Holland produced tremendous talents in the 1970s. We all know the names, and the memories. Johan Cruyff, of course. Van Hanegem, Neeskens, John Rep, Wim Jansen, Rob Rensenbrink… The right footed Ajax player morphed into a left back – and later central defender – Ruud Krol was part of that generation and grew out to be a super star, first as captain of Ajax and Holland and then through his time and impact at Napoli.
The now 67 year old cosmopolitan would turn into one of Napoli’s most popular players ever.
Elegance, duel strength, speed, heading capabilities, a phenomenal long pass and personality. This is the story in the VI Italy special.
This version of hero worship is new even to Ruud Krol. In the belly of the Stadio San Paolo, Krol is confronted with a man who’s eyes and mouth are wide open once he sees Krol. He makes a deep bow and mutters “Mama mia!”. And followed with another deep bow. With typical dry Amsterdam humour, Ruud quips: “Hey mind your back my man!” This is not just an old fan. This man happens to be current Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri. Earlier today, his team lost the match vs arch enemy AS Roma, but that all is now forgotten. “What a tremendous honour to meer you,” the coach adds. “Grande Rudy, you are a Napoli hero. You are Napoli!”
And a day earlier, Ruud Krol received a huge hug from his former right back from that team, Guiseppe Bruscolotti. They haven’t seen each other for 32 years but they always stayed in contact. And now they are reunited, two tough guys, with teary eyes, touching each other fondly, as Italians tend to do. Guiseppe puts his hand on Ruud’s belly and on his own and says “Rudy, you need to eat more! You probably missed the food here, come on, let’s get some seafood.”
Driving through Naples, Krol is in his own thoughts, taking in the roughness of the city. A city with issues, sure, but also a city which is taking care of things. Scaffolds around old buildings, fountains are being cleaned and horse and carriages are colourful and waiting for tourists to take them for a ride. “This city really grabbed me by the throat, ” Krol whispers. “And it never let me go.”
Once Krol and co enter the restaurant, a pandemonium ensues. The restaurant owner, his staff, they’re all there to meet and greet and within 5 minutes a reporter enters the space for some questions, while the maitre’d joins with a phone, explaining the local radio station wants a live interview. No one gets how this news spread. Bruscolotti: “This is Naples. Don’t try and make sense of it. Won’t work.”
At the border of the Gulf of Naples, with Vesuvius in the background, Krol delves into his memory. “I wanted to leave Ajax, for a while already and there was more interest from Italy. In the 1980s, that was one of the major leagues in the world of course. But there were issues with the Italian federation and the possibility for Italian clubs to sign players from other countries. I even had a pre-contract with AC Milan but that was null and void when the approval didn’t come for this. And AS Roma wanted to sign me and that bounced for the same reason. Torino wanted me too but I didn’t feel it with them. I did tip them to see Van de Korput and he ended up playing there.”
But it was time for Krol to move on. He’d won everything he could with Ajax and played two finals in the World Cup for Oranje. Ajax ruled in Europe and of that golden generation, Krol was the last to leave. In earlier seasons, Real Madrid, Paris St Germain and Arsenal made him offers but Ajax refused to let their captain go. “In hindsight, I stayed with Ajax too long. I had this ambition to repeat our successes with a new team and boy did we get close. We reached the semi finals of the Europa Cup 1 again but were beaten by Nottingham Forest. That was a blow. I was always fully motivated for these big matches, but I lost my drive in the Eredivisie. And would you believe it, just when I signed a 4 year deal with Vancouver, the Italian federation gave permission for foreign players. I thought an adventure to Canada would be cool. And I was hardly there for a week or so and suddenly a Napoli director – Juliano – was on my doorstep! This was on a Monday. He said “Rudy, you gotta play for Napoli on Wednesday. I’m here to get you, we’re flying tomorrow. He said he’d go and sort it with the Whitecaps. So I went. To the airport, waiting to board. No Juliano in sight until the last call. He came running and a deal with Whitecaps to sign me had failed. They allowed a loan deal for seven months.”
Ruud returns to Naples and is hailed as a club icon
Juliano, Napoli and Vancouver Whitecaps would get in strife with another, seven months later. Vancouver wanted Krol back but Napoli didn’t wanna let Krol go back. Juliano flew back to Canada and eventually returned with a deal.
With a journey of 27 hours in his legs and jetlag, Krol made his debut on Wednesday for Napoli against West Bromwich Albion. A week later he played first competition game for Napoli vs Pistoiese and since that first game Krol-mania ensued in Naples. In the last minute, he demonstrated his speciality, with a pass over 50 meters, reaching sub Pellegrini who scored the winner for Napoli. From that day on, Ruud’s life had changed. “The next day I was strolling through the city, and entered a fashion store. I adored the Italian fashion, and within minutes I was crowded by a shop full of people. The shop owner had to call the cops to get me safely out of there. Later I strolled to the harbour and a boat full fishermen returned that moment. And what I learned then and there: Napolitans show their affection pinching your cheeks. So within minutes, I had dozens of fishermen’s hands on my cheeks and I stank all afternoon of rotten fish, hahahaha.”
Krol continues: “Since then, it only became worse. I became a celeb. I was doing tv-shows with Claudia Cardinale, I wasn’t able to walk through the city, I had police escorts where ever I went. This adoration was embarrassing, I had a great life, made good money while all these people gazing at me were poor as… I got presents and food and free stuff from people who’d have nothing to eat… I received for a full year of pasta and wine from a complete stranger. It made me so humble and small. I thought “what the f is happening here…”.
The language barrier was there in his first season. Bruscolotti almost chokes on a piece of squid thinking about the coaching of Krol. “Whenever I wanted the defence to push up, I would yell FIORI but the proper terms is FORI”. Fiori means “flowers” so you can imagine their bemusement whenever I wanted to press… So I went to study Italian a bit harder.”
Once Krol got the language he went to talk to his coach Marchesi. “We were conceding too many goals. We conceded 6 goals in two matches vs Ascoli and Inter and we needed to change our game plan. I suggested to use a wing back on the left with a false left winger who’s join in midfield to form a block and a more defensive role for the actual midfielder. I started to coach this on the pitch myself, like a typically vocal and headstrong Dutch guy, hahaha. But it started to work, we started to play so well that we became a title candidate. The people here didn’t know what was happening. I can remember training sessions with 30,000 people watching!”
Ruud coaching Tunesia
By then, Krol also demonstrated his typical rigid mentality to Napoli by almost committing sacrilege. The jersey numbers in those days in Italy were fixed. The full back had #2 and #3. The #4 was the defensive mid and the libero had #6 (Baresi, Scirea, Picchi) and the man marker was the #5. But Krol was superstitious. The Jersey #5 had always been his and he demanded to play with his lucky number. It took some debating, but Napoli gave in.
Krol also experienced the other side of life in Naples… In 1980 the city was hit by three earthquakes: 2,500 dead, 8,000 people injured and 250,000 people homeless… “We played away in Bologna when it happened. When we returned I couldn’t believe what we say. As if a huge bomb was dropped on the city. Despair, grieve, destruction, pain…it was terrible.”
“I followed my instincts and went into the city. It was immense, 1ooos of people on the streets, working, clearing, helping others. Everyone pulled their weight. And I will never forget our first home game, a weekend later. I figured no one would be bothered to think about us or football. But boy was I wrong, the stadium was fuller than ever, they literally broke down the fences to get in. The people needed us, the football, to process all the grieve and pain.”
This balm for the soul worked better and better as the season went on, as Napoli was competing with the Old Lady Juventus (with Zoff, Bettega, Tardelli, Gentile) and with AS Roma with Bruno Conti and Falcao. Napoli ended third that season and Ruud Krol was voted as the Best Player of the Serie A.
Bruscolotti: “It was huge that a player with his reputation would play for us. Two World Cup finals, three European Cups. And when he actually lifted our club up to the top, the whole region became under his spell. You’ll see tomorrow how important Krol is for us. Still. What Cruyff was for Barcelona and George Best for Man United, Beckenbauer for Bayern, Krol was and is this for us!”
Ruud Krol, Napoli chair De Laurentiis, Gianfranco Zola
The next day, off to Stadio San Paolo and Krol wonders what to expect. He hasn’t been back for 32 years. “I think the old fans and the old hands at Napoli will remember me.” How wrong he was. When Krol gets out of the car, the crowd on the square is moving in, there’s whispers, people pointing, his name is being chanted. The first fans fall in his arms and hug him. People come from all angles, no matter how big or small, or what age, they want a hug, a handshake, a touch. Even the local cops join in. People press their toddlers in his arms for a photo-op. When Krol can finally make his way into the stadium he mutters that he can use a bit of peace of quiet now, but no rest for the wicked(ly talented). Another ex-Napoli player is in the stadium, waiting to meet Krol: “This day is awesome already,” says Gianfranco Zola. “And believe it or not, I was just talking about you! Someone asked me what kind of player would be needed at Manchester City, and I literally said: the City of today would need the Krol from Napoli, hahaha. True story!” Krol smiles and responds: “Ok Gianfranco, it’s a deal, but I’ll start with 45 minutes ok? Not sure about the knee.”
The Napoli chairman has arrived and Krol is directed on, towards the presidential offices of De Laurentiis where the mayor of Napoli joined the party. Big hugs, smiles and flashes of cameras. And then the next directive: “Ruud, you are required on the pitch!”
Krol and Zola walk to the tunnel to enter the pitch. Napoli’s current star, Marek Hamsik is standing in the circle and the 1000s of fans on the stands chant his name “Rudy, Rudy, Rudy”… There is a massive sweat spot on his back and goosebumps on his arms. Hamsik offers him a current Napoli jersey, with his number 5. Krol puts the jersey up in the air, with his right hand on his heart and walks off the pitch with a big grin. On the touchline he mutters “this is just too good to be true…” But then he lands back on Earth and says to the coach “And now it’s time to give Roma a cookie!”
Stopped in the streets for handshakes and hugs
The result of the Roma game, in any season, will determine how the weather will be in Naples. After a win, the sun shines, the world is beautiful… After a loss, it’s gloomy, misty, autumn… Grey. “We had games here that we lost. Once 1-4 vs Roma, well you had to run for your life. They’d find whatever was loose in this stadium and throw it at you… I used to drive past this laborer every day I returned from training. I’d stop if I’d saw him to give him a free ticket for the next game. He loved it. But when we had lost, he’d see me and turn away. Gesticulating me to piss off. “Come back when you play well!”.
Krol ended his career at Napoli in a painful manner. The last game of the 3rd season, Napoli was fighting relegation and got seriously injured. His knee. The next season, Krol missed for three quarters as a result and when he was finally fit to play, it took him a while to find his usual level. In the last weeks of that season the technical director wanted to talk to Krol. “He visited me at home. And he was direct and straightforward: we want to take that next step to the top. And we want to sign a marquee a player, another superstar. We want to sign Diego Maradona and as a result we don’t think we can afford you anymore. That was a blow. But in hindsight, a wonderful decision for them. I had to swallow it but they did what they had to do.”
Krol has another anecdote about that last season. “We lost away, 4-1 at Udinese. The normal Italian response is: trainings camp. But the coach had a different idea. He wanted us to see this entertainer. And he was some sort of magician. A whole thing and lots of talk and suddenly he grabs a pair of scissors and starts to take cuts of hair from several players. Including mine. And then he started to have personal conversations with us. To me, he said I was not vocal enough anymore. He said: the players need your leadership. And I actually thought about it and thought, he’s right! I stopped doing it because by now the players should know it all. But they needed it. So in the next game, this magician was there and at the start of the game he walks to both goals and flicks the hairs he collated from us in the goal! And we won that game, vs Torino. And we started to climb up and it flowed again. Crazy. But I used similar techniques myself later in my coaching days in Egypt and South Africa. This was the first time I experienced it though and I just allowed it all to happen.”
Current star Hamsik with former star Krol
His time in Italy changed him. Enriched him. The adventurer in him was awoken. Krol lived like a nomad ever since, playing in Cannes for two years in France until his knee forced him to quit. Then a coaching career which led him to Belgium, Switzerland, Egypt, Holland (Oranje and Ajax), France, Egypt again, South Africa, Libya, Tunesia and Morocco. “Of all these adventures, the one in Naples is dearest to me, in all honesty. This is God’s city, with all the trials and tribulations and this is God’s people and the football club offers a temple in the midst of it.”
When we drink something in the hotel bar in Napels, Rudy starts to hum along with an Italian crooner. The waiter grabs his chance. With trembling hands, the youngster comes to the table. “Mr Rudy, is this really you? I am fan of yours from when I was little. My dad, he is a huge fan and stuck a poster of you on my wall in my kid’s room. I didn’t even know anything about football but I grew up having you as an icon on my wall. I never saw you play, but you were a part of my upbringing. I will tell my dad I met you and I served you a drink. He’ll never believe it!”
Krol goes back inside, re-hashing memories… He sits up: “Oh! You know who I remember now… The kit man at Napoli. What a guy. He’d wait for me in the morning and first thing he did was serve me up an espresso. He knew how much I loved it. And he’d prepare my boots. The way he treated them, his fingers on the leather. As if it was the cheek of a little baby. That image is symbolical for Naples.