Remembering Rob Rensenbrink: the overlooked Dutch master who came within inches of immortality

Remembering Rob Rensenbrink: the overlooked Dutch master who came within inches of immortality

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From the outside looking in, it’s a strange concept, but just how close the Netherlands came to winning the 1978 World Cup hasn’t left too noticeable an imprint on the national psyche, or at least certainly not in the same way as the failure to prevail in 1974 has.

Rob Rensenbrink came to within the width of an Estadio Monumental goalpost from pure footballing immortality. An inch further to the right and the Oranje would have become the sixth different winner of the World Cup, rather than Argentina. Rensenbrink would have joined a special collection of players to have scored a World Cup-winning goal, and he would have finished the tournament as its leading scorer.

By the finest of margins, Rensenbrink was deflected away from immortality, as he instead – arguably so – drifted into a world of under-appreciation in his home nation. Apart from in the Low Countries of Belgium and the Netherlands, and among football hipsters the world over, Rensenbrink is widely forgotten.

He is a peculiarity. Strikingly gifted with skill to burn, he was blessed with a wonderful left foot and bewitching close-control which saw him drift past defenders as if they weren’t there, an ability that sprang from a dribbling style which gave him the rare propensity to be able to take a ball right into the face of opposing defenders before changing direction at the last second. Unpredictable, dangerous and, at his peak, impossible to play against, he should be far from forgotten.

Born in Oostzaan, almost nine miles to the north of Amsterdam, Rensenbrink slipped through the prolific Ajax net, instead finding his way into football with city rivals DWS. Essentially on an amateur footing despite gracing the top flight, and enjoying occasional forays into the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, DWS were never likely to contain Rensenbrink’s talents for a prolonged period.

In the summer of 1969, at the age of 22, a year after making his international debut, it was the ideal time for Rensenbrink to move on from DWS. The inexorable rise of Ajax had gained pace, having just contested their first European Cup final, while their bitter rivals Feyenoord, who had won the Eredivisie title, were just a year away from going one better in the 1970 final against Celtic.

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While Ajax had been interested observers in Rensenbrink’s development at DWS, they were a club blessed with an abundance of left-sided attacking options. Favouring a position on the left-hand side of the forward line, yet equally adept as an out-and-out left winger, Rensenbrink was under no illusions that Ajax had the continually blossoming Johan Cruyff and the legendary Piet Keizer in the two positions he could occupy.

Feyenoord also monitored his progression and there were tentative inquiries. As reigning champions, however, they elected to rest on their laurels to an extent. The brilliant but slowly ageing Coen Moulijn, a player who drew comparisons to Stanley Matthews, was deputised at times by the wonderful Wim van Hanegem. Again, Rensenbrink would have had his work cut out to displace some formidable figures from the Feyenoord line-up. Yet, in retrospect, Rensenbrink would have been the perfect long-term successor to Moulijn.

In the summer of 1969, an entirely different path was taken by Rensenbrink – and he would never again kick a ball in competitive anger within club football in his homeland.

Frans de Munck, a former international goalkeeper for the Netherlands, had been appointed as the new coach of Club Brugge that summer, and spotting an opportunity to step in where both Ajax and Feyenoord wouldn’t, he swooped for the services of Rensenbrink.

At the Stade Albert-Dyserynck, Rensenbrink took the change of environment in his skilful stride. The Brugge that Rensenbrink joined was essentially sitting upon the eve of greatness. Their solitary league title had been won almost half a century earlier, but from the mid-1960s they had risen to become an increasing thorn in the sides of both Anderlecht and Standard Liège.

Scoring goals on a regular basis during his debut season in Belgium, Rensenbrink’s new club finished runners-up to Standard in the league and swept to domestic cup glory. A near miss on the title followed in 1970/71, combining with a run to the quarter-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup.

The summer of 1971 proved pivotal for Rensenbrink. Board member Constant Vanden Stock departed the club, only to resurface at Anderlecht. Utilising their friendship, Vanden Stock coaxed Rensenbrink to Brussels, from where he would go head to head with his former club for most of the domestic honours on offer throughout the remainder of the decade, as Standard fell away.

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Brought in by Georg Keßler – the man who had given Rensenbrink his international debut – as part of a number of sweeping changes at the club, Anderlecht narrowly edged out Brugge in a tense battle for the title, and defeated Standard in the cup final to clinch the domestic double. Alongside his compatriot Jan Mulder and the Anderlecht legend Paul Van Himst, it was the added attacking potency this triumvirate provided to the team that enabled Rensenbrink to help break the hearts of all those involved with his former club, as his new employers took the title on goal difference.

It was a dream start to life with his new club. However, the following season proved a more difficult one, as Mulder jumped at the opportunity of a summer move to Ajax, while Van Himst struggled for form. It meant that Anderlecht relied on Rensenbrink’s talents far more than they had during the previous campaign. This was offset by the gradual emergence of another precocious talent in the shape of François Van der Elst.

An inconsistent start to the defence of their title and an early exit from the European Cup meant that Keßler departed the club before the year was out. Brugge swept to the title, and while collective form was hard to attain for Anderlecht, Rensenbrink was still scaling individual heights. Despite their problems in the league, the cup was retained as once again Standard were beaten in the final.

Out of sight and out of mind, Rensenbrink was on the outside looking in when it came to the national team, despite his fine performances for Anderlecht. He hadn’t represented the Netherlands since departing DWS. In his absence, and despite the elevated club performances in European competition of both Ajax and Feyenoord, the Netherlands had failed to qualify for the latter stages of Euro 72.

Rensenbrink continued to apply himself to the Anderlecht cause. Under his new coach, Urbain Braems, playing alongside the prolific Hungarian striker Attila Ladinszky, and with the added support of the increasingly effective Van der Elst and the slowly ageing yet ever-dangerous Van Himst, Anderlecht reclaimed the title.

It was during the 1973/74 title-winning campaign that Rensenbrink made his return to the national side, initially recalled by František Fadrhonc, the man who led the Netherlands to World Cup qualification, before being replaced for the finals by Rinus Michels.

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Rensenbrink was viewed as the inside man, given that they were sharing a group with Belgium. When the two nations met in November 1973 in the decisive game at the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam, the Netherlands knew a draw would be enough for them to reach the finals in West Germany. Intriguingly, Rensenbrink was up against four of his Anderlecht teammates on a dramatic night when a combination of fine goalkeeping and profligacy in the penalty area kept the Belgian goal-line unbreached.

Controversy and drama abounded when, in the last-minute, Rensenbrink’s Anderlecht teammate, Jan Verheyen, stroked home what appeared to be a perfectly good winning goal. As the Netherlands defence stepped forward while defending a free-kick, Verheyen had been gifted the freedom of the penalty area. Played onside by at least three defenders, his legitimate goal was erroneously disallowed. By the finest of margins, the Total Football of 1974 might never have been given the opportunity to bloom.

In West Germany, Rensenbrink, for so long on the periphery of the national side, now took on a vital role. Michels opted to start him in all but one game, fielding him ahead of Piet Keizer. Rensenbrink, not involved in the Ajax-Feyenoord-PSV power struggle, was blessed with a remit of freedom that not everyone within the squad could match.

Some fine support performances, inclusive of a vital goal against East Germany during the second-round group stage, helped edge Michels and Cruyff towards the World Cup final. When Rensenbrink was on the receiving end of some painful challenges during the de facto semi-final against Brazil, a game marked by the breathtaking football of Oranje, and the brutality of Brazil’s approach, he was forced to hobble away from Dortmund with huge doubts over his fitness for the final.

Despite passing a fitness test on the morning of the final, in the heat of battle within the Olympiastadion in Munich, Rensenbrink was noticeably off the pace. Had the Netherlands not yielded the early lead they took, then maybe he would have been given further time in the second half. Trailing 2-1, however, Michels could afford no passengers and Rensenbrink was replaced by René van de Kerkhof. Had he been fully fit, it might have made the difference between success and failure.

Rensenbrink’s importance to the national team intensified over the next few years, helping them to the finals of Euro 76, where they were denied the opportunity to face West Germany in a rematch of the World Cup final by the eventual champions Czechoslovakia.

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By the time Johan Cruyff walked away from the international game in the autumn of 1977, Rensenbrink had inherited the role of chief creator in the side that Ernst Happel took to Argentina. Happel, coach at Feyenoord when they passed up the chance of signing Rensenbrink, deployed him on the left of a three-man forward line, in a loose adaptation of the formation his Feyenoord had won the European Cup with.

With Johnny Rep at the tip, Van de Kerkhof on the right, Rensenbrink to the left, and backed up in midfield by Johan Neeskens and Rensenbrink’s Anderlecht teammate Arie Haan, they were a side which lacked the conductor supreme in Cruyff, but instead produced a more balanced and direct variant of play that still embraced sublime vision and skill.

During the span of time between the World Cups of 1974 and ’78, Rensenbrink had cultivated a love affair with the Cup Winners’ Cup at Anderlecht. Molenbeek’s shock title win of 1974/75 was followed by a hat-trick of successes for Brugge. While Anderlecht conspired against themselves domestically, in Europe they excelled. The club reached the Cup Winners’ Cup final in three successive seasons, defeating West Ham in 1976, losing to Hamburg in 1977 and dismantling Austria Vienna a year later. It was during this period that Rensenbrink attracted unfair criticism, that he would raise his game for the big occasions but become unreliable against the lesser teams.

Despite the title eluding them, Rensenbrink, alongside Haan and Van der Elst, made Anderlecht one of the most dangerous and feared sides in Europe. He scored twice in both the 1976 and 1978 finals, performances which enhanced his reputation and in turn raised expectancy levels.

In Argentina, he was in imperious form. A hat-trick against Iran was followed by further goals against Scotland and Austria. Combined with the drive and explosive finishing of Rep and Haan, the Netherlands rolled to the final. Rensenbrink came to within the width of the goalpost at El Monumental from pure footballing immortality.

At the age of 31, it proved to be a watermark moment. Within a year he had played his last game for the Netherlands, while his Anderlecht career ended in 1980 with what was essentially a trailing off, ending his playing days with short spells in the NASL and in France with Toulouse.

Rensenbrink, a man who never went into coaching, remains locked within that vivid moment when he hit the post with only seconds to go in the 1978 World Cup final. He remains a man under-appreciated by many in his homeland, and one often forgotten by football generally. Regardless of that, he will always be a man who hypnotically owned the ball, one who so very nearly inherited the world.

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

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