Think of Holland and Total Football and the images that spring readily to mind are of the pigeon-toed, slightly gawky figure of Johan Cruyff and teammates dazzling in the German World Cup summer of 1974. Their second foray to a World Cup final in 1978 garners less praise, and is also much less esteemed in Holland itself, but the Dutch adventure onto South American soil for the World Cup in Argentina remains an enduringly fascinating tail.

Holland might not have lit up the 1978 tournament in quite the same way that they did four years earlier, but their run to the final on 25 June is, for many reasons, as praiseworthy as the spell cast by the earlier Cruyff vintage.

Argentina 78 also severely stress-tested the old maxim that sport and politics should never mix. Given that the host nation was being governed by Jorge Videla’s military junta, then factor in the avowed progressivism of the Dutch state, and you have a meeting of ideological polar opposites set at loggerheads prior to the global game’s quadrennial showpiece.

The West German schemer and self-confessed Maoist Paul Breitner had already pulled out of his country’s squad, leaving Helmut Schön lighter in terms of creativity than he would have liked. Breitner’s withdrawal, with objections to the Junta cited as the specific reason, might have been expected to precipitate a glut of absences on similar grounds.

None came, however. That is, no withdrawals came as a result of a principled objection to the Argentine government of the day. The most high profile absentee from the World Cup was Johan Cruyff himself, though. Having assured Holland’s passage to the tournament, Cruyff announced his irreversible decision to quit the international game altogether. Still lean and wiry at 31, Cruyff had announced the decision to hang up his Puma Kings after 48 caps and 33 goals for the national side.

A move which was shrouded in mystery and met with disbelief back in late 1977, was only finally stripped of its mystique in 2008, when Cruyff lifted the lid on his decision in an interview with Catalunya Radio. It was while still living in Barcelona as a player in late 1977 that the man who was then the ultimate football superstar was confronted with the choice between family and World Cup glory. For the Dutchman, the decision was a clear no-brainer. Cruyff recalled:

“You should know that I had problems at the end of my career as a player here and I don’t know if you know that someone [put] a rifle at my head and tied me up and tied up my wife in front of the children at our flat in Barcelona. The children were going to school accompanied by the police. The police slept in our house for three or four months. I was going to matches with a bodyguard.

“All these things change your point of view towards many things. There are moments in life in which there are other values. We wanted to stop this and be a little more sensible. It was the moment to leave football and I couldn’t play in the World Cup after this.”

Although without Cruyff, Holland still possessed a squad strong enough to sustain a serious challenge. The one comparable superstar of the era, Franz Beckenbauer, had also retired, leaving Argentina 78 shorn of the two men that had exchanged pendants in the centre circle in Munich’s final four years earlier. While Der Kaiser was living the high life in Manhattan with the New York Cosmos, Cruyff stayed at home, dispensing expert punditry and even managing to grab a World Cup final berth alongside ITV’s two Brians – Moore and Clough – Paddy Crerand and Kevin Keegan.

The eventual 22-man squad contained a depth of experience with just five players over the age of 30. When AZ Alkmaar’s Hugo Hovenkamp withdrew late in the day, the deadline for naming a replacement had already passed and so the Dutch set off for South America with a squad of 21. The great Ajax team, which formed the nucleus of Rinus Michel’s 1974 squad, had broken up by this point, although the players remained. By 1978 Johnny Rep was in France with Bastia, Wim Suurbier was in Germany with Schalke, while Johan Neeskens was at Barcelona with Cruyff.

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HollandHolland’s 1974 squad is widely considered to be the greatest to never win the World Cup

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Ruud Krol was now captain at 29, with the physical hardness to accompany his flawless technique, while Arie Haan, Wim Jansen, Robbie Resenbrink, Wim Rijsbergen and the van der Kerkhof brothers, Willy and Rene, also made the trip. Veteran goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed, then 37, also boarded for the southern hemisphere, although this time he was not promised the first choice slot as the burly, bubble-permed Piet Schrijvers of Ajax retained the gloves from the qualification campaign.

Although the squad had experience at its core, it was not without new faces. Jan Poortvliet, Piet Wildschut, Johan Boskamp, Dick Nanninga, Harry Lubse and Ernie Brandts had all just one cap each, while Ajax midfielder Dick Schoenmaker had yet to make his international debut. Despite the new blood, Holland travelled to Argentina minus a footballer who had always represented something of an outlier in the protean world of versatility that was Totaalvoetbal. That man, the 34-year-old Wim van Hanegem, was another veteran of the 1974 campaign, and had withdrawn when Holland’s new coach had refused to guarantee the veteran a starting place.

A manager without steel and certitude might just have been apprehensive about embarking on a World Cup campaign with a surfeit of relatively untested talent. He might also have had the jitters about going to the tournament minus the world’s best player in Johan Cruyff. That same coach might also have started to rue his failure to rubber stamp a place in the starting line-up for the experience, toughness and guile of Wim van Hanegem. Holland’s coach in 1978 was different, though.

When the genial George Knobel seemed to have no answer to his team’s self-destructive tendencies during the European Championship in Yugoslavia in 1976, the smack of firm governance was called for soon after by the KNVB. Following the Yugoslavian debacle, where once again the Dutch appeared to squander the chance of tournament victory, Jan Zwartkruis took charge for a period of time until Austrian Ernst Happel was installed as Holland’s new national team manager in 1977.

Zwartkruis was relegated to the role of assistant coach or “supervisor” when the World Cup came round, as the iconic Austrian was elevated to the top job. Although Happel’s appointment may have made sense on paper, his leadership caused problems once the squad were settled in Mendoza, where even his illustrious resumé was not enough to placate those players who responded best to Zwartkruis’s combination of steel and cordiality.

For the KNVB, however, the desire to ward off another Yugoslavian experience prompted them to move away from the usual Dutch talent pool. Happel, it was felt, understood Dutch footballing politics as well as Dutch footballers. He had won the league with Feyenoord in 1971, in addition to the European Cup and Intercontinental Cup in 1970, all during a four-year spell which ended in 1973.

At the end of the 1977-78 campaign his Club Brugge team had lost the European Cup final to Liverpool at Wembley, during a season where he had also taken charge of the Dutch national team some eight months earlier. He had, however, signed off in Bruges in May 1978 by winning the Belgian league before taking Holland to Argentina.

It was Jan Zwartkruis, though, who had led Holland through their qualifying campaign. Restoring order and instilling discipline, the former Dutch Air Force officer used the carrot and stick to good effect as his team topped a group containing neighbours Belgium, Northern Ireland and Iceland by five points. The only downside to the unbeaten campaign was the retirement of Cruyff at the end of it.

At first glance, however, a finals group containing Scotland, Peru and debutants Iran did not appear to present too many difficulties for the 1974 runners-up. The altitude of Mendoza in the Andean west of the country might have been hard on the lungs, although the players were thankfully free of the oppressive heat associated with Mexico 70.

Before Holland could even think about kicking a ball in anger, the political, moral and philosophical issues associated with playing football in a country whose ruling regime had created an estimated 30,000 “disappeared” had to be addressed. Interviewed for Jaap Verdenius and Kay Mastenbroek’s 2002 documentary A Dirty Game, Videla’s former minister of finance, Juan Alemán, took issue with that figure, arguing that the total number of casualties of the Junta was closer to 7,000.

As alarm bells rang within the KNVB, their response to the initial research into conditions in Argentina was also echoed in the Dutch underground, where a host of counter-culture figures argued for a boycott of the tournament. Prominent among those were Bram Vermeulen and Freek De Jonge, anarcho-comedians that arranged meetings in the notorious Schiller Café in Amsterdam and who called for an official Dutch boycott of the World Cup in January 1978. Other dissenters included the chairman of the Dutch Young Socialists Felix Rottenberg and even the then Under-Minister for Culture and Sport Gerard Wallis de Vries.

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Jan_Zwartkruis_1977Jan Zwartkruis

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Looking back on the tournament in 2002, Bram Vermeulen insisted that he and De Jonge intended to take away “their favourite toy [the World Cup]” as they had become aware of the situation in Argentina through a friend of De Jonge’s at Amnesty International. Sensing a cause to which they could attach their progressive flag, Vermeulen and De Jonge were joined by Rottenberg of the Young Socialists, who added that their intention was to “cause an emotional irritation about something you normally would deal with in a rational way”. Conversely, former head of the players union Karel Jansen felt that Vermeulen and De Jong were “a group of people that created problems”. The Dutch Prime Minister, Dries Van Agt, though sympathetic to the boycott campaign, felt that the ultimate decision rested with the KNVB.

Unsurprisingly, the players themselves appeared to have simply stuck with the day job itself: playing football. Johan Neeskens argued: “You should never mix sport with politics, otherwise you can’t play any match. Everywhere in the world shit is going on.” Newcomer Jan Poortvliet was similarly candid, adding: “We didn’t pay attention to human rights. Or to what was going on there, because it becomes a hot item because we go there, but I didn’t do any research into the situation there.” When Poortvliet was asked if the KNVB had informed the players about the nature of the Argentinian government, the defender replied: “Absolutely not.”

Looking back on his own youthful activism, Felix Rottenberg admitted: “It was, of course, a middle-class campaign. The better classes. They were not in contact with football players. They were no threat to the players.” It was not just idealistic student activists that were uncomfortable with the Netherlands’ participation, though.

Gerard Wallis de Vries did not even head out to Argentina for the tournament, claiming: “My decision not to go was my personal decision. I didn’t do it to demonstrate.” The lack of opposition in the government to his stance made it plain to him that many of his colleagues were of the same view. He added: “You can conclude that my view was shared by the rest of the government. There was little sympathy for the fact that we were going to participate in a show over there.”

Once in Argentina, ensconced in their Andean training camp far outside Mendoza, the Dutch players felt isolated from civilization. According to Jan Poortvliet, the preparation and solitude seemed ideal in the build up to the tournament: “From the moment we arrived in Argentina, we were isolated. From the airport, to the bus, to our resort in the mountains. There we could eat, exercise, drink, watch TV and play cards. That was all we did the first couple of weeks. Totally isolated.” Frits Kessel, the Dutch team doctor, added: “Most of the time we didn’t know what was going on around us. We got some days old newspapers. You just didn’t know. You heard everything much later.”

In the altitude of Mendoza, Holland’s progress through the first round was hardly setting Mundial ‘78 alight. Kicking off against Iran on 3 June, a Robbie Resenbrink hat-trick, with two penalties, made for an easy opening victory. The Dutch, kitted out in an all-orange strip, were barely extended. After Peru impressively thumped Scotland 3-1 in Córdoba, Holland took on the highly rated Peruvians four days later in a game that ended in a 0-0 stalemate. It seemed that a point from their final game with Scotland would take Holland through to the second phase. Instead, it so nearly turned out to be a disaster.

After going a goal up through a Resenbrink penalty, Happel’s team found themselves 3-1 down as an impressive Graeme Souness dominated midfield and Archie Gemmill scored the goal of the tournament. Arie Haan was dropped, while an injured Neeskens started in this match, although the Barcelona midfielder was subsequently withdrawn. Only a late Johnny Rep screamer allowed Holland to pull back to 3-2 and advance to the second phase ahead of Scotland on superior goal difference.

It was, as Brian Glanville recalls, an Argentine journalist who summed up what many observers felt about Holland in the early stages. The Dutch team, he said, “… resembled a superb machine which lacked the man who invented it. That man, clearly enough, was Johan Cruyff.” With just two full days between the Scotland game and the opening second phase fixture against Austria in Córdoba, drama was unfolding behind the scenes in the Dutch camp.

Assistant coach Jan Zwartkruis accused Ernst Happel of treating the players “as footballers, rather than as human beings”. Having scraped through the initial group on goal difference, the KNVB made their move to transfer power to Zwartkruis, while Happel would remain as a figurehead, taking up his usual seat on the bench.

The coup, known to the players and the initiated – although not more widely until the publication of Zwartkruis’ autography Kapitein van Oranje in 2008 – was carried out just two nights before Holland’s clash with the Austrians on 14 June. In a Córdoba hotel lobby, KNVB president Wim Meuleman signed over the running of the team to Zwartkruis as chairman Jacques Hogewoning, Herman Chouffoer and assistant coach Arie de Vroet looked on. Discontent had been brewing throughout the group stages in Mendoza, with Happel’s tactics and philosophy finding few admirers among Holland’s players.

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ibk4TsuZbSdUGxDaniel Passarella holds the World Cup trophy surrounded by security

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Zwartkruis, though a disciplinarian, was known to the players through his management of the Dutch Army team, and his overall philosophy chimed much more closely with that of Rinus Michels and the current squad. More than anything to do with tactics, though, the coup seemed to be more likely the result of clashing personalities. As Zwartkruis recalled: “I always talked with the boys. When Happel was around he looked angry.” On the day before the Austrian game, Holland’s first in the second group phase, Happel effectively stood aside to allow Zwartkruis to conduct the training himself.

On a murky Córdoba day, facing an Austrian side that had surprised in the opening phase by topping a group that included Brazil, Spain and Sweden, the tactical and attitudinal volte face was there for all to see as Holland swaggered to thrash Austria 5-1. Three goals up at half-time on a pitch whose well-watered state encouraged Holland’s rediscovered fizzing, rapid passing game, it was the perfect start to the second phase.

Summarising for ITV, Jack Charlton acknowledged one incisive move after another and purred in delight as Johnny Rep slotted home the fourth goal from close range after a cross from Resenbrink, observing “a part of their game they’re absolutely magnificent at: they never waste shots at goal from narrow angles”. The replay of the 1974 final with West Germany ended in a 2-2 draw, while the final game of Holland’s second group stage was a tie with Italy which was effectively a semi-final. In a muscular affair not for the faint-hearted, goals from Ernie Brandts and a 40-yard express from Arie Haan saw Holland through to the final with a 2-1 victory.

The final itself, held on 25 June at El Monumental, is an occasion that has gained in notoriety with time’s passage. The hold-up and fuss surrounding Rene van der Kerkhof’s cast at the start, the ticker-tape, the cold, the fouls, the crowd and, yes, Resenbrink’s last gasp shot against the post in normal time. Speaking to David Winner about the match and the atmosphere for his seminal Brilliant Orange, Dutch captain Ruud Krol remembered: “Of course we felt the referee was not with us; that’s for sure. Everybody knew that on the field. We spoke at half-time about it: ‘That fucking referee – is he playing for Argentina too?’ That’s a normal reaction from the players.”

The build-up and journey to the ground on the morning of the final was also something the players would never forge, as Krol recalls: “We were in a hotel outside Buenos Aires and they took us a very long way round to the stadium. The bus stopped in a village and people were banging on the windows, really banging and shouting ‘Argentina! Argentina! Argentina!’ We couldn’t go backwards or forwards. We were trapped. For 20 minutes we stood in a village like this and some players were really frightened because the crowd was really banging and pushing on the windows of the bus.”

Had luck gone their way they could easily have been 2-0 up at half-time, although the Dutch still had spells when they were manifestly in control. At 1-1, with seconds left, Robbie Resenbrink contrived to shoot at goal from yards, despite being surrounded by Argentine defenders. It is the greatest “if only” in the history of Dutch football: an inch the other way and Resenbrink’s unlikely shot would have gone in and they would have been world champions. It was not to be, though. As Resenbrink himself lamented, in conversation with David Winner years later, “Sometimes I think it would have been better for me to miss completely. Then people wouldn’t ask me about it. If it was a big chance, I would still suffer from it, but really it was impossible to score.”

In the event of victory, Holland had expected to receive the trophy from FIFA chief João Havelange. It was, of course, Jorge Videla himself who presented the trophy to Daniel Passarella, and it is without doubt that the Dutch would have felt compromised by Ruud Krol having to receive the trophy from the General. There is a real sense that Holland were almost relieved to get out of the stadium and board the plane to Amsterdam. Jan Poortvliet recalled: “If you’d have won, you wouldn’t have survived.”

Following the game, the official banquet resulted in a no-show from the Dutch party, widely interpreted as a deliberate snub and a boycott. Following their experience travelling to the ground from their hotel on the morning of the game, however, the players were clearly unnerved by the thought of crossing a delirious Buenos Aires to attend the function later that Sunday evening. As it was, the Dutch squad retired for the evening, slept and were later driven to the airport for their return to Holland at the earliest convenience. For them, Argentina 78 was over.

Jan Zwartkruis, the man who had been officially designated supervisor and assistant coach, returned home to Holland the next day in the knowledge that he had been seconds, centimetres even, away from footballing immortality. As it was, Ernst Happel received the pat on the back that comes with heroic failure when his tenure as Holland’s head coach ended with a World Cup runners-up medal. For 30 years Zwartkruis kept his peace until the release of his memoirs in 2008. Only then did he say: “This story should be told. Everyone is always talking about the Oranje of ’74 and ’88, but they skip 1978.”

Some observers have felt that player power kept the Oranje together during Argentina 78, and that neither Happel or Zwartkruis had much to do with the dramatic turnaround in the second group stage. Such a view has since been scotched by several of the ’78 squad, however. Looking back on his only World Cup when he was just a 20-year-old dazzled at being in the company of Krol, Neeskens, Rep, Resenbrink, Haan and company, Piet Wildschut recalled: “I think I speak on behalf of all the internationals, when I say that we had a coach [at the 1978 World Cup], and his name was Jan Zwartkruis.”

By Gareth Bland. Follow @peakdistrictman