Florist, battering ram and late bloomer: how Dick Nanninga rose to score in the World Cup final

Florist, battering ram and late bloomer: how Dick Nanninga rose to score in the World Cup final

As the bright Oranje flame of Totaalvoetbal burnt so brightly before consuming itself in the 1974 World Cup final and falling to cruel defeat, back in Kerkrade, a Dutch town along the German border, an amateur footballer watched on television. Little did he know that, four years later, donned in the famous colours of his country, he would score the goal that gave the Netherlands renewed hope that they could lay to rest the ghost of the numbing defeat to his German neighbours.

In the space of those four years, Dick Nanninga would go from a part-time footballer and full-time worker on construction sites, as well as florist, to being the robust and muscular embodiment of an artisan iconoclast among a squad of Dutch artists, the man who gave hope of redemption to his country.

Born in the early days of 1949, Dirk Nanninga, commonly known as Dick, came late to the professional game, joining Roda for the 1974/75 season. Despite Totaalvoetbal still being the dominant lingua franca of the Dutch game, Nanninga was cut from an entirely different cloth.. His were not the dancing feet of the quixotic forwards that had battled and lost to Germany in Munich, when the biggest game in the world of football was stolen away as the Dutch preened themselves in the mirror. The presence of a forward such as Nanniga would have felt like an irritating stone in the shoe to the character portrayed by the vintage of 1974.

He would, however, have something in common with the greatest of Dutch stars, Johan Cruyff. During the 1974 World Cup, the talismanic Cruyff was contracted to Puma, while the Dutch team wore shirts produced by Adidas. The official national shirt, therefore, carried the three stripes trademark of the latter. The financially astute Cruyff was, however, mindful of compromising his deal and so his number 14 shirt was instead produced with two stripes down the sleeve. It was a compromise that Nanninga also took advantage of four years later when a similar issue applied to him. That, however, is where any similarity began and ended.

If Rinus Michels’ Netherlands were a finely woven silk, here was a forward of a more courser fabric. Nanninga was rumbustious, deploying determination and a powerful physique to bludgeon his way to goals. Upon retirement, his catalogue of injuries spoke both of the fearless bravado with which he put his body on the line for his team and an apparent recklessness unchecked by the lessons he refused to learn from his injuries.

He had endured three broken legs, a broken arm, five ripped ligaments, six broken collar-bones, sustained broken ribs on three occasions, two broken toes, a broken wrist, a ruptured spleen and two hernias. As hard-man strikers go, this was no wallflower or shrinking violet, which is more than a little ironic given that his first decision after turning professional was to use his newfound wealth to open a florist. 

During his eight years with Roda, Nanniga would deploy his robust approach and fearless attitude, eschewing potential and repeated physical costs to intimidate both opposing defenders and goalkeepers. To some, it may have been very much the antithesis of the Dutch approach to football at the time, but 107 goals in 225 league games for De Koempels illustrated that the age-old adage of there being more than one way to skin a cat still held true. By the time he left the club in 1982 for a brief sojourn Hong Kong-based Seiko, his haul made him the club’s all-time top goalscorer. It’s a distinction that endures to this day.

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Nanninga joined Roda a couple of seasons after they had achieved promotion to the Eredivisie by winning the Eerste Divisie title, and for much of his time with the club, Roda were a fairly mediocre outfit; usually safe and often in the top ten of the league, but hardly troubling the top end of the table.

They achieved qualification for the Cup Winners’ Cup at the end of the 1975/76 season, courtesy of losing in the final of the KNVB Cup to PSV Eindhoven, who took a European Cup spot instead as the winners of the league that season. Nanninga’s style was particularly respected by long-time Roda manager Bert Jacobs, who took charge of the club in the same year as the striker arrived and would lead them for the next six seasons, eventually moving to Willem II and then to Seiko in Hong Kong, where he would bring Nanniga briefly back under his care. 

Four years after Michels had seen his team lose in the 1974 final, Ernst Happel had been appointed to lead the national team in Argentina. Happel had enjoyed long success with Club Brugge in Belgium and, with many of the squad from 1974 still available for selection, there was always likely to be a strong echo of the campaign from four years earlier.

The most notable absentee, however, was the most significant: Cruyff. There are a number of stories – some claiming to be well-informed and others that admit to mere speculation – as to why the leading Dutch player in history opted out of the trip to Argentina. Whatever the real reason, however, he was not there and, if only by dint of the absence of his dominating presence, things would be somewhat different. 

Unlike Michels, Happel was not rigidly committed to the religion of Totaalvoetbal and sought alternatives that he could deploy should the team’s traditional approach fail to prevail. He was looking for something different to the leading forward in the team, Johnny Rep; someone perhaps who would be classed as an impact substitute in modern parlance. He decided to take a look at Roda’s battering ram of a forward, Dick Nanninga, as a possible player for the role.   

On 5 April 1978, Happel selected Nanninga for a World Cup warm-up game against Tunisia. Nanninga hadn’t debuted with Roda until he was 24, and his international chance came a little under ten months short of his 30th birthday. In typical style, though, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands, scoring twice in a 4-0 victory. It was enough to convince Happel that he had his wild card sorted for the tournament. There would be one other game for the Dutch ahead of the trip to South America, but Nanninga missed the match against the manager’s native Austria in Vienna. 

Unlike his relationship with Jacobs at Roda, like so many players under the Dutch team manager’s charge, Nanninga would never be close to Happel, describing him as “a good tactical trainer but not very good with people”. He added: “I have never spoken to him longer than half a minute. He never said anything to me.” Perhaps he didn’t need to. When the squad was announced, alongside Rep, Rob Rensenbrink and Harry Lubse was the name of Roda’s finest striker and florist.

The Dutch campaign opened with a game against Iran. To no-one’s surprise Nanninga was on the bench, but with two Rensenbrink goals easing the team to a comfortable victory, Happel sent Nanninga on for the last 20 minutes, perhaps to give him an opportunity to become accustomed to the tournament, but more likely to rest the valuable legs of René van de Kerkhof. 

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The next game, as the Dutch faced Peru, followed a similar pattern timewise. On this occasion, however, when Nanninga replaced Johan Neeskens on 68 minutes, the scoreline was blank. Happel had started the game with Willy van de Kerkhof replacing Rep in the starting XI, but the Netherlands had laboured fruitlessly to break down the South Americans, and he had removed René van de Kerkhof to send Rep into the game some 20 or so minutes earlier without any improvement in score. Nanninga’s introduction would have a similar null effect and the game ended goalless.

Other results in the group meant that so long as the Dutch avoided a comprehensive defeat at the hands of Ally MacLeod’s Scotland they would qualify. Despite a few moments of fear, particularly after Archie Gemmill’s famous slaloming run and goal, Nanninga stayed on the bench as Oranje eased through to the next phase as runners-up behind Peru. It meant being placed in the more competitive of the two second phase groups alongside West Germany, Italy and Austria, with the top team qualifying for the final. 

In the first game, Nanniga again watched on as the Dutch waltzed past the Austrians with a comfortable 5-1 victory. It placed Happel’s team in a good position, especially after the Germans and Italians played out a goalless draw in their opening match. Next would come a replay of that final four years previously that Nanninga had watched on television from his home. This time he would be more involved, if only very briefly. 

An early strike from Rüdiger Abramczik put the Germans ahead. In goal for the Netherlands, Piet Schrijvers could merely parry a free-kick from Rainer Bonhof and the Schalke forward headed home. Arie Haan had squared the game midway through the first half, firing a 35-yard shot into Sepp Maier’s net, leaving the veteran Bayern Munich goalkeeper beaten.

A draw would, in all probability, have suited Dutch aspirations and, perhaps against their natural inclinations, they adopted a more conservative approach. It brought them a dominance of the game, but also left them vulnerable should the Germans score again. Twenty minutes from the end, that vulnerability was exposed. West Germany were awarded a free-kick and, as the Netherlands lost concentration, complaining about the award to the referee, Erich Beer crossed for Dieter Müller to score with a header.

The advantage from the opening group game was now slipping away, and if they fell to defeat, it would, in all probability, set up a winner takes all concluding match against Italy. Even then they would need to hope that the Austrians could deny West Germany victory. In need of another goal, Oranje returned to their attacking emphasis, but entering the final ten minutes they still trailed. 

On the bench, Nanninga was being readied for action. It was time for the impact sub. Two minutes after he entered the field, however, the game was all square again. Willy van de Kerkhof fed a pass to brother René. The elder sibling cut inside a defender and fired home to level things up once more. More drama would follow. 

The Dutch were awarded a free-kick near the Germany penalty area. As was often the case, an opposition player was sent to stand in the defensive wall to distract and disrupt the preparations. With Nanniga on the pitch, and a more physical presence suited to the task, it was little surprise that it was the Roda striker who found himself among the line of jostling German defenders.

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Inevitably, with the Germans determined to defend their goal and Nanninga keen to apply his particular talents to the situation, the constant pushing and pulling became too much for Ramón Barreto, the Uruguayan referee, who sought to restore some semblance of order by cautioning both the striker and German winger Bernd Hölzenbein. Nanninga takes up the story from there. “As the ref was walking away, someone else said, ‘Stupid ref!’ and he thought it was me, and he sent me off. I’d only been on the pitch for seven minutes.” Protestations of innocence fell on deaf ears, and after around five minutes of fevered debate, Nanninga trudged from the field.

Despite the late reduction in their numbers, the Netherlands saw out the remaining few minutes. In the other game, Italy overcame Austria thanks to a single goal from Paolo Rossi. It meant the latter were now out of contention having lost both of their games. Both Italy and the Netherlands had three points, while West Germany had two. Die Mannschaft had the Austrians to play in the final game, whilst the former two would confront each other. Nanninga would be sidelined through suspension for the critical game against the Azzurri.

Surprisingly, the Germans would lose to their neighbours following a Hans Krankl goal, his second of the game, on 87 minutes securing victory and restoring a little pride for Helmut Senekowitsch’s team. Meanwhile, at the iconic Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires, the Dutch and Italians were engaged in what was, to all intents and purposes, a World Cup semi-final. With Nanninga an impotent spectator, things started poorly for his teammates.

On 19 minutes, with the Azzurri in the ascendancy, they took early control of the game. A slide-rule pass put Juventus striker Roberto Bettega through on Schrijvers. Young PSV defender Ernie Brandts, struggling to recover, slid in to challenge. Whilst preventing the Italian striker from getting his shot off, the intervention also saw the ball go past the advancing goalkeeper and into the net.

Worse was to follow when it became clear that Schrijvers had been injured and could take no further part in the game. Jan Jongbloed was called from the bench to replace him. With things now firmly swinging in favour of the Azzurri it appeared likely that Nanninga’s nascent international career was about to run into the buffers with just three caps, less than 150 minutes of action and two goals to his credit. 

The game became increasingly physical with robust Italian defending and increasingly fervent Dutch pressure to chisel out an equaliser. It would have been an ideal scenario for Happel to deploy Nanniga, but that option was denied to the manager. Oranje were in need of inspiration from another source, and shortly after the start of the second half, they found it from an unlikely source. With the ball only half-cleared from the Azzurri penalty area, it fell to Brants. The 20-year-old advanced before smashing an unstoppable shot past Zoff from some 25 yards out to square the game, and achieve redemption for his earlier misdemeanour. 

With a place in the final for the winner, things inevitably became tight and chances were at a premium. It would take either a sensational strike or a tragic error to settle the game. The winning goal came in the shape of the former on 79 minutes when Ruud Krol tapped a short free-kick to Haan. The Ajax midfielder advanced a couple of paces before pulling another audacious 35-yard effort from his repertoire that swerved past Zoff and found its way into the net via the post. In consecutive games, the midfielder had delivered a bolt from the blue that had defeated veteran goalkeepers.

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Despite late efforts from Italy, the game was done. The Netherlands were in the World Cup final for the second time and, with his suspension now served, Dick Nanninga was available if required. He would be. 

The final took place back at the Estadio Monumental and for any who can remember watching the game, it was a full-on emotional experience. For the players, it must have been so much more. Allegations of foul play abounded and echoed around the Argentina team that had qualified for the showpiece from the other group. A Peru team that had entranced throughout collapsed to a six-goal defeat, opening the door for the hosts to qualify amid talk of dark deeds and political chicanery.

The referee for the final was originally to be the widely respected Israeli Abraham Klein, but an objection from Argentina saw it changed to Italian Sergio Gonella, a native of the country the Dutch had eliminated in the game a few days earlier. The Netherlancds coach, while en route to the stadium, had been diverted – apparently accidentally – to a small village where a crowd of locals harangued the players for 20 minutes or so, banging on the windows until the coach escaped.

Then, just ahead of kick-off, a hold up ensued. First, Argentina delayed their entrance onto the pitch for almost five minutes as the frenzied crowd – numbering some “500 Dutch people and 80,000 Argentines,” according to Nanniga’s account – were whipped up into a nationalistic frenzy. Ticker tape streamed down from the steeply banked stands, mingling with the phrenetic acclamations for the home team and aggressive disdain for their opponents. Even then, another protest by the hosts, this time against a small protective cast worn to protect the wrist of one of the Van der Kerkof brothers, which had already been approved by FIFA, caused further delay.

For the Netherlands, it was just the latest embodiment of ill will towards them that they had perceived throughout the tournament. Nanninga recalled a story from the early stages of their time in South America: “When we went shopping, we had police with us who were wearing the same tracksuits as us, but they also carried guns. They pretended to be part of our entourage. We could see guys with rifles on rooftops. It was all a bit strange.” 

The military dictatorship of the country had a worrying reputation, something keenly felt by the liberal-minded Dutch, and for the final they had prepared their own objection. Nanninga stated: “We had decided beforehand that, because of what was happening with the government in Argentina, if we won, we wouldn’t go and collect the cup.” As things transpired, though, and despite the best efforts of Nanninga, that particular protest wasn’t needed.

When the game eventually got underway, Argentina probed with the passionate desire of the fans bellowing and driving them on, and they would score first with a goal that, for so long, appeared destined to be the decisive moment of the final. With half-time just six minutes away, collecting a ball on the edge of the Dutch area, Mario Kempes dragged it between two covering defenders and slid it beyond Jongbloed. 

At the break, Oranje had a mountain to climb. They had laboured long and hard, but all attempts to break down the home defence had floundered. Nanninga recalls the mounting frustration during the break: “You’re eating yourself up on the bench, you want to get on. I heard [Jan] Zwartkruis, our assistant coach, say at half-time, ‘Now is the time to bring Dick on’.”

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Despite the urging of the coach, Happel delayed for a while as continuing efforts floundered. Then came the moment. “All Happel said to me was,” Nanninga recalled, “’warm up’ in German, and I was on.” It was near the hour mark when Nanninga trotted onto the pitch to replace Rep. As with his late debut into the professional ranks, and his even later call up to international football, it would be late in the game before the impact substitute delivered. There would be a mere eight minutes remaining when his moment arrived.

Nanninga recalled the passage of play that led to the equaliser. “The goal came from the left from [Jan] Poortvliet to Arie Haan, and Haan passed it to the midfielder. He played it to the right to René van der Kerkhof and I was in the centre when the ball came.” The cross arrived among a posse of Argentine defenders, but such moments were meat and drink to a player who feasted on crosses throughout his career. Arriving with a run, he climbed above the defence and powerfully headed past goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol, who had little time to react. 

Nanninga’s goal had given the Netherlands renewed hope and, having seen the cup of success dashed from their lips, the home team were suddenly vulnerable. Another Oranje strike would see them home. In the dying embers of the 90 minutes, it nearly came. A raking ball by Krol found Rensenbrink closing in on goal. He directed the ball past Fillol, but it struck the post before being hacked clear.

In extra-time, Dutch legs, wearied by the intense pursuit of an equaliser, were unable to cope with a renewed and rejuvenated Argentina as two more home goals saw them lift the trophy. The Netherlands were relegated to bridesmaids once more. Had Rensenbrink’s effort found the net, Nanninga’s goal would have been lauded as the one that threw open the gates to paradise. As it was, it was merely relegated to a footnote of history. 

It’s a lament redolent in the forward’s memory: “In extra-time they made it 2-1, and then 3-1, and it was done – you know you can’t do anything anymore to win the final. The whistle blew and we went in. We had lost. We went back into the changing room and the first thing I did was roll a cigarette and light it up. We had a few drinks that night.” The final was not the end of Nanninga’s international career, though. He would play another ten times for the national team, adding another three strikes to his tally, before bowing out after a 3-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Cyprus, when he notched the final goal of his time in orange.

The goal on that day in Argentina could have made Nanninga a star and secured him an honoured place in the memory of Dutch football, but it wasn’t to be. Some players experience difficulty upon returning to what passes for normality from such emotional peaks and troughs. Not so with Nanninga. “We flew home the next day and I went back to work in the flower shop the day after,” he explained. “The neighbours had decorated the shop because we had got second place but I just went back to work.” 

Few players ever get to experience a World Cup, let alone appear in a final and score. Nanninga is one of those, but he maintained a reasoned balance between what it meant and what it could have meant. “OK, it was a goal in a World Cup final, but it’s still just a goal,” he confirmed. “I was a labourer’s son … I still am. My greatest achievement is my kids and my grandchildren.” There’s little doubt that Dick Nanninga knew which flower smelt the sweetest. 

By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze

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