One of the more surprising requirements made of the Dutch team playing in this week’s World Cup final is that it is not enough for them merely to win the tournament. They are still widely expected to win it with style, and this level of expectation is largely the responsibility of one man – Rinus Michels. Never mind the fact that the Netherlands has a population that is one-third that of England, or that they didn’t even qualify for the finals of the competition between 1938 and 1974. The Dutch team that Michels built inspired such awe that the burden of expectation continues to cast its long shadow more than three and a half decades after it made its debut.
The Dutch teams of the 1974 and 1978 World Cups have come to be regarded as almost ideological. For some, they are the footballing equivalent of hippydom, free-flowing, long-haired and bedecked in rosary beads, they sum up the decade during which they flowered more closely than any team before or since. They are regarded by some, not just as the greatest team to never win a World Cup, but as the greatest time of all time. While it is easy to get carried away with the Focus soundtrack (the yodelling, Dutch prog-rock band hit their commercial zenith as Michels’ team was approaching its full stride) and the luxuriant sideburns, though, the truth of Michels’ team was more pragmatic than fits that particular narrative.
The seeds of the flowering of Rinus Michels’ side were sewn in the mid-1960s at AFC Ajax. Michels had played under Jack Reynolds, who had pioneered the concept of “total football” during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Professional football had been permitted in the Netherlands for the first time in 1955, and Ajax were one of the principle beneficiaries of this change in the culture of Dutch football, reinventing themselves from an average, mid-table club to becoming the Dutch champions for the first time for six years in 1966. Although the club had already won the Eredivisie ten times, 1966 was different. With professionalism now embedded and the norm in the Netherlands by then, Michels was less shackled by financial considerations than his predeccesors had been and could replace the players in his team that didn’t fit his system.
The results first came to international attention when they thrashed the English champions Liverpool 5-1 over two legs on the way to a European Cup quarter-final the following season. By 1969, they had fought their way to the European Cup final, where they were thrashed by Milan, but it was by this time clear that this was a great team in the making. Yet Michels’ Ajax side wasn’t merely Johann Cruyff plus others. The backbone of the team was the Yugoslav defender Velibor Vasovic, signed from Partizan Belgrade. Vasovic was a tough tackling defender, and Michels built his Ajax team from the back. The “total football” name came from the fact that any player should be expected to play in any position – if one player pushed forward, another woud drop into his position. Vasovic ended up partnering Barry Hulshoff at the centre of the Ajax defence for five years, though. This was a team built from the back.
Michels’ swansong at Ajax was played out at Wembley in 1971, as his team did what they had threatened to for several seasons and beat Panathinaikos to lift the European Cup. He departed for the undeniably bigger challenge of Barcelona, but it was Ajax that remained the kings of Europe, retaining the European Cup in 1972 and 1973. Michels persuaded Cruyff to join him at Camp Nou in 1973, but he left to take over the national team at the start of 1974, after they had qualified for their first World Cup finals since 1938. Even so, however, his legacy at Camp Nou was that his Barca team won its first Spanish championship since 1960 at the end of that season.
That a team that hadn’t even qualified for the World Cup finals since 1938 should have been amongst the favourites to win the trophy in 1974 shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, Ajax weren’t the only Dutch success story of the era – their rivals from Rotterdam, Feyenoord, had won the European Cup in 1970. The backbone of their team – Neeskens, Rep and Krol from Ajax, de Jong and Van Hanegan from Feyenoord – came from these two clubs, but they weren’t the only teams providing players for this team. Rob Rensenbrink played for Anderlecht in Belgium, whilst the Van de Kerkhof brothers played for PSV Eindhoven and goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed played for FC Amsterdam.
The Netherlands started the 1974 World Cup finals in a somewhat low key manner, although demonstrations of what they were capable of where clear in their opening 2-0 win against Uruguay, in which Johnny Rep scored both goals. They then played out a grim 0-0 draw against Sweden before starting to move into ominous form with a 4-1 win against Bulgaria, which qualified them for the second group stage as group winners. It was in the second group stage that they started to really hit their stride. Their 4-0 win against Argentina in their opening match of the second phase of the tournament remains one of the great World Cup performances of all time, with the Argentinians utterly unable to cope with the fluidity of the Dutch tactical system. They then beat East Germany 2-0 to set up an effective semi-final against Brazil for a place in the final.
So much of the content of that match has entered our subconsciousness that it has come to mark a passing of destinies. The Brazilian goalkeeper Leao formed a one-man barrier between the Dutch and the Brazilian goal, with one particularly wonderful save from a Johann Cruyff leaving Cruyff turning away in almost poetic disbelief. It couldn’t last, of course, and two stretch-every-sinew goals from Johann Neeskens and Johnny Rep saw the Dutch through to the final as Brazil lost their temper and their discipline, with Luis Pereira being sent off before the end of the match. It was a match that the Dutch, thanks to their vasty superior goal difference, only needed to draw to get through to the final – that they swept through with such style seemed to speak volumes about their philosophy.
How, though, did such a talented team contrive to lose the final to West Germany? Such a question is, in itself, something of a canard. This was an away match against the European Champions, and West Germany had provided enough thrilling moments of their own in winning the 1972 European Championships. They had extravagantly talented players of their own, such as Gerd Muller, Franz Beckenbauer, Paul Breitner and probably the best goalkeeper in the world at the time, Sepp Maier. Much has been made of a newspaper story run in the German newspaper Bild on the day of the final, which made allegations (which remain unconfirmed to this very day) about an incident in a swimming pool involving a number of Dutch players and women that were not their wives, but the truth may be more prosaic than this.
Having taken the lead with a penalty awarded within a minute of kick-off and without the Germans having even touched the ball, the Dutch sat back and toyed with the German team. According to some, the Dutch “forgot” to score a second goal. When West Germany came back with two goals, a harshly-awarded penalty kick (referee Jack Taylor admitted that he had called the decision wrong in an interview on Dutch television in 1997) which was converted by Paul Breitner and what turned out to be the winner from Gerd Muller, the Dutch had no way back into the match. They played well, but Sepp Maier played better and managed to keep them out for the whole of the second half. The defeat didn’t have any immediate psychological effect upon the Dutch – the team were welcomed back as heroes – but over time such a loss has come to form an indelible scar on the country’s football psychology.
Ironically, weaker teams than the 1974 team have done better since. In 1978, shorn of Johann Cruyff (who had retired from international football), they made it to a second World Cup final. In possibly the most hostile atmosphere in the history of the entire tournament, they were holding their hosts Argentina to a 1-1 draw when Rob Rensenbrink managed to squeeze a shot past the Argentine goalkeeper Carlos Fillol. The ball bobbled on the uneven surface, hit the post and, fortuitously for Argentina, bounced out. This, however, doesn’t seem to have scarred Dutch football anything like as much as losing in Munich four years earlier. When they finally got their revenge over West Germany with a semi-final win at the 1988 European Championships (again coached by Rinus Michels, who had come out of retirement for the tournament), it prompted a celebration bigger celebration than winning the final against the Soviet Union did.
Yet even this was only a temporary respite for the Dutch. “Revenge”, in a football sense, is often transitory because of the very nature of the game. Two years later, in 1990, the Germans took theirs at the World Cup amid concerns that the Dutch/German rivalry had taken a considerably darker turn. The easy explanation for the Dutch animosity towards Germany is the second world war, yet as we become further and further removed from it, the hatred remains. Perhaps the Netherlands will never reach closure over the 1974 World Cup final defeat. Perhaps the fact that, just nineteen years after their domestic league had turned professional, they were in the World Cup final, with Dutch clubs having won the previous four European Cups, they merely forgot how good West Germany were.
Tomorrow evening, another attempt at exorcism will take place in Johannesburg. If total football is dead, perhaps it is a good thing for Dutch football, because only when the albatross of 1974 that hangs round their neck is discarded will they be able to throw away the occasional bouts of self-dout that have hamstrung them so much over the last three and a half decades. For all the romance of this team, the history books will always show the same scoreline, and this past cannot be merely wished away. A win tomorrow, however, would be a giant leap forward in building a new football legacy for the people of the Netherlands.