Underrated? Overrated? Always these labels. In order to be able to measure something humanity tends to compare it to other entities. “X is better than Y, because…” is not seldom heard and seen in social media and in regular media. What many fail to accept is the sheer fact that some things just need to be appreciated. Sometimes there is a futile need for comparisons. The Dutch World Cup in 1974 is one of these. So I will try to refrain from comparing this team to other versions of itself or even the winning German team, who themselves have been slandered for stealing this triumph from the Dutch team. This works just as well as an introduction for this feature.
As a history academic I tend to refrain from discussing or even referring to things that have not happened. We call that non-history and that should not be discussed in any academic sphere of any kind. Non-history tends to become futile and strange as we approach something that doesn’t even exist and that has never existed. It’s a children’s play with history, something most history professors would have laughed at or even insulted and it is exactly what I am going to do here. Come on then professors, insult me!
‘What if?’ tends to be the main question when discussing non-history. What if Rob Rensenbrink’s finish would’ve been a tad better? What if the Netherlands would have won the World Cup in 1974? It’s often intriguing to discuss non-history as it gives us a slight understanding of the deterministic nature of time and history and this is no different. Let us have the audacity to play with the idea of that Dutch team in 1974 as World Cup winners. What could that have meant for the football world? A few things quietly, but instantly spring to mind when querying about this. First of all, and this is obvious, that team would have been canonized. It would have been in every history book in the Netherlands. Every child from Oosterschelde to Groningen, every infant from Leeuwarden to Maastricht would have been able to cite that team backwards if requested. They would have become a part of Dutch history and legend, much like that team’s major player Johan Cruyff has. That damn German team robbed them of their legend status (or maybe they did not).
Johan Cruyff, who is often lauded as one of the best of all time, would probably have been seen as the best of all time, perhaps still. One of the major things he’s been criticized for, which isn’t much as he’s regarded to be close to perfect by all his fans, is that he never took that fantastic team to a title. However, Cruyff’s legacy hasn’t taken any actual harm from that loss it seems. He’s still lauded as one of the best of all time and as one of the main figures in the development of attacking football throughout the later stages of the 20th century. Nevertheless, the other players, the likes of Rensenbrink and Neeskens, these are players that took some harm. Fantastic players of extraordinary kind that will never be seen as more than Cruyff’s helpers in their futile quest for glory. If the Netherlands had won the World Cup, which was warranted according to many, these players would have been seen as the magnificent ball players they were. Their legacies would perhaps not have been as major as Cruyff’s, but whose is?
Now, let me cease with this non-historical nonsense and let me instead tell the story of this fantastic team that fell over just before the finish line, a team with legendary coach Rinus Michels at the helm, a squad with more top-class players than some European leagues and with more legends than in RB Leipzig’s history. It was a team that played scintillating football and while they struggled more than most realize in the group stags, they took the game to the hungry Germans and played one of the most exciting first half performances a World Cup final has ever seen. This is the rise of Total Football, a revolution in the making at the time.
Some claim that the whole system was a result of the Dutch society at the time. Others claim that Total Football could only have been innovated in the Netherlands. We must remember that the small country in the western lowlands of Europe have been one of the most liberal countries in the world since they were formed in the late 16th century. The republic gained independence from the tyranny of the Spaniards in 1581 and the republic somewhat instantly adopted the ways of merchant republic a’la Venice under Dux venetiae Enrico Dandolo, speedily distributing both their culture and their vessels and traders to the most aloof chunks of the world. (They established a colony in Indonesia, which for example has resulted in Dutch food being much more piquant than one would have estimated) These massive trade routs propelled the Netherlands into the absolute European elite and Amsterdam became one of the richest cities in the world. It was clear from the beginning that the Dutch, if left out of monumental economical cataclysms, were going towards a bright future. That merchant state is often called the first true capitalist state and formed its capitalist apparatus almost a century before Adam Smith presented the idea of lasses-faire in his Wealth of Nations and let the controversial idea of a free market loose.
Considering the rather humungous wealth of Amsterdam, the Dutch quickly became one of the most economical liberal countries in the world and that status has stayed put since then. A beacon of hope and liberalism in a darker and darker world, the Netherlands never leave their values of freedom and liberalism and their economy as of now is one of the most stabile in Europe, maybe even the world. Back in the 1970s things were not at all that different. Netherlands were most probably the most free and liberal country in Europe and the idea of total football, which is a free-flowing and very ‘liberal’ system, grew as pillars in a magnificent atrium from this sturdy and well-built Dutch foundation. Rinus Michels was, as most people are, a product of his time. He grew up with these values and realized that it could be transformed into something else, into a magical football formula that could and would change the world.
Total football is the idea of a fluid system where any outfield player can play anywhere on the pitch. Players are therefore able to switch positions without real effort, thus confusing the opponents and creating possible overloads. A wing back becomes a winger, another player covers for him and another player covers for him in return and so on. It’s fluid, it’s quite secure and, when done correctly, it’s awesome, in the original meaning of the word. The result of this system is scintillating football with goals and attacking spirit. Players switching positions mid-game, spaces being covered and exposed and a fantastic passing game- this became hoi polloi at the Netherlands with one of the most famous teams in the history of the sport.
With Jongbloed as the goalkeeper, the Netherlands had a goalkeeper with experience and with the absolute audacity to wear number eight as a goalkeeper. How he was even allowed to take part is something I will probably never fully fathom. Jongbloed never played for any of the big clubs in the Netherlands, but was already an experienced part of this team in 1974 and was the one chosen for the job by Rinus Michels. It seemed a good choice as he kept shut in two of three games in the group stage as the Dutch drew 0-0 against both Sweden and Belgium. The defence was mainly made up of right back and Ajax icon Suurbier, Feyenoord talisman Rijsbergen, Anderlecht icon Haan as well as Krol, one of the most influential players Ajax has ever seen.
Michels fielded a 4-3-3 with a defensive midfielder, but positions were just dots on a paper for him as his players had the license and the encouragement to roam free, as long as they covered for each other. Wim Jansen played as the defensive midfielder, a man who played for Feyenoord for 15 years. He had Neeskens and Van Hanegem alongside him. Neeskens is often regarded as one of the best players the Netherlands has ever seen. A dribbler and passing master, him behind or alongside Cruyff meant madness was incoming. Some regard Neeskens as one of the best players this world has seen, while some rank him in the top 100. Regardless, he was an influential player in this team and must be seen as a supremely talented footballer by all means. Van Hanegem was a fantastic all round footballer whose major attribute seemed to be his unstifled hatred for the Germans. His whole family was killed by the Nazis in 1944, the year of his birth, so his grudges against the Germans were no laughing matter, However, at one point it seemed like he realized that there is a clear distinction between Nazi-Germany and Germany as his hatred cooled down after a while. However, he made sure that the Germans felt his hatred in that final in Munich. Some say Hoeness still feels the cleats from van Hanegem’s shoes.
The Dutch attack has been studied and admired ever since. It’s a monument of free-flowing football, a perfect example of harmony and prosperity, created by a revolutionary mind, moulded by the most free and liberal country in the known universe. Johan Cruyff was the nexus of this, acting as everything and something in a tournament where his superb attributes were put on a pedestal of his own choosing. Cruyff was joined by Rob Rensenbrink, one of the best players the Belgian league has ever seen as well Rep, who scored 7 goals in this tournament thus becoming the best goalscorer ever in a World Cup for the Netherlands. This trio scared defences into factual oblivion with their movement and technical superiority and it was with their attacking brilliance this team reached the final of this World Cup.
A final that they sadly lost. The Netherlands took the lead after only a minute when Neeskens scored from the spot. They ten played with the Germans, knocking the ball about as if it was an exhibition and the Germans were humbled. Then, they took the ball and went on the counter. Eintracht Frankfurt’s record goalscorer Bernd Hölzenbein was brought down by Wim Jansens leg in the area and the Germans equalized through Paul Breitner, the wing back who had shown fantastic total football abilities earlier in the World Cup when he scored a screamer from his advanced wing position against Chile in their opening match. Then, right before half-time, Gerd Müller scored a classic Müller goal as he received the ball in the penalty area, turned and finished in Jongbloed’s “wrong” corner. A poacher’s goal worthy of Gerd Müller’s well-travelled and well-smothered feet.
The rest of the game was a back-against-the-wall performance from West Germany as the Dutch piled on the pressure, but they managed to pull through, to the dismay of the whole footballing world. This game is, according to some, what has made this Dutch team so famous and it is what has built their whole legend. They didn’t really impress overall in the World Cup. A few lacklustre draws against Sweden and Belgium, games that today would have been enough to receive the “overrated”-label.
They reached the next final too, this Dutch side, but without Cruyff as he retired from international football in 1977. In 1978 it seemed like this team, this nation perhaps, was cursed. We would see another proof of this in 2010 when they reached the final through anti-football and lost in the final. They have now tried the both extremes of football, Total football and anti-football. Perhaps a more moderate form would be the way to go for them in the future?
It’s the stuff of legends, this World Cup. It was Germany at its absolute peak, the Netherlands at its undoubtable peak and these two superpowers faced each other in one of the most famous games and finals that have ever been played in the lovely sport the humanity calls football. It’s graceful, beautiful and a direct reminder of both the deterministic value of history as well as the cultural effects of the sport.