The late blossoming of Dick Nanninga – Florist and Dutch international footballer.


As the bright Oranje flame of Dutch Totaal Voetbal burnt so brightly before consuming itself in the 1974 World Cup Final and falling to cruel defeat, back in Kerkrade, a Dutch town virtually lying up against 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 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 – and a florist.

Born in the early days of 1949, Dirk Nanninga, commonly known as Dick, came late to the professional game, joining JC Roda for the 1974-75 season. Despite Totaal Voetbal 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 out to Germany in Munich when the biggest game in the world of football was stolen away as the Dutch preened themselves in the mirror, deliciously deliberating over the different ways in which they could embarrass their opponents before elegantly casting them aside and strolling away with the trophy. The presence of a forward such as Nanniga would have felt like an irritating stone in the shoe to the character portrayed by the Dutch vintage of 1974.

He would, however, have something in common with the greatest of Dutch stars, Johann Cruyff. During the 1974 World Cup, the talismanic Cruyff was contracted to Puma, whilst the Dutch team wore shirts produced by Adidas. The official national shirt therefore carried the three stripes trademark of the latter company. The financially astute Cruyff was, however, mindful of compromising his deal and so his number fourteen 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 with him. That however is where any similarity probably began and ended.

If Michel’s Dutch team were a finely woven silk, here was a forward of a more courser fabric Nanninga was a rumbustious forward, 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 men’ central strikers go, this was no wall flower or a shrinking violet, which is more than a little ironic, given that his first decision after turning professional was to use his new found wealth to open a flower shop.

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, and when he left the club in 1982 for a brief sojourn Hong Kong based club, Seiko, his haul made him the club’s all time top goalscorer. It’s a distinction that endures to this day.

Nanniga joined Roda a couple of seasons after they had achieved promotion to the Eredivisie by winning the second tier Eerste Divisie title, and for much of his time with the club, Roda were a fairly journeyman outfit, usually safe, and often in the top ten of the league, but hardly troubling the top end of the table. They did achieve qualification to the European Cup Winners Cup at the end of the 1975-76 season however, courtesy of losing in the final of the KNVB Cup to PSV Eindhoven, who took a European Cup spot instead, as also winners of the league that season. The forward’s play was particularly respected by long-time Roda manager Bert Jacobs, who took charge of the club in the same year as Nanninga arrived and would lead Roda for the next six seasons, before moving on first to Willem II in Tilburg, and then to Seiko in Hong Kong, where he would bring Nanniga briefly back under his care.

Four years after Rinus Michels had seen his team lose out in the 1974 final, Austrian Ernst Happel had been appointed to lead the Dutch national team to Argentina. Happel had enjoyed long success with Bruges 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 any number of stories, both those claiming to be well-informed, and others that admit to mere speculation as to why the leading Dutch player of his generation 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 Totaal Voetbal, and sought alternatives that he could deploy should the team’s traditional approach fail to prevail. He was looking for something different to the established leading striker 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 thirtieth birthday. In typically robust style though, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands, scoring twice in a 4-0 victory. It was clearly enough to convince Happel that he had his ‘wild card’ player 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 really be close to Happel, describing him as “…a good tactical trainer but was not very good with people.” He added that, “I have actually 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 though, alongside the forwards Rep, Rob Rensenbrink and Harry Lubse, was the name of Roda’s finest forward and flower shop owner, Dick Nanninga.

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 towards 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.

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 score line was blank. Happel had started the game with Willy van de Kerkhof replacing Rep in the starting eleven, but the Dutch had laboured fruitlessly to break down the South Americans, and he had removed René van de Kerkhof to send Rep into the game some twenty or so minutes earlier without any improvement in score line. Nanninga’s introduction would have a similar null effect and the game ended as a goalless draw.

Other results in the group however meant that so long as the Dutch avoided a comprehensive defeat at the hands of Ally MacLeod’s Scotland they would qualify for the and, despite a few moments of fear, particularly after Archie Gemmill’s famous slaloming run and goal, Nanninga stayed on the bench as the Dutch eased through to the next phase, as runners-up, behind Peru. It meant being placed in the arguably 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 sat out the game 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 Dutch, Piet Schrijvers could merely parry a free-kick from Rainer Bonhof and the Schalke 04 forward headed home. Arie Haan had squared the game up midway through the first half though, 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 Dutch lost concentration, complaining about the award to the referee, Erich Beer crossed for Dieter Müller to score with a header. The Dutch 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. Now in need of another goal, the Dutch 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, and Nanninga would certainly make an impact, if not in the way his manger had been hoping for. 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 though.

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 will to distract and disrupt the preparations. With Nanniga on the field, and a more physical presence suited to the task, it was little surprise that it was the Roda forward who found himself among the line of jostling German defenders. 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 Dutch 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 Dutch saw out the remaining few minutes, and in the other game, the Italians overcame the Austrians with a single goal from Paolo Rossi. It meant the Austrians were now out of contention, having lost both of their games. Both the Italians and Dutch had three points, and West Germany two. The latter had the Austrians to play in the final game, whilst the former two would confront each other. Nanninga would be side-lined through suspension for the critical game against the Azzurri.

Surprisingly, the Germans would lose out to their neighbours with 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 confrontation. With Nanninga an impotent spectator, things started badly for his team-mates.

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. The young PSV Eindhoven defender, Ernie Brandts, struggling to recover, slid in a challenge. Whilst preventing the Italian striker from getting his shot off however, the intervention also saw the ball go past the advancing Dutch 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’s physical presence, but that option was denied to the manager. The 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 being half-cleared from the Italian 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 a post. In consecutive games, the midfielder had delivered a bolt from the blue that had defeated veteran goalkeepers. Despite late efforts from the Italians, the game was done. The Dutch were in the World Cup Final for the second time in consecutive tournaments 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 clearly a ‘full on’ emotional experience. For the players it must have been so much more. Allegations of foul play abounded and echoed around the Argentine team that had qualified for the showpiece from the other group. A Peru team that had entranced throughout, apparently 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 physical game a few days earlier. The Dutch coach, en route to the stadium had been diverted, apparently accidentally, to a small village where a crowd on Argentines harangued the players for 20 minutes or so, banging on the windows, until the coach escaped. Then, even just ahead of kick-off a hold up ensued. First the Argentine team delayed their entrance onto the field 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, that had already been approved by FIFA, caused further delay.

For the Dutch, it was just the latest embodiment of an ill will towards them that they had perceived throughout the tournament. Nanninga related that, even in 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 terrible reputation, something particularly keenly felt by the liberal-minded Dutch, and for the final, they had prepared their own objection. Nanninga related that, “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 under way, the Argentines 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 half-a-dozen 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, the Dutch had a mountain to climb, if they were to bet back into contention. 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.’

Despite the urging of the coach, Happel delayed for a while as continuing forlorn Dutch 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 franks, 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 (Rene) 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 Dutch renewed hope and having seen the cup of success dashed from their lips, the home team were suddenly vulnerable. Another Dutch strike now 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 now rejuvenated Argentina, as two more home goals saw them lift the trophy. The Dutch 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 however, it was merely relegated to a foot note 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 though.” 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 Oranje.

 The goal on that day in Argentina could have made Dick Nanninga a star and secured him an honoured place in the memory of all Dutch football fans, but it wasn’t to be. Some players experience difficulty on returning to what passes for normality from such emotional heights and troughs. Not so with Dick 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. Dick Nanninga is one of those few, 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.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘These football Times’ website).


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