The other Johan: The Neeskens story – part two

Johan Neeskens Barcelona

This is the second 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.

The 1974 World Cup

In Neeskens and Cruyff, the pair became the foundation for the national side under Czech coach František Fadrhonc, who took over a side that failed to qualify for the 1970 World Cup and turned them into a side that qualified for their first World Cup since 1938, four years later.

However, despite getting the side to qualify for the tournament, the Dutch Association decided to replace Fadrhonc with former Ajax and current Barcelona manager Rinus Michels for the tournament. With titles under his belt at both of his clubs, Michels wished to instil the same Totaalvoetbal philosophy, that was responsible for this success, into the national team. This, in combination with having players like Cruyff and Neeskens, saw the Netherlands become one of the favourites going into the tournament and they wasted little time in showing why, as they defeated Uruguay 2-0 in their opening fixture.

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A draw against Sweden followed by a 4-1 win over Bulgaria, with two of the goals converted by Neeskens from the penalty spot, saw the Dutch advance to the second round group stage. In this group awaited Argentina, Brazil and East Germany but even these sides were no match for the machine that Michels had coached to perfection as Argentina were the first to be swept aside in a 4-0 victory, followed by a 2-0 win over East Germany with Neeskens getting on the score sheet.

However, it was the encounter with reigning World Champions Brazil where Neeskens displayed why he is still considered one of the greatest midfielders of all time in what was has been known as one of the roughest games ever played. Playing alongside two Feyenoorders in Wim Jansen and Wim van Hanegem, the Ajax star was given the task of pushing the Brazilian backline as far back as possible.

The Brazilians were not prepared for the one forgotten element that made the Totallvoetbal machine tick and that was the physical and intimidating presence of the Dutch players, Neeskens in particular.

This consistent high press from the midfielder, saw him playing up top by himself at times and this was rewarded when he opened the scoring with a cheeky lob from a square ball by Cruyff. Furthermore, the midfielder’s pressing game was to such an extent that it kept the Brazilian defenders occupied, resulting in acres of space being left in midfield for Cruyff and Van Hanegem to work their magic in.

The Netherlands played the Brazilians off the park, with the 2-0 score line quite flattering for the reigning champions, who got a one-to-one education in the new style of football in town, with Neeskens the example that haunted their dreams. An encounter against Euro ’72 winners West Germany in the final now presented itself to the Dutch, in what was to be another epic encounter.

“No one remembers second, except when we came second”

Not yet had thirty years past since the liberation of Holland from Nazi occupation, and it was this old hatred and discourse that surrounded a final that was punctuated with references to the Second World War.

So, in the Olympic Stadion in Munich, the two sides went head-to-head to decide who would be crowned the World champions. The game got off to a great start for Michel’s men as they took the lead in the second minute through a penalty from Neeskens before a German player could even touch the ball. To this day, this is still the fastest goal in World Cup final history and was the first penalty awarded in a World Cup final.

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However, the Dutch failed to build on this momentum and were seen to be more interested in embarrassing their opponents, as a way of gaining revenge for the war, instead of finishing them off. This complacency saw them get pegged back in the 25th minute from a penalty by Paul Breitner, which was later added to by the great Gerd Müller just before half-time. With both sides having their fair share of chances in the second half, Müller’s goal was to be the winner as West Germany went on to beat the Netherlands in controversial fashion.

With defeat against their bitter war-time rivals, the disappointment was eased slightly when Neeskens was named in the team of the tournament, alongside fellow team-mates Cruyff, Rob Rensenbrink and Ruud Krol. To this day, this Dutch side is still considered to be the greatest team to never win a World Cup whilst at the same time being crowned one of the greatest ever teams of all time.

From Amsterdam to Barcelona

After two seasons under the reign of Ştefan Kovács, the Romanian left to take over the French national side which saw the introduction of Dutch coach George Knobel to the Ajax dugout. However, having lost the vote to retain the captaincy at the end of the previous season, Cruyff asked to leave and was granted his wish with a move to Barcelona, for a world-record fee. With this move coming after only two games into the season, a massive void for goals needed filling but this proved harder than expected.

Ajax finished the season in third place and Neeskens saw himself complete the season as the club’s second-highest goal scorer, behind Johnny Rep, further showing his ability to step up and adapt when needed.

The 1973/74 season proved to be the end of an era for Ajax and the dawn of a new one for Barcelona as the departure of Cruyff to the Camp Nou saw him reunite with Rinus Michels, with both wanting another join them. After a successful first season in Spain, the Dutch striker found himself in a very powerful position within the club, much more than the President in some cases, and he used this influence to advocate for Neeskens to join him in Catalonia. Barcelona journalist and fan, Frederic Porta describes this further:

“Cruyff was like the owner and more important than the president to some, so had massive say in neeskens’ move to barça.”

However, La Liga rules at the time only permitted 2 foreign players per team and both spots were occupied by Cruyff and Peruvian striker Hugo Sotil. So, it was decided by then President Agustí Montal to put forward a request that saw Sotil become a Spanish citizen, therefore, making his foreign slot into a ‘homegrown’ one.

It was not until the following year that the request was granted, allowing both Sotil and Neeskens to exchange slots/ This delay saw Sotil miss an entire season, which he made up for by enjoying the good life in Barcelona by night, and the already agreed deal for the Dutch midfielder put to one side.

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Neeskens left Ajax after only four seasons with the club, but in these amazing years, he helped them to 2 Eredivisie titles, 2 Dutch (KNVB) cups, 3 European titles in a row and an Intercontinental Cup.

The crowning of Johan ‘Segon’

Reunited with his old coach, Rinus Michels, the Dutchman slotted straight into a midfield that consisted of legends such as Juan Manuel Asensi, Marcial Pina and Julio Carlos, with the latter losing his position in the team after Neeskens’ arrival.

With his never say die attitude and gladiatorial swagger, it was a surprise to no one that the Barça faithful took to Neeskens right away. His approach to the game was one that had not been seen before and, in all honesty, hasn’t been since at the club since as the fans had never seen such tough tackling in their league till now.

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Even the little quirks were embraced by the fans in their love of Neeskens, as his white taped ankles made him stand out on the pitch to everyone and, again, this was something that no player had done before in Catalonia or La Liga. As well as this, his ability in a dead-ball situation is still revered to this day by lifelong fans as he blasted down the middle of the goal with great success from the penalty spot.

The midfielder’s rock star look, with the long wavy hair, olive-coloured eyes and toughness to match made him the focus of many women within the crowd but, no matter who was in attendance, every fan was unanimously enamoured by infectious passion on the pitch.

The midfielder described his style in an interview after his time at Barcelona:

 “When I walk onto the field, I always want to win and get the ball – I am not concerned about myself.”

This adoration and admiration saw the Barça fans crown Neeskens Nes’ and Johan Segon, Johan the Second, as the original king of Catalonia was Johan Cruyff. Despite the latter nickname sounding like a dig at the midfielder, it was quite the opposite as it showed just how highly the fans thought of their enforcing midfielder that they placed him alongside the man whose impact immediately transformed the club’s fortunes.

Battling the regime

From 1939, Spain had been under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, a former Spanish military general, who took control of the country after leading the Nationalist forces in overthrowing the Second Republic of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. During his time in power, it is said that the Dictator’s team of choice was none other than Real Madrid, with many believing the involvement of the Generalísimo played a part in the success of the club during his reign.

In this time, Los Blancos became the first state-run club as they went on to win thirteen league titles and five European cups. One particular event epitomises this, despite still remaining shrouded in some mystery, as legendary striker Alfredo Di Stefano appeared to be on the verge of signing for Barcelona. However, interventions were made to bring him to the Bernabéu, via agents on the Dictator’s payroll, resulting in history playing out the way we know it to be today.

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This event laid the foundations for a rivalry that has intensified to this day, in the form of El Clasico, between both prestigious clubs and it was the dethroning of the Madrid side with the arrival of Cruyff that added to his aura. The Dutch striker’s arrival saw a fourteen-year wait to return to the pinnacle of Spanish football come to an end with a 5-0 win at the Bernabéu with Franco in attendance, in February 1974.

Franco’s dictatorship came to an end the following year, in 1975, with his death after battling Parkinson’s disease. This event, along with the dethroning of his beloved Real Madrid the year before, was seen by Barça as the start of a new era. However, the arrival of Neeskens was not enough to help the Catalan club ascend further into success as Madrid reclaimed the title in the 1974/75 season and won it again the following season. Barca journalist Frederic Porta explains further:

“The problem was that the coming of Neeskens changed the whole chemistry of the team and provoked a change on the team, specially in the lack of offensive tools. Besides, Cruyff, after a wonderful premiere season, started to drop his contribution because he suffered way too much from the toughness of the spanish defenders.”

Safe to say, the arrival of the versatile midfielder was not only a major coup in the sense of the physicality and leadership he brought to the team but also one that sacrificed a position that could get them more goals. This, combined with the consistent fouls taking its toll on Cruyff’s body saw the team never reach the heights it could have and the beginning of the end of a friendship.

To be continued……….

(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.)