The Never, Never Land of The Netherlands at the World Cup.

There’s a poignant inevitability about the fate of the Dutch national team in the World Cups played out in 1974 and 1978. Scornful of victory, embracing the creation and innovation rather than the denouement. Movement, flow and fluidity marked their way. Two losing finals; contrasting in so many ways, and yet so very similar in that both ultimately ended in shattering defeats by the tournament hosts. On the road, but not arriving. Bridesmaids donned in orange.

Widely touted as potential winners in 1974, but falling at the final hurdle despite having taken the lead when, perhaps an inherent arrogance surpassed their intoxicatingly tantalising skills. West Germany took advantage of the hubris and lifted the trophy. The Dutch shuffled away, not licking their wounds, but contemplating what might have been; off-shade tangerine dreamers.

Then in 1978, with surely an inferior team – shorn of Cruyff, of course – losing again in the final, despite the exquisite agony of hitting the post two minutes from time with the game balanced at 1-1 – touch the dream, glimpse paradise, then see it snatched away – but succumbing in extra-time to the Argentine passion play. And in that moment of ball striking woodwork and cannoning back to safety, when surely a goal would have swung the game in favour of the Dutch, the entire story of the flaring brilliance and ultimate fate of that particular shade of Oranje is neatly summed up. Best team in the world for best part of a decade, but as with the Magical Magyars of the fifties, without the trophy that would brook no dissent from such an assertion.

In the early seventies, the bright orange flame of the Netherlands’ Totaal Voetball had scorched the football pitches of Europe, with club side Ajax as the torch-bearers. The names of the players sporting the iconic broad red stripe on the white shirt at that time read like a Hall of Fame of Dutch footballing superstars. The irrepressible Cruyff, the majestic Piet Keizer, the all-action Johan Neeskens, the elegance of Ruud Krol and the dominating presence of the incomparable Barrie Hulshoff to name but a few. Under the guidance first of Rinus Michels, then of Stefan Kovacs when the Maestro decamped to the Nou Camp, the Amsterdam club had become the dominant force in Europe. As outstanding teams do, they redefined how the game should be played, creating a new paradigm, dynamic in design and elegant in execution, that was widely imitated, but never surpassed.

After losing the European Cup Final to AC Milan in 1969 – at a stage perhaps too early in their development – Ajax regrouped and won the ‘pot with the big ears’ in three successive years, in 1971, 1972 and 1973. In 1974 therefore, the World Cup was surely there for the Dutch team’s taking. To many football fans of relatively tender years, it may seem strange to contemplate that the 1974 tournament was the first finals the Dutch had attended since 1938. Perhaps even more strange is the fact that after the 1978 Final defeat to Argentina, a country that had played in two successive finals, wouldn’t grace the tournament again for a dozen years. The flame that had flared so quickly, and burnt so brightly, died, fittingly, in the poetic terms of Eliott’s ‘The Wasteland’ “…not with a bang, but a whimper.”

The story could have been so different though if, with just two brief minutes to play in the 1978 final, the ball had merely kissed the post and crossed the line, rather than bounced clear. Victory, and the crowning glory to an era in football history that lauded talent over organisation, versatility over strategy and innovation over tradition, would have been attained. That however, would not be the way that an iconoclast football team should be remembered. How can you be the rebel if you’re part of the establishment?

In 1974, Cruyff and his team had ripped through the tournament. In the initial group stages victories over Uruguay and Bulgaria had been comfortable enough, and only the Swedes managed to avoid defeat in those early skirmishes. That was the game however, when the ‘divine fourteen’ introduced the world to the turn that would bear his name. Flick, spin, accelerate – and away! “Taxi,” yelled the unfortunate Swedish defender, bamboozled by the innovative move. Not only had he to buy a ticket to get back into the ground, but also had to hire that taxi to take him back there, so far had he been sent the wrong way.

The Dutch topped the group with five points, and having found the net six times in three games, their attacking play was finely honed. A late and irrelevant own goal by Krol against Bulgaria being the only blot on their defensive copy book.

In the next phase, a second set of groups were drawn to establish the finalists. The Netherlands were pitted against Argentina, East Germany and reigning champions Brazil. First an emphatic 4-0 triumph over Argentina, in what was probably the best display of the tournament, set the tempo for the group. Bright orange placing others in the shade. A comfortable 2-0 victory over the hosts’ fraternal neighbours followed before the confrontation with Brazil to decide who would progress to the final.

Under Mario Zagallo though, this was not the ‘Joga Bonita’ of Pele, Gerson, Carlos Alberto et al that had entranced the world in Mexico four years earlier though. In its stead came a snarling street-fighter of a team, ill-fitting with the cultures of the the ’Boys from Brazil’. It may, therefore, have been appropriate that instead of the famous yellow shirt, drenched in past glories, Zagallo’s team wore blue as they muscled around the field delivering bruises that resembled both the dark depths of their deeds and the colour of their shirts to the limbs of the ‘will o’ the wisp’ Dutch players, as they skitted around the industrial challenges.

Fittingly, Brazil finished the game a man short after Luis Pereira transgressed for the umpteenth time and was dismissed by German referee Kurt Tschenscher, six minutes from time. And not a moment too soon! It’s perhaps also appropriate that the Dutch too wore a changed strip. They were the white knights, just lacking their chargers as they slew the dragon. A 2-0 triumph for the Oranje with goals from Neeskens and Cruyff saw the guardianship of the ‘Beautiful Game’ pass albeit temporarily from South America to the north-west of Europe.

And so, to the Olympiastadion in Munich. A goal before the 77,000 crowd had barely sat down threw open the gates to paradise when English referee Jack Taylor awarded a penalty after Cruyff’s slaloming run from full-back was halted by Berti Vogts despairing intervention. Neeskens hammered home from 12 yards. Easy? Too easy for the Dutch. Whilst pondering various options to dissect the game, they lost their way and Breitner equalised, then arch poacher Muller scored; all before the break.

A second-half of increasingly constant attacking foundering on the stubborn German defence was the sort of failure that seemed destined rather than deserved. Did the best team in the tournament end up with the silver medals? Perhaps. But this was a Jack Kerouac team, with a story that could have been told by Sal Paradise, but sans paradise, and with any number of Dean Moriartys – always On The Road, but never arriving. The journey was their reward, and their bane.

Four years later, and across the Atlantic to South America. No great arrogance this time – and no Cruyff however – the erstwhile skipper opting out for any number of reasons proffered, ranging from fears of kidnap to injury – but with the shadow of his absence still leaving others in the shade.

A group including Peru, Scotland and Iran shouldn’t have been so difficult to negotiate. Peru, on their home continent, were the tournament’s surprise package though. That is, until a six-goal capitulation against the hosts, that carried the pungent smell of political intrigue and under the table agreements.

A comfortable, if unconvincing, victory over Iran and then a draw against the Peruvians meant qualification so long as they could avoid a three-goal defeat to Ally MacLeod’s Tartan Army. Success against a team comprehensively beaten by Peru and held to a draw by Iran should have been a stroll, but no. Only after Archie Gemmill’s dancing feet – entrancing in the grand manner of Johann himself – had put the unexpected result tantalisingly into the hands of the Scots, did the somnambulant Dutch arise, Rip van Winkle-esque. Rep firing home from long range to calm things and tuck the Dutch in, just behind Peru, to earn qualification as runners-up. Still on the road, if only just.

In the second phase groupings, it would be Austria, Italy and their Nemesis from four years earlier, West Germany, forming the roadblocks. It looked a stern test, especially after the labours of the first group stage. But this was the time for Arie Haan and his long-range shooting boots. Press-ganged into a libero role four years earlier, to cover the massive hole left by the injured and unavailable Hulshoff, Haan now had free rein for his more natural game and would bang in a goals from prodigious distances that embarrassed a couple of veteran goalkeepers.

Merely finding his range in the opening game against Austria as his team cantered to a 5-1 victory, Haan netted the first blockbuster past the oversize-gloved hands of Sepp Maier to level the scores against West Germany. A late goal by Rene van de Kerkhof was still required though to secure a draw, as again the Germans proved to be too large a stumbling block. Dutch progress interrupted, but hardly stalled. In the final game against Italy, it was Haan again. This time his howitzer eluding Dino Zoff in the Azzurri goal to give the Dutch victory after team-mate, defender Ernie Brandts, had diplomatically scored at both ends. As with four years previously then, the Dutch had topped the second group and were headed to the final. With rumours aplenty of dark shenanigans at play, they would again face the hosts after the most outrageous of results. Argentina 6 Peru 0. Hmm, enough said?

Military juntas are seldom the best guarantors of all things bright and beautiful, let alone things being done above board, and on top of the abject surrender of Peru that neatly placed the hosts into the final, things didn’t end there. The Dutch were again on the road. This time to the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires on 25th June, just a dozen days short of being four years since Munich. On the road yes, but not to the stadium, as it turned out. An apparent mix up in communications led the coach carrying team and accompanying officials down a metaphoric dark alley to a secluded village where a group of conveniently located Argentines berated and threatened the bus until an escape could be made. Hardly the ideal preparation for a team bound for the World Cup Final, but perhaps that was precisely the reason for it.

Now back on the road to the stadium. Entering the field of play, a sudden complaint from the hosts that the lightweight cast, approved by Fifa, to support the damaged wrist of Rene van de Kerkoff was not allowed. Drama, accusations amid much gnashing of teeth and stamping of feet. Eventually the already approved cast, was approved again, and the referee, Sergio Gonella of Italy – a last minute change after the respected Abraham Klein was apparently vetoed by the hosts – got the game under way.

A close contest, played out on a pitch peppered with ticker-tape hurled down from the masses of Argentine fans. Then the break. Seven minutes ahead of half-time and Mario Kempes put the hosts ahead. This time there was no second-half of waves attacking the home defence. The Dutch battled but there was still plenty of balance in the game. What to do to change things?

Ernst Happel, the Austrian now managing the Dutch team, made a decision. On the hour mark he removed Johnny Rep of Ajax – and all that meant – sending on the Roda JC Kerkrade forward Dick Nanninga. A more striking contrast would be difficult to find. Rep was the blonde flowing locks, shirt streaming out behind him as he ran, wispish, waspish and lithesome. Nanninga had the look of an interloper who had been washed ashore in this alien culture. Solid and muscular he had an impressive scoring record with his club. Was this a tainting of the Dutch way. If it was, it worked. With just eight minutes left, Nanninga levelled the scores. Time ticked on, and then the moment.

The last seconds were in play when Ruud Krol swept a free-kick into the Argentina penalty area. From the centre-circle, the ball described an elegant arc as it drifted towards the danger area. Hesitation in the defence. A heart-stopping moment, and an orange shirt appeared from the left. It was a freeze-frame stolen from time, as the player watched the ball travel a seemingly celestially-prescribed route to meet up with his run.

In a team of outsiders, Rob Rensenbrink had a particular edge. Eschewing the league in his home country, he had moved to the neighbouring Belgian set up, first with Club Brugge, and then on to Anderlecht. To many Dutch fans, the move was a ‘cop out’ building a reputation in the less competitive Belgian league. Whether any such criticism was valid or not, here was the chance to wipe any such talk away and become the hero; the national hero. To be the man who finally saw to it that the Dutch would arrive.

Four years previously, he had been part of the team that had dazzled and bewitched to beat Argentina 4-0 in an exhilarating performance. He hadn’t scored in that game, but now he could net against the same opponents on the biggest stage. He had played against West Germany in the previous final, but had again failed to find the back of the net. Now all of that could be cast into the irrelevant footnotes of history.

The ball travelled on towards Rensenbrink. Four goals already scored in the tournament. A hat-trick against Iran – including two penalties to illustrate ice cool nerves. Another spot kick against Scotland. With Argentine defenders hesitating, the ball unforgivingly bounced around the penalty spot. No defender took charge. Curling away, the ball continued, unhampered, towards the inrushing Rensenbrink. In goal, Ubaldo Fillol saw not only that the ball was running out of his reach, but also that it was heading towards the Dutch player. As Rensenbrink’s outstretched right foot flicked the ball goalwards, Fillol hurled himself in a Schmeichel-like star to try and block, but the ball evaded him.

It bounced on the way towards goal. What had the gods in mind for the Dutch? A kiss on the upright and the net, or the thud of disappointment and a clearance. Argentine and Dutch breaths were held in unison. Then, it was the latter. As the ball bounced back into play, there was no Dutch player following up. Instead the ball was hacked clear. There was no bang. There was a whimper. The moment had passed and with it the flame of Dutch football was doused. In extra-time another goal by Kempes and one by Bertoni, saw the hosts home. It had all ended with the whimper. Crescendo of blue and white. Back to the shadows for the Oranje.

In his book ‘Brilliant Oranje’ David Winner describes the moment with eloquence, concluding that had the ball crossed the line, and the Dutch lifted the trophy, Rensenbrink would not only have won the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top-scorer, he would surely have been the player of the tournament as well, and had streets named after him back in Holland – he may even have outshone Cruyff – no thoughts of being a player in a backwater league, any more. Instead, the ball hit the post and Rensenbrink merely became a footnote in the record books as the first Dutch player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup finals game for his exploits against Iran.

In Keroauc’s On The Road, Sal Paradise says, “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”

If not quite the ‘beat generation’ of Kerouac’s era, perhaps the Dutch teams of the 1974 and 1978 World Cups were the ‘get beat generation.’ They may well have agreed with the judgement of Sal Paradise though, it’s better to travel in splendour hope than arrive in disappointment. “Awww!”

(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for ‘The Football Pink’ website).



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