The best team never to have won the World Cup.

After Holland’s defeat to Argentina last night, they again became the bridesmaids of World Cup competition and are still to win the biggest accolade of all. It seemed therefore appropriate to reprise an article that I’d produced before the World Cup kicked off, looking at one of the great Dutch sides of the past who, in my opinion were the best team never to have won the World Cup. Enjoy!

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Around about now, with the big tournament just around the corner, there’s always an opportunity for these sorts of articles. They say that nostalgia is a thing of the past, but I’m not so sure! We all love a bit of reminiscence and to talk about our favourite sides in world football. Yes, of course the winners, but also those that didn’t receive the ultimate accolade, those that came up short in World Cup tournaments. They’re the teams that promised so much but didn’t deliver the big trophy on the big stage. The history of football is full hard luck stories. What could have been. What should have been. What, simply put, never was.

I guess it’s an age thing. Your formative years when you saw a style of football that looked like the ideal, gripped you. It burrowed into your soul, and a bit like the fashions of the day that remain your guilty secret, you still think they’re the real deal, the best of all time. Go on, let’s be honest, you still like those flared trousers and a tie-dyed T shirt, don’t you? It’s nothing to be ashamed of. We’re all children of our generation, and it’s very much the same with football.

Hungary 1953

I recall my father waxing lyrical about the ‘Magical Magyars.’ This was the team of Puskas and Gento that turned up at Wembley and destroyed England’s insular belief in its omnipotence, but that was back in 1953, before even I was born. The ‘Golden Team’ of that period played some 50 games, winning 43, drawing six and losing only one. Unfortunately, that one loss was the World Cup Final against West Germany in Berne. The great Hungarian side never lifted the biggest prize.

Danish Dynamite

More recently, there was the ‘Danish Dynamite’ side that featured in the 1986 tournament. Sepp Pontiek’s team wove magical patterns throughout the tournament, and in Preben Elkhaer, the explosive striker, and Michael Laudrup his winsome, almost mystical partner up front, they had a potency that fully earned their nickname. I particularly remember their 6-1 demolition of Uruguay. It was beauty slaying the beast. A game when immaculate creativity carved apart a sterile defensive system. (See the ‘Danish Dynamite’ story on this website: Unfortunately, the Danes lost their way in an ill-tempered game against Spain, and were eliminated. They have never returned with such a potent power on the world stage. Much like the Hungarians, their day was done, and they had missed the big prize. By that time however my footballing conversion on the road to Damascus was already a done deal.

In the early seventies, as a callow teenager, my footballing ideals were painted in a vivid shade of orange. The world of football outside of these shores was just nosing its way into our consciousness. Sure, Glasgow Celtic and a George Best inspired Manchester United had lifted that odd-looking trophy, but it wasn’t as if it was the FA Cup or something really that big. As the seventies kicked in however, so did the intrigue with the European Cup. At this time, the dominant force was the Dutch club Ajax of Amsterdam.

Under the enlightened coaching of Rinus Michels, Ajax had pioneered the concept of ‘totaal voetbal’ or Total Football, where players were interchangeable. Opposing defenders could be left aghast as the striker they were detailed to mark dropped back to play as right full back. Yes, that’s what they did – all of the time. The figurehead of this footballing revolution was the skinny-looking Johann Cruyff. You can keep your Maradonas, Peles and the rest. For me Cruyff was the best player I’ve ever seen. Also however I was always impressed how the tactics were epitomised by centre back Barry Hulshoff, whose mop-hair and moustachioed demeanour, complete with socks rolled down around his ankles, betrayed the enigmatic skills that were scandalously rewarded with a mere dozen international caps for the ‘Oranje.’ And that takes me to the best team never to have won the World Cup.

Barrie Hulshoff

For me, it has to be the Dutch team of the mid-seventies. Runners-up in successive tournaments to the host nations, I have little doubt that not only were they the best team in the world throughout the eighties, but if their fate had been to play any other country than the host nations in the finals of ’74 and ’78, they would have won those trophies and been declared as one of the best teams of all time.

The teams at the two tournaments however were quite different. In 1974 Cruyff was their leading light, but four years later, he had opted out of the journey to Argentina, but more of that later.

Carlos Alberto, captain of Brazil’s famous 1970 World Cup winning team was interviewed for the 50th anniversary issue of World Soccer magazine, and asked about pioneering teams. He declared that “The only team I’ve seen that did things differently was Holland at the 1974 World Cup in Germany. Since then everything looks more or less the same to me…. Their ‘carousel’ style of play was amazing to watch and marvelous for the game.” It’s a sentiment difficult to argue with, and I, for one, wouldn’t even want to.

Following on from Feyenoord’s victory over Celtic in 1970 to take the European Cup to Holland for the first tmie, Cruyff’s Ajax then kept the trophy in the Netherlands for a further three years as they recorded successive final victories over Panathinaikos. Inter Milan and Juventus. It was on this bedrock of club success that Rinus Michels as national coach – with Stefan Kovacs having taken over at Ajax – now deployed his totaalvoetbal, and introduced it to the world at large.

I’ve heard a few theories that Dutch football‘s exorbitant use of space is born of people from a country largely reclaimed from the sea, and therefore one that uses all space to its maximum. I’m not sure about the accuracy of that, but the approach of the ‘74 Dutch team seemed  to adhere to that sort of principle. They mesmerised and amzaed  with rotation of positions, cultured inter-play and innovation. It was in this tournament that Cruyff first displayed the turn that was for evermore to carry his name. In an initial group game against Sweden, he was being closed down and jockeyed by a blue-shirted defender. Then, with an extravagent arc of his right foot, he convinced his opponent that he was attempting a cross, but instead dragged the ball back between his legs and scampered away in the opposite direction. It wouldn’t be true to say the defender was so comprehensively dummied that he had to buy a ticket to get back into the stadium, but it wasn’t far away.



The Dutch won their group, and in this competition went forward to a second group stage comprising two sets of teams, the winners of which would compete in the final. Whilst the West German hosts were in a pot with Poland, Yugoslavia and Sweden, the Dutch were to face the much more stringent tets of Argentina, Brazil and East Germany. In their first game they destroyed the Argentines with a 4-0 voctory. Cruyff netted first and last, with goals from Johnny Rep and the elegent nominal full bak Ruud Krol inbetween. Next came a comfortable 2-0 victory over East Germany, before the crunch game against Brazil. With both teams having won twice, the winners would progress to the final. This however was not the Brazil of Pele and Jairzinho. Although Rivelino was still in the squad, he looked an elegent notch apart from the muscular approach of many of the players that wore the famous yellow shirt, but played like people who knew little of its heritage.  It was therefore a joy for football – and perhaps for the true Brazilain way of playing as well – as the Dutch survived the South Americans‘ robust challenge to win 2-0.

In the final against the hosts at the Olympic Stadium in Munich, the West Germans had detailed their best defender, Berti Vogts, to mark Cruyff. It ddin’t take long for the ‘lean‘ player wearing his usual number 14 to pick apart the plan. Collecting the ball in an auxillary full back position – of course – Cruyff glided effortlessly, slaloming through the German midfield, until Vogts lunged desperately at him as he entered the penalty area. English referee Jack Taylor never shirked his repsonsilbility for a heartbeat, and awarded the penalty. Neeskins dispatched and within two minutes the Dutch were ahead.

Sadly, the Germans came back. If the Dutch had a weakness in their squad it was with their goalkeeper, Jan Jongbloed. The Germans first equalised with a Paul Breitner penalty, then went ahead just before the break with a Gerd Muller goal that the ‘kepper should surely have saved. From that point the Dutch poured forward in orange waves, searching for an equaliser. As time wore on, they often left Wim Jensen as a sole defender,  battering the hosts almost without respite. It was however to no avail. West Germany held on to win the trophy and the Dutch had come up short.

Four years later, the core of the same squad journied out to Argentina. This time however Cruyff was absent. He had by now moved to Catalunya and was revolutionising the play at Barcelona. Rumours have circulated as to why he baled on the 1978 tournament. Talk of kidnap threats and the internal strife in the squad that was always the counterpoint off the pitch of their seemingly harmonious football on it abounded. Whatever reason, the team had lost their talisman. By now totaal voetbal had waned a little and the heat of the South American summer dictated a much slower pace of game. Long-distance goals became the hallmark of the tournament and in Arie Haan, the Dutch had one of the best exponents.

Despite a panicky last game against Scotland in the group, where Archie Gemill netted ‘that goal’ the Dutch squeezed through the group as runners-up to Peru. In the second group stages, they waltzed past Austria winnnig 5-1 and then drew with their old foes West Germany, equalising twice after being behind. The last of which was a Haan special that deceived veteran German ‘keeper Sepp Maier. They then beat Italy 2-1 again with a long range shot from Haan, this time as the winning goal. Now, here’s the controversial part.

Holland 1978

Going into the final group game against Peru, Argentina knew that they needed a four goal margin to qualify. A decidedly disinterested-looking Peruvian side actually succumbed 6-0 and the host nation progressed to the final. There have been many conspiracy theories circulating around this game, but there’s one that keeps resurfacing. That a deal was done between the military dictators of Argentina and Peru to conspire in the required result happening. But is there any evidence to support it.

I’ve read reports that a former Peruvian Senator Genaro Ledesma, has stated, under oath, that such a deal was cut. Ledesma, at the time of the statement then 80-years-old, gave evidence under oath at the trial of former Peruvian army chief Francisco Morales Bermúdez. Back in February, 2012, a Dutch newspaper ‘de Volkskrant’ reported that: “According to Ledesma, at the time Bermúdez asked his fellow dictator Jorge Videla if Argentina would capture Ledesma and twelve other dissidents. This would happen under the infamous Plan Condor, in which Latin American dictators helped each other’s dissidents to ‘disappear’ in the 1970s. In exchange, Peru would lose the match against Argentina by a large score, which would mean Argentina reaching the final.” FIFA did stated that they would investigate the matter, but there will be little surprise to hear that nothing ever came out.

What is difficult to dispute however is that Argentina sought to deploy whatever ruse they could to tilt the odds in their favour as they faced the Dutch in the final. FIFA had originally appointed the respected Israeli referee Abraham Klein to officiate at the game, but the hosts vetoed the choice and a lesser-known Italian Gonella was put in charge. These things are often subjective of course, but I’ve read accounts of the game that describe Gonella’s performance as a “woeful, one-sided performance in favour of the home team.”

Before the teams even reached the stadium however, things were less than ideally planned for the Dutch. On the way, the coach was ‘accidentally’ sent the wrong way, and ended up in a small village where it was besieged by a number Argentine fans banging on the sides and windows for over 20 minutes. Then when the teams came out, Argentine officials began to protest against a lightweight cast protecting the injured wrist of René van de Kerkhof. All of this farrago was despite the fact that the cast had been approved by FIFA well in advance of the game. The issue was eventually resolved and van der Kerkoff was allowed to play – complete with cast. The sad thing of course is that Argentina may well have been good enough to beat the Dutch without any such shenanigans.

The game itself was dramatic, but hardly the feast of football that it should have been. Mario Kempes put the hosts ahead before half time, and looked like holding out until the end until substitute Dirk Nanninga – a tall muscular striker, less unlike the silky Cruyff it would be difficult to find – equalised eight minutes from the end. Then came the moment that still haunts Dutch football to this day. In injury time skipper Ruud Krol pierced the home defence with a 50 yard pass to Rob Rensenbrink. The striker shot firmly from an angle, but the ball ricocheted from the post and away. The distance of a mere few centimetres that separated Rensenbrink from glory, was the closest that the Dutch were going to get to lifting the World Cup. Extra-time arrived and two more goals from the hosts saw them home, leaving the Dutch as bridesmaids once more.


Hard luck stories are the exclusive purview of losers, but for this particular football fanatic, the Dutch team of the seventies, and particularly the ‘74 vintage that scorched the pitches of West Germany with the bright orange flame of their football were one of the best teams I’ve ever seen. Finishing as runners-up to the hosts in successive World Cups is the closest of calls, but to my mind, they remain the best team never to have lifted the trophy.

(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for the ‘touchlinebanter’ website).




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