The 1974 World Cup and the missing piece in Holland’s almost ‘totaalvoetbal.’

hulshoff

The Olympiastdion in Munich on 7th July 1974. On a seasonably warm Bavarian afternoon, the coronation of Holland’s ‘Oranje’ was expected. Rinus Michel’s team had scorched the the pitches of West Germany with the vivid bright flame of their football. The ‘Cruyff turn’ had been born when Sweden’s Olssen, bamboozled by the Dutchman’s manoeuvre not only had to buy a ticket to get back into the stadium, he also needed a taxi to get back there, so far had he been sent the wrong way. A Brazil squad, shorn of Pele for the first time in a generation had eschewed their ‘jogo bonita’ for a style some called pragmatic, others called brutal. In a beauty and the beast contest however, the Dutch had eliminated the reigning champions. Whilst the Dutch masters created flowing football with the panache of an artist, the Brazilians were cutlass-wielding barbarians in comparison. Wherever they were when they saw the performance, the souls of the ‘Pearl,’ Gerson and Tostao would surely have been uneasy.

And so to the final on that July day, with Holland facing hosts and reigning European Champions, West Germany. For the Dutch, there could hardly have been more fitting opponents to share their moment of history. All seemed well when Cruyff picked up the ball in a left back position before slaloming through the German midfield and defence until upended by his nominal marker Berti Vogts on the edge of the penalty area. Neeskens duly despatched the spot kick and when Sepp Maier picked the ball out of the net, it was the first time a German had touched the ball since English referee Jack Taylor had blown to start the game. The Dutch were in their pomp and spent the next minutes as if elegantly considering a menu of delicious alternatives to pick apart their prey. Self-indulgence and success however are never easy bedfellows.

Perhaps the Germans responded well, perhaps the Dutch got lost in their own swagger, but whichever was the case, the orange-shirted defenders, when asked to protect their goal, came up short. Firstly, Breitner converted the second penalty of the game when Holzenbein was brought down and then Muller performed his party piece. The master poacher produced a reverse shot from just inside the area and and ‘keeper Jongbloed’s tame effort waved the ball past him into the net. The spell was broken. The revolution had died. Football’s counter-culture had seemingly blown itself out, with an Icarus-like tendency to self-destruct. They had flown too close to the sun and their wings of wax had melted.

Although I’ve seen a few reports of the game during my research for this article that don’t totally see it this way, my memory of the second half is of a series of orange waves battering away at the German defence marshalled by the Bayern Munich pairing of the elegant Beckenbauer and the robust Schwarzenbeck. Often the Dutch had merely left the tousle-haired Wim Jensen as the lone sentinel to deal with any German breaks. It was all to nought however, and as the final whistle blew it was West Germany’s trophy, and the Dutch had only a heroic failure and perhaps a tale of what might have been.

Now, I have to declare a vested interest here, if you may not already have discerned it from the above. The Ajax and Dutch teams of the early seventies came to prominence in my very early teens, just at the age when you’re old enough to be looking for a style of football, a way of painting the beautiful game that defines how it should be done. For some it was the Hungarians of the fifties; for others, the Brazil of the sixties. Perhaps others again would take as the template the Spain team that dominated world football until Brazil 2014. For me however, it was Ajax and Holland. And this is where the missing piece slots in.

Barry Hulshoff was a titan of a player. Mop-haired and bearded with the trademark socks around his ankles, bereft of shin pads. He had worked his way into the Ajax team under Michels, although it was always an uneasy relationship. Hulshoff’s personality was much like his playing style, individual and with a spirit abounding to perform the extraordinary. Take a look at Youtube and type in his name. There are numerous videos of him playing for Ajax in European Cup encounters against teams such as Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan. Take a picture of Rio Ferdinand at his best, add in the passing ability of Steven Gerarrd, sprinkle in the determination and power of John Terry, with a dash of the shooting power of Cristiano Ronaldo, and you have an idea of his prowess. The Ajax libero donned in white with the broad red stripe on his shirt strode around the pitch, like some giant out to right the wrongs of the game.

With three European Cup victories already to his name, Hulshoff was the complete article when the 1974 tournament rolled around. Victory in 1971 at Wembley against Panathinaikos saw him diminish the Greek’s main threat by shackling the tall Antoniadis, rendering the tactic of high balls to the striker ineffective. The following year, the defensively-choking approach of Inter Milan was defeated, again with a clean sheet for Hulshoff and his team-mates. Finally, in 1973, another Italian side were beaten as La Vecchia Signora of Juventus also failed to register a goal against the Dutch defence; this time under the coaching of Stefan Kovacs, as Michels had decamped to the Nou Camp and Barcelona. The creator of totaalvoetbal was however to return three months ahead of the World Cup to take charge of the Dutch team. At 27 years of age, tutored in the ethos of Ajax, Hulshoff was primed to play a full part in delivering the ultimate prize in world football to the Netherlands. It was to be the highest of high sporting points for the Low Countries.

As the jigsaw pieces fell onto the table when the squad assembled in West Germany however, one was missing. Hulshoff had suffered a serious knee injury, that would rule him out of the tournament. It was, in fact, an injury from which he never truly recovered. Faced with the dilemma of losing the dominating presence of Ajax libero, the Dutch faced a major issue. Feyenoord’s Rinus Israel would have been the obvious replacement, but ironically, a series of knee operations following repeated injuries had rendered serious doubts about his fitness. Michels would be moved to include him anyway, as a back-up plan. There was also talk of Hulshoff’s Ajax central defensive partner Horst Blankenburg being approached. The problem, however, was that Blankenburg was German. Nevertheless, as the player had never represented his homeland, and with Beckenbauer there, such a development was unlikely, the Dutch were prepared to fast-track nationality papers through if he was minded to take up the offer. Blankenburg refused however.

With the search for a libero proving increasing difficult, Michels opted for a solution that would be replicated by Pep Guardiola twenty-odd years later. When faced with the loss of Carles Puyol, the Blaugrana manager chose to deploy midfielder Javier Mascherano alongside Gerard Pique. In a similar approach, Michels decided to play Arie Haan as the libero, and paired him with the young Rijsbergen. Krol and Suurbier would be the nominal full backs. It was a gamble on Haan being able to utilise an undoubted game nous to fill any gaps in his defensive technique, alongside a relatively inexperienced partner.

The plan seemed to be performing exceptionally well as the Dutch cruised to the final with only a single goal conceded, and that a Ruud Krol own goal against a Bulgaria team already well-beaten at the time. The flip side of that was of course that the defence had hardly been tested. The Dutch attacking play had dominated and disheartened to such an extent that opponents had hardly seemed capable of threatening the Oranje back line. Against West Germany however, that would not be the case.

In that vital period of the latter part of the first half however, after Neeskens had scored and the Dutch had spent some time admiring themselves in the mirror, when Germany first equalised then took the lead, would the presence of the talismanic Hulshoff have made their task more difficult? It surely would. Would it have changed the dynamic of the game? Probably, but how far? In the second period, with the Dutch repeatedly poured forward, would the pace, power and presence of the six foot odd Hulshoff have given an added edge to the attack, especially when balls were loaded into the box? It’s difficult to think that ‘no’ is the answer.

Arie Haan was a superb player and in the 1978 World Cup, his distance shooting was to embarrass both Maier and the veteran Italian ‘keeper Dino Zoff as a weaker Dutch team again lost in the final to the hosts; this time Argentina. He would however surely never claim to be a sustainable replacement for the presence of Hulshoff. In any game against as canny a performer as Gerd Muller, a defensive weakness was always likely to be exposed, and in the final analysis, this is why the Dutch came up short in Munich.

It would be wrong to say that a football ethos died that day in July 1974, but certainly a little of the romance did. Jack Kerouac, the American author, rebel and co-founder of the Beat Generation once declared: “My fault, my failure, is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them.” It’s not a bad description of the Dutch national team of the seventies, for ever ‘On the Road’ as it were, but never quite arriving. This is of course to not to decry the German triumph. On the day, the best team probably won. It just wasn’t the team that most people wanted as World Champions. It wasn’t how it was meant to be.

I don’t know where Barry Hulshoff was when he saw the denouement of the tournament, and Beckanbauer lifted the trophy that may have been in Dutch hands, had he been there. After a scandalously meagre fourteen Dutch caps, with six goals from centre back, Hulshoff’s is a story not of what might have, but what should have been. Without him the story of Dutch totaal voetbal, was somewhat less than complete. It’s often said that, in rock music, to die young is a good career move. The same can be said in literature. Karouac’s approach to life and his art has reflections on the Dutch approach to football. The magic era of Oranje may not hold the romance it does if they had won the World Cup. It’s difficult to be defined as rebellious when you become the establishment,

Any picture portrayed in a jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece can never be anything but frustrating, not because it is poorer without it, but because with it, it could have been perfect.  Falling one step short of the title however can be both rewarding and frustrating. Being a “people’s champion” is fine, but dining at the top table is surely the ultimate reward. Had Hulshoff not suffered that knee injury and instead taken his allotted place in the Dutch team on that day in Munich, the history of football could have been very different. Without him, the Oranje was incomplete and the totaalvoetbal just wasn’t.

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