José Luis Núñez as the club’s new President in July 1978, the search for a scoring midfielder continued with Borussia Monchengladbach’s Ballon D’Or-winning Danish midfielder Allan Simonsen touted to be the next in line. As the La Liga foreign player quota still limited teams with 2-4 slots in their quota, the decision as to who was going to make way had yet to be fully decided, with Neeskens seen as the most possible due to his more defensive nature.

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In what turned out to be a bizarre turn of events, the Dutch midfielder found himself in the firing line of the new President after failing to pass Núñez toilet paper in his time of need on the toilet. After a 2-0 win away to Hércules FC in October 1978, Núñez urgently needed the bathroom and when he asked Neeskens for some toilet paper in an urgent manner, the request fell on deaf ears. The relationship between the two was said to never be the same after this, with the President vowing to sell the Dutchman at the first opportune moment.

This moment came at the end of the 1978/79 season when Neeskens was sold to the New York Cosmos, in what was to be an emotional farewell for the Dutch star. At the end of his final match for Barcelona, Neeskens cried endlessly as he loved the club and knew the fans loved and adored him back. To this day, the relationship between the Dutchman and the Catalan fans is an emotional one, as he is still admired and adored by them as they have never had a player like him play for the club since his departure,

A Copa Del Rey in 1978 and a European Cup Winner’s Cup in the 1978/79 season were to be the only two trophies Neeskens won during his time in Catalonia, nothing compared to the vast silverware accrued during his Ajax days.

Living in America and Oranje swansong

Life in the game, after his Barcelona departure, was never the same for Neeskens as he never reached the heights he did in Europe, and the same can be said for his Dutch compatriot Cruyff, who was applying his trade for the Aztecs in the USA.

The reasons behind the lack of success Stateside for Neeskens has been attributed to many factors as his rock star looks began to fall into a rock star way of life with addictions to alcohol, cocaine and gambling plaguing his life for a significant period.

However, the importance of Neeskens to his country could not be denied as coach Kees Rijvers travelled to the USA in order to convince the midfielder to help the side save their 1982 World Cup qualifying campaign, which was on the rocks. Rijvers method to motivate the fallen star was to promise him a start against Belgium, should he get his stamina back to near-peak fitness and this he achieved.

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So, in late 1981, news spread of the returning icon to where tickets sold out as fans travelled from thousands of miles to get one more look at the man they adored. After the Dutch team burst out of the tunnel onto the pitch at Feyenoord’s legendary De Kuip stadium, to a wall of cheers, an eerie silence fell over the crowd.

With feelings of anger and betrayal starting to brew amongst the supporters at the thought of Neeskens letting them and the team down, all was soon forgotten as a few minutes later the enforcer himself sprinted onto the pitch.

Such was the reaction to his return that it is said the concrete in the stadium began to shake as thousands inside screamed out “Johan! Johan!”, but this was not for Cruyff yet instead for an adored midfield genius in Johan Neeskens. His return inspired the team to a 3-0 win over Belgium, but a 2-0 loss to France saw their hopes of World Cup qualification end in what was to be the midfielder’s last game for the Oranje.

Now retired from the international stage, the midfielder’s time in the USA was also coming to a close as he was released in October 1984 by the New York Cosmos, where he managed to score seventeen goals in his ninety-four appearances during the 5 years he spent at the club.


A brief spell at Dutch side FC Groningen for the 1984/85 season was followed by a return across the pond to play for South Florida Sun and Kansas City Comets where a lack of success followed. Two spells in Switzerland with FC Baar and FC Zug from 1988- 91 were the finals clubs that saw the great Dutchman lace up his boots before he retired from playing in 1991.

Now out of the game, Neeskens used the time to overcome his demons and remained in the game in a coaching sense with brief spells managing FC Zug, Stäfa of Macedonia and Singen, in Germany. An invitation by Guus Hiddink to join the Netherlands coaching staff alongside himself and Frank Rijkaard, for the 1998 World Cup, saw him return into the public eye. With Hiddink’s departure from the role after the finals, the Dutchman remained but this time as Rijkaard’s number two until the end of Euro 2000, which the Netherlands was co-hosting.

A semi-final finish for the Dutch was seen as a successful end to both Rijkaard and Neeskens’ time with the national side before he ventured out to coach Dutch side NEC Nijmegen. The Dutchman led the side to a 5th-place finish, qualifying them for the UEFA Cup in what was to be their first European competition appearance in twenty years.

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In December 2005, Neeskens was appointed assistant coach of the Australia national side, again, at the request of Guus Hiddink who was appointed the coach of the Socceroos at the time.

During his time here he helped over the side’s participation in the 2006 World Cup and remained after the campaign, despite being hired to return to Barcelona as part of Rijkaard’s technical staff. Such was the commitment had towards the Australian side, that he was present on the national team’s bench during a friendly match against Paraguay while visiting Australia for a short break.

After two disappointing seasons back in Catalonia, Neeskens and Rijkaard were let go by then-President, Joan Laporta, at the end of the season in 2008, but the two continued their coaching career together at Galatasaray in 2009.

Since then, the Dutchman coached South Africa-based club, Mamelodi Sundowns FC in 2011 but this venture was far from successful as he found himself being attacked by his own supporters following poor results. In 2012, Neeskens left his role and has enjoyed life outside of the game, where he is still revered to this day.


The legacy of Johan Neeskens is one that sits atop the Pantheon of footballing history as he is man who innovated the box-to-box midfielder we see in abundance today and at both Ajax and Barcelona, his name is one that is spoken with admiration and adoration.

On the site of Ajax’s old stadium, the De Meer Stadion, a sign named ‘Johan Neeskenbrug’ (Johan Neeskens Bridge), after the iconic midfielder,  was put into place in an initiative put by the club to commemorate and celebrate only their greatest legends of the past.

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As mentioned earlier, Neeskens still holds the record the quickest goal in a World Cup final and was part of an Ajax side that completed the trilogy of European Cups, back-to-back-to-back. In March 2004, the late, great Pelé named Neeskens as one of his one hundred (FIFA 100) greatest living footballers of all time and placed 72nd in World Soccer Magazine’s top one hundred players of the 20th century and fifteenth in their list of great midfielders.

In Catalonia, more so than in Amsterdam, Neeskens’ legacy is one that is held in high regard amongst fans with the relationship between legend and fans one of pure respect, adoration and love. The Dutchman’s intensity and desire made him a fan favourite and a player that embodied what the game was all about, with each fan seeing themselves in him. Barcelona journalist and lifelong fan Frederic Porta sums this up perfectly:


Despite being nicknamed Johan Segon during his time at Barcelona, it is safe to say that his impact on world football and legacy in the game is truly second to none and is one that should be remembered as the foundations for the role of midfielder we see today.

(I would like to thank Ajax historian Menno Pot and Barcelona journalist, and lifelong fan, Frederic Porta for allowing me to interview them and for the information they have provided for this piece could be done.)