When the best teams in the history of football are discussed, you largely get the same answers. The 1970 Brazil World Cup-winning side are always mentioned, as are the 2010 Barcelona side, managed by Pep Guardiola. The Mighty Magyars, Hungary’s heroes that finished runners up at the 1954 World Cup, usually crop up. Brazil 1982 are often mentioned for their flawed genius – and naivety. However, when it comes to flawed genius it is impossible to look past the mercurial talents and brilliance of the 1974 Netherlands team, undoubtedly the greatest side never to win the World Cup.
In the 1960s, Holland was a rapidly changing nation, well on it’s way to becoming a cultural centre of the world. From being a largely dull, flat country with little flair on the world stage, Holland became a place where free thinking was encouraged – and hippie culture thrived. Indeed, it was in Amsterdam’s Hilton Hotel that John Lennon and Yoko Ono held the ‘Bed-In’ in 1969 to promote world peace. In a drastically changing world, Holland changed more than most.
Along with it changed the fortunes of Dutch football. It is easy to forget, but prior to 1974 the Netherlands had never made any telling impact in international competition, competing in the 1934 and 1938 World Cups in Italy and France, but then failing to qualify for the finals until 1974. During this time, Holland produced an outstanding generation of players, from Cruyff to Rep, Keizer to Swaart, Haan to Krol and Suurbier to Rensenbrink. The list goes on and on.
Ajax – first under Rinus Michels and then under Ștefan Kovács – dominated the European Cup with what was labelled Totaalvoetbal, winning three in a row from ‘71 to ‘73. Ajax’s great rivals Feyenoord also won the European Cup in 1970, with players like Willem van Hanegem and Wim Jansen. Furthermore, Michels and Cruyff had turned around the fortunes of Spanish club Barcelona on their arrival, and had won La Liga in 1974. Dutch football had dominated Europe. The Holland national team had gone from relative nobodies on the international scene to a team that many looked at as being capable of winning the upcoming 1974 World Cup in West Germany.
Despite this, they barely even qualified for the competition proper. Dutch football has a long and storied history of self-destructing – largely a reason that their only success is the 1988 European Championship – and it very nearly cost them qualification, and deprived the world of the kings of totaalvoetbal. Managed by Czech coach František Fadrhonc, Holland struggled through their qualification group, which only contained Belgium as threatening opposition. For a nation that was dominating European football at the time, with Johan Cruyff the best player in the world, it was a poor return. But then, as English fans know well, domestic success doesn’t always translate to the national side. Holland only qualified via a 0-0 draw with Belgium – and the Belgians had a perfectly legal goal disallowed for offside. Nevertheless, they had qualified, but only just.
Following qualification, Fadrhonc was replaced for the World Cup by Rinus Michels, then the manager of Barcelona. It is clear the Koninklijke Nederlandse Voetbalbond (KNVB) would not stand for Holland being embarrassed, but that would never happen. Michels drastically altered the side, developing the central defensive partnership of Ajax central midfielder Arie Haan and Feyenoord right back Wim Riijsbergen. In the modern game, such a decision might be questioned – Michels was somewhat forced into it through injuries and absences – but it would prove to be a masterstroke, with both Haan and Riijsbergen being mobile, capable on the ball and skilled at stepping up to press the ball.
Michels also brought FC Amsterdam goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed into the side for the first time since 1962. Valued more for his ability to sweep up behind the high back line than for his ability as a shot stopper, Jongbloed would prove vital for the style of play that Michels wanted his Holland side to adopt. Although these decisions appear intelligent now, they were controversial at the time – Michels chose not to select Piet Schrijvers of FC Twente in goal, leaving Jongbloed as first choice goalkeeper. Not that Jongbloed knew this, feeling he was “third choice” as the team departed for West Germany.
Going into the tournament, the style of play developed over warm-up games, developing to the point where apart from a few issues – left winger Rob Rensenbrink never truly adapted to Totaalvoetbal, admittedly disliking tactics – the team was ready, with two draws and a comprehensive 4-1 win over Argentina. Then came the simple decision over which numbers the team would wear.
As if to highlight how different this side was to any that had come before, it was decided that the team would be numbered in alphabetical order – all but Cruyff, who as captain would wear his iconic 14 jersey. This decision highlighted the role of Cruyff within the side. Cruyff himself has discussed how Michels could arrange the side ‘outside the field’, whereas he would arrange the side ‘inside the field’. Cruyff was the epitome of the manager on the pitch, and can often be seen shouting instructions to team-mates. The decision to alphabetise the numbers also indicates how fluid positioning was within the side. Just because Willem van Hanegem was given number 3, does not mean he was a left back, or restricted to the left side in general.
The 1974 World Cup was structured very differently to the modern incarnation of the tournament. Teams were placed into the first group stage, a round of four group stages, with the top two from each group qualifying for the second group stage. In the second group stage, eight teams were split into two groups, and the best two sides in each group qualified for the tournament final. In the first group stage, Holland would play Sweden, Bulgaria and former champions Uruguay. They would face Uruguay first.
Michels’ lineup – and preferred XI for the tournament – for the Uruguay game was: Jongbloed; Suurbier, Haan, Riijsbergen, Krol; Jansen, Neeskens, van Hanegem; Rep, Cruyff, Rensenbrink. Lining up with their bright orange shirts and long hair, the 11 Dutchmen did not look like classic examples of professional footballers.
The match itself was almost the perfect showcase of Total Football. At times, the Uruguayans struggled to get out of their own third, never mind their own half. Cruyff’s movement triggered the movement of the other nine outfield players, and the effective use of the offside trap constantly outwitted Uruguay’s attackers. Holland won 2-0, but in reality it should have been five or six. The game was almost embarrassing for Uruguay, who looked backwards in comparison to Holland. It also spurred the 1974 World Cup into life, and lovers of beautiful football had a neutral team to follow.
Read | Rinus Michels and the Total Football rebellion
Next up, Sweden. The Dutch again showed flashes of beautiful football, but this time it was less consistent, and as a result, the match laboured to a 0-0 draw. Michels also made a change for the match, withdrawing Anderlecht left winger Rob Rensenbrink and starting Piet Keizer, the Ajax player, captain and longtime attacking partner of Johan Cruyff. The issue, however, was that Cruyff’s departure from Ajax was largely as a result of Cruyff’s deposition as captain, and the appointment of Keizer. Rumours of a rift between the two continued. No matter what the outcome, this would be Keizer’s last appearance in an Oranje shirt, and he looked far short of the player he had been throughout Ajax’s golden years.
The Sweden game itself is more remembered for one moment of brilliance by the world’s best player. Picking the ball up outside the Swedish box with his back to goal, Cruyff executed a picture perfect body feint, dragging the ball back with the instep of his right foot and turning round to catch the ball. This sent the Swedish defender in completely the wrong direction, leaving Cruyff moving into the box unopposed. Unfortunately, little came from the resulting cross by Cruyff, but it was a skill that mesmerised those watching live and on television. The Cruyff Turn would go on to be a skill that everyone playing football at any level has heard of, and a skill that youngsters are taught as a very fundamental dribbling manoeuvre.
Moving to the Bulgaria game, and the last in the group, Holland topped the table with three points – two points for a victory back then – and only needed a draw to secure qualification to the second stage. However Bulgaria would also progress with a win, and therefore this would be a competitive game. Or so you’d think. Michels returned to the XI from the Uruguay game, and Holland dominated, winning 4-1 with two penalties from Neeskens, a goal from Rep and another from substitute Theo De Jong. Much like the Uruguay game, 4-1 flattered Bulgaria; Holland were rampant. With the result, Holland topped the group with five points, and along with Sweden went through to the second stage. They would face East Germany, Argentina and holders Brazil in the second phase.
The now fluent Oranje would face Argentina first, a team in transition – and indeed conflict over the future of the game in their country – from the 1966 and 1970s styles to the 1978 team, and it would be another comfortable win for Michels’ team. Cruyff opened the scoring in the 12th minute with a goal that highlighted the beautiful subtlety of Holland’s passing.
Van Hanegem picked up the ball in the Argentina half and, moving forward, lofted the ball into the Argentine box, meeting the run of Cruyff, who took the ball down at full stretch and rounded the keeper before calmly stroking the ball into the empty net. It was simple yet beautiful and exemplified the type of football played by Holland. They passed the ball carefully, but could be ruthlessly effective when direct. Krol doubled the lead from a corner, leaving the match 2-0 at half time. The heavens opened and rain descended for the second half, but even the weather couldn’t halt the Dutch and further goals from Rep and Cruyff condemned the Argentines to a 4-0 defeat, and another humiliation on behalf of the Dutch. Next up, East Germany.
East Germany had progressed to the second phase – their best performance in a World Cup – defeating neighbours West Germany 1-0 in the first round in a stunning upset. However, there would be no such story again. East Germany played admirably against what was admittedly a far superior side, and in more pouring rain in Gelsenkirchen the Dutch won 2-0 through Rensenbrink and Neeskens. Brazil had also beaten East Germany in their first group match, meaning the last game of the group, Holland versus Brazil, would decide who would advance to the final in Munich. It seemed like a dream match for the footballing purists; it would be anything but.
What followed – in effectively the semi-final of the tournament – was one of the dirtiest games ever seen at a World Cup, and certainly one of such importance. It is a darker side of Dutch football that does exist, and reared its ugly head in the final of the 2010 World Cup, but in this game the violence was mutual. Michels stuck with his now tried and tested lineup, and although the Brazil side was not what it had been in the 1970 World Cup – Pelé was in attendance in the crowd – star names such as Jairzinho and Rivelino still remained.
In amongst the disgusting levels of gamesmanship, Holland won 2-0 with goals from Johan Neeskens and Cruyff, with the Neeskens goal being another wonderful one scored by the Oranje in 1974. From a free kick, van Hanegem quickly passed to Neeskens in the centre forward position – of course, rapid interchange of movement and fluidity was the key element of the side – who spread the ball wide to Cruyff on the right wing. Moving towards his defender, Cruyff crossed the ball low, with Neeskens sliding in to loft the ball over the goalkeeper Émerson Leão and into the corner.
Even in a match featuring such ugliness, the 1974 Holland side could always be relied on to provide a moment of true class and beauty, and it must be said that their violence was largely in retaliation. Holland outplayed and outfought Brazil. With their 2-0 victory, Holland were through the final, where they would face the hosts West Germany and their captain, Franz Beckenbauer.
It would be the match that would come to define Dutch football. West Germany were the reigning European Champions, having defeated the Soviet Union in the 1972 final. Holland were the purists’ choice, the elegance, style and effortlessness of their brilliance evident for all to see. The interchanging of positions, the focus on having the ball, the creativity and the aggressing defending through pressing having won the hearts of many around the world. They had eased their way through to the final.
Read | ‘That was Cruyff’: how a legend changed the game
In contrast, West Germany largely struggled in their home World Cup. After being defeated by East Germany in the only ever competitive match between the neighbouring countries, they stumbled through the first group stage. It was only in the second stage that they really found their feet, defeating Sweden and Yugoslavia, and grinding out a victory against surprise package Poland. Effective yes, but hardly the form of champions. And in comparison to Holland, fairly dull.
The game started as many of Holland’s had, with the Dutch in control. The starting line-up remained unchanged again, with Michels having found his best side, and they rotated the ball around before laying it off to Cruyff, the nominal centre forward. At the point he received the ball, Cruyff was the furthest man back – effectively the centre back – still inside the West Germany half. Cruyff was covered by Berti Vogts of Borussia Mönchengladbach – the man with the task of marking him – and began to dribble. He eventually got a step ahead of Vogts as he moved into the West German box, leading to a desperation slide tackle by Uli Hoeness, which brought Cruyff down. Penalty: before West Germany had even touched the ball. Clearly the Dutch were proving their superiority.
Neeskens stroked home the penalty, blasting it straight down the middle as Sepp Maier dived to his right. Holland 1, Germany 0. From here you would think that the Dutch would take the game to the Germans, and kill the game off within the first half hour. They certainly had them on the ropes. However they didn’t.
What followed was 20 to 30 minutes of largely arrogant football. It wasn’t brilliantly arrogant in the way that their earlier games had been, but it seemed almost aggressive, like a point was being proved. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it was. Holland passed the ball around, retaining possession and playing some nice football, but largely going nowhere and, most importantly, failing to score. Certain members of the 1974 team have been interviewed since the game, and some of them have discussed their “hatred” for the Germans, talking about how much they wanted to embarrass Germany. It all heralded back to the Second World War.
Willem van Hanegem was a example of this attitude. The majority of his family was killed in World War Two. He later said: “I don’t like Germans. Every time I played against German players, I had a problem because of the war.” It was this negative feeling towards Germany following the Holocaust, and following the deaths and persecution Holland suffered from the Nazis in World War Two, that led to this desire amongst certain members of the team to embarrass Germany. What’s strange is that many members of the team weren’t even born when the war ended in 1945. This anti-German feeling, however, remained in Dutch culture and formed part of the players’ psyche.
However there are also other important reasons why Holland noticeably backed off following the goal. Cruyff himself had discussed a plan for him to drop even deeper than usual in order to control the ball better and to allow the midfielders more freedom. Furthermore, Haan and Rensenbrink, both vital players – Haan for his ability bringing the ball out of defence and leading the offside trap, and Rensenbrink for his wide play and runs behind the defence – were not fully fit. Nevertheless, this does not adequately provide the overconfidence that clearly resulted the first goal.
The West Germans held firm and fought their way back into the game. Vogts gradually began to erase Cruyff from the picture, and he became less and less of a factor as the game went on. As West Germany’s confidence grew they ventured forward, and started to play their own passing game, led by libero Franz Beckenbauer and midfield playmaker Wolfgang Overath – preferred to Günter Netzer.
One such move in the 25th minute ended with Bernd Hölzenbein moving into the Holland penalty area, and a badly mistimed tackle by Wim Jansen brought him down. Penalty, West Germany. Many have claimed that Hölzenbein dived, but although he went down dramatically, it was undoubtedly a foul. Maoist left-back Paul Breitner stepped forward and stroked forward the penalty, a penalty many have claimed a better shot stopper than Jongbloed could have saved. 1-1.
From there the West Germans kept up their pressure – perhaps as Holland should have – and began to press for the second goal. In the 43rd minute the second came, with Gerd Müller collecting a cross from the right wing from Rainer Bonhof, and with the ball moving behind him, swivelled and placed the ball into the bottom corner, away from the reaches of Jongbloed. Again, many have claimed a better keeper would have saved the shot. Nevertheless Holland were losing and now seemed mentally fragile. Cruyff was cautioned at half time.
At 2-1 the Dutch kicked back into gear following the half time break and poured forward in search of an equaliser. They consistently threatened the West German defence but simply couldn’t make their way through. Cruyff came back into the game and began to have a greater influence, and Holland came closer and closer. The Dutch had chances, but simply couldn’t finish them. Germany retained their attacking threat, however, and Müller had a legal goal disallowed for offside. It remained 2-1, and the Dutch kept trying.
For the final ten minutes Holland continually attacked, but it just wasn’t to be. The ball wouldn’t go in. Ninety minutes of thrilling, enthralling football ended, and the team that had captivated football fans around the world had lost. Holland were runners up at the 1974 World Cup. They returned home to raucous crowds praising their performances, but Dutch football still wonders what should have been.
But should this really tarnish our memory of them? Just because they didn’t win one game – albeit the one that really mattered – should we remember them as less of a great side? The answer is no. They played some beautiful football, football the world hadn’t seen outside of Ajax until that point. Despite the loss, Totaalvoetbal influenced many nations over the coming decades. Yes, they were unprofessional in the final and allowed their personal feelings to cloud their judgment, but in a way, that only makes them more endearing to the average fan, giving the unbelievably talented team a human quality – a flaw, even – which makes them even more relatable.
They are arguably the best team to watch in the history of football, and along with the 1970 Brazilian side, perhaps the most iconic. In a rather fitting way, their loss in 1974 has ensured that they will never be forgotten, in a way that many winners of the World Cup certainly will. For one summer, the Dutch national team lit up the footballing world and left a legacy that continues to this day. Now, if you asked, I know which team’s matches I’d watch from the 1974 World Cup – it would be Holland every single time. Surely, that’s the greatest legacy of all?
By Jonathon Aspey. Follow @JLAspey