Pieter Robert Rensenbrink, forever known as Robbie Rensenbrink was born in Amsterdam in July 1947. Unlike many of the stars of the great Oranje teams of the 1970s born in the Dutch capital around that time however, he slipped through the Ajax recruiting net and began his career at another Amsterdam club, the then amateur set up at DWS. Despite outstanding success as his career developed after moving on from DWS, he would never return to play club football in his native country. If his international fame was garnered in an oranje shirt, the colour of his club success would be purple.
Although hardly the powerhouse that Ajax came to be, DWS were a more than decent club and had been Eredivisie champions in the 1963-64 season, finishing second and then fourth in the following terms. A teenage Rensenbrink joined in 1965 but, by that time, the club was in a steady decline and would hardly entertain aspirations of the title again. The club was a useful launch pad club for Rensenbrink, but hardly one that could contain the burgeoning talent of the forward. In his final season with the club, he netted 15 league goals in 34 games for a club destined to finish in mid-table. It was no mean feat. In 1969, a move across the border to Belgium and initially Club Brugge would see his abilities given full range.
It should perhaps be considered less of a surprise that a left-sided player chose such a left-field move, when the conventional wisdom dictated that the inevitable move from DWS would be to either Ajax or Feyenoord – who were about to launch into a period of continental domination. Even deciding on a move to the Belgian league that, in the Netherlands at least, was considered as being inferior to the Eredivisie was strange enough, but choosing Cub Brugge , who hadn’t won a league title for almost half-a-century only added to the mystery. Rensenbrink was however, apparently sold on the club’s ambition, headed at the time by another Dutchman, Frans de Munck. For both club and player, the move would deliver success, albeit only briefly.
In his first season, Club Brugge finished second to Standard Liège, trailing the champions by a single point, and took a European spot after winning the Belgian Cup, trouncing Daring Club de Bruxelles 6-1 in the final. Success against Kickers Offenbach and FC Zürich took Club Brugge to the last eight of the Cup Winners Cup, where they fell to Chelsea, the eventual tournament winners. Back in domestic matters, another second place rubber-stamped the club’s progress and the gap to Standard Liège was now down to a single point, but it would be Rensenbrink’s last term in Bruges. The forward had averaged a goal every other game for the club and had become hot property.
By the end of the 1970-71 season, whilst Rensenbrink had been in Belgium, Dutch club football had ascended the heights of continental competition with first Feyenoord, and then Ajax lifting the European Cup. The latter would remain top of the European tree for three successive terms. It looked like time for Rensenbrink to end his Belgian sabbatical and return to the Netherlands, choosing between Amsterdam and Rotterdam, with a mix of the continent’s other major clubs also showing interest.
Rensenbrink however felt at home in Belgium and, instead, elected to move across the country to join Anderlecht. Across the following nine years, with Rensenbrink’s play driving them forwards, Anderlecht would collect a trove of domestic silverware, including two Belgian league titles, four Belgian Cups, and a brace of League Cups. In Europe, they would win the Cup Winners Cup in 1975-76, with Rensenbrink scoring twice in the final against West Ham United, and be losing finalists following year, before again lifting the trophy in 1977-78 defeating Austria Wien in the final with another brace from Rensenbrink in a 4-0 romp.
As well as netting his fair share of goals, Rensenbrink was also the consummate team player and formed an effective forward line with Belgium internationals Ludo Coeck, the legendary Paul van Himst and Hungary’s Attila Ladynski. The success was almost instantaneous with goals flowing. Rensenbrink’s first league season with the club brought 16 goals and the league championship returned to the Parc Astrid. Those goals proved to be all important as the title was determined on goal difference. Both Anderlecht and Rensenbrink’s former employers, Club Brugge finished the season on 45 points. Brugge’s defensive record was slightly the better, conceding 19 goals to Anderlecht’s 22, but the goals scored column comfortably eliminated that deficit, Rensenbrink’s haul significantly contributing to the club’s total of 67 strikes, ten clear of Club Brugge’s.
The club’s manager at the time was the German, Georg Keßler who, as coach of the Netherlands, had given Rensenbrink his first cap for the Oranje back in May 1968. It would be the overture to a glittering international career that saw Rensenbrink reach successive world Cup Finals in 1974 and 1978 and, in the latter, come within millimetres of delivering football’s Holy Grail to the Nethgerlands. Across the following years at Anderlecht, Rensenbrink would play under three more managers – Belgians Urbain Braems and Raymond Goethals plus, briefly, Dutchman Hans Croon. Each would enjoy success there, and each would have much to thank for the skills and contribution of Robbie Rensenbrink.
It wasn’t merely the Dutchman’s goals that made such a difference to the club’s fortunes however. Now comfortably into his twenties, his style had been established and his skills well-honed. Left-footed, he could both conjure a pass or deliver a powerful shot with minimum of apparent effort, often suggesting to some that his work-rate was sometimes below par when, in fact, it was merely another deceptive quality. His lythe running style was both distinctive and often beguiling to opposing defenders, who were often either deceived by his dribbling skills or the coruscating bursts of speed that left opponents trailing in his wake. These abilities conspired to earn him the nickname that would both stay with him throughout his career, and come to almost define an uncanny knack to wriggle out of seemingly impossible situations. Het Slangenmens (The Snakeman) would coolly slither free and deliver a devastating killer bite with either an assist or goal.
Despite repeating his first season goal tally of 16, the 1972-73 season term saw Anderlecht slip from their top position to a lowly sixth place, as Club Brugge gained a measure of revenge, for their near miss the previous term, lifting the title. The following three seasons though would see Rensenbrink soar, scoring 20, 19 and then 23 in domestic competition, and adding valuable strikes in Europe as well. In 1973-74, with their Dutch star forward netting those 20 goals, Anderlecht regained the title under Urbain Braems, scoring a mightily impressive 72 goals across the 30-game league programme. They also added a Belgian League Cup triumph to underscore their status and Belgium’s top club. The following term, with Braems still at the helm despite losing the title to surprise champions R.W.D. Molenbeek as the league was restructured to accommodate 20, rather than the previous 16, clubs some compensation was garnered by defeating Royal Antwerp to again win the Belgian Cup.
By this stage, Rensenbrink had been joined at the club by Arie Haan. The pair had played together in the 1974 World Cup Final, and would do so again in 1978. As the great Ajax team was disintegrating after Ștefan Kovács left to take charge of the France national team, many of their stars were drifting away, and Haan had decided to join Rensenbrink in Brussels. He would add another dimension to the club, delivering even more success – as would the arrival of another Dutchman – when Hans Croon took charge for a single season, succeeding Braems. It was a time that could have also seen Rensenbrink leave Brussels.
During the 1974 World Cup Finals in Germany, Johan Neeskens had agreed a deal to join Barcelona, and reunite with Cruyff and Rinus Michels in Catalunya. Ajax decided that the man they wanted to replace Neeskens was Rensenbrink. With the money received from Barcelona, they considered themselves to have a strong bargaining hand. Anderlecht, however, declined the cash offered, and suggested to the Amsterdam club that the only deal they’d consider was if Johnny Rep was involved as part of the fee for Rensenbrink. Ajax decided against pursuing the transfer on such terms and Rensenbrink stayed in Brussels. The success enjoyed by the club over the next few seasons suggested that the Belgian club had been wise to hold onto their star player.
The domestic cup success had granted Anderlecht another entry into the Cup Winners Cup competition and, this time, they would take full advantage, with Rensenbrink being a key element in the success, scoring eight goals in the nine tournament games. A first round tie against Rapid București threatened an early exit after a 1-0 defeat in Romania. Back in Brussels though, inevitably, it was Rensenbrink scoring the winning goal, netting a penalty five minutes into the second period after Gilbert van Binst had levelled the aggregate scores. A comfortable 3-0 home leg win over FK Borac Banja Luka in the next round saw Rensenbrink open and close the scoring, with a goal from Ludo Coeck sandwiched in between. It rendered the second leg almost meaningless and a 1-0 defeat for Anderlecht was only of interest to statisticians.
In the last eight, Anderlecht were paired with Wrexham for, what looked on paper at least, a fairly comfortable passage into the last four. As things turned out though, the encounter was anything but comfortable. After the first leg in Brussels, Anderlecht only held a slim single goal lead, thanks to another strike by Van Binst. The visit to north Wales would be a test, especially as, going into the game, Anderlecht had gone four successive away games without a goal. The game was tight and, after a goalless first period with the welsh team holding their own, the second half would bring goals. On the hour mark, Stuart Lee squared the aggregate scores and the momentum now clearly lay with the Welsh club, as they pressed for the decisive strike. Anderlecht rallied however and with 15 minutes to play there had been no further score. At such times, teams look to their star players to step up, and Rensenbrink delivered, netting a killer ‘away goal’. Anderlecht were in the last four.
The semi-final pitted them against East German club Sachsenring Zwickau. Ties one step away from a major European final can often be close affairs, but this wasn’t one of them. A brace by Van der Elst and, somewhat inevitably, a goal by Rensenbrink gave Anderlecht a 0-3 away win and the opportunity to coast to the final in the return in Brussels. Another goal each for Rensenbrink and Van der Elst eased the club over the line and into a final where they would face West Ham United also in Brussels at the Heysel Stadium.
Once more it was the twin threats of Van der Elst and Rensenbrink that carried the day. After Pat Holland had put the Hammers ahead, both Anderlecht players scored to turn the game around. Keith Robson squared things up with 20 minutes to play, but both Van der Elst and Rensenbrink added further goals to deliver the Belgian club’s first European trophy. Rensenbrink netted from the penalty spot, and with time slipping away, it was the Dutchman, delivering a Man of the Match performance, who set up the clinching goal for Van der Elst. Rensenbrink’s eight goals in just nine games had powered Anderlecht to triumph. Just over a month later, the club returned to the Heysel and defeated Lierse SK 4-0 to retain the Belgian Cup, with Rensenbrink scoring once more.
Despite the success he enjoyed in Brussels, Croon left Anderlecht at the end of the season, returning to his native Netherlands and taking over NEC. The vacant manager’s chair was filled by the legendary figure of Raymond Goethals, who continued the trend of success, with Rensenbrink rapidly becoming the club’s talismanic striker. The following season, despite a strong attempt to retain their European title, Anderlecht fell at the last hurdle, losing to Hamburger SV in the final. Rensenbrink’s still notched seven goals in his nine games in the tournament, but further continental success would have to wait. There was also frustration in the club’s league campaign, as Anderlecht finished as runners-up to Club Brugge.
The club was going through a period of change at the time, as Goethals adjusted the squad to his liking, and they were again frustrated in the league, once again losing out to Rensenbrink’s former employers, Club Brugge; this time by a single point. Whatever changed around him though, Robbie Rensenbrink remained as a constant and, in the 1977-78 season, the club prospered anew, winning their second Cup Winners Cup trophy in three years. As in the final to years earlier, Rensenbrink was vital to the club’s success. In total, he scored five goals in the Anderlecht’s run to triumph, with two of those saved for the final, and the crushing 4-0 defeat of Austria Wien.
Although, it’s tempting to reduce Rensenbrink’s contribution to Anderlecht’s success in reaching three successive Cup Winners Cup Finals merely to the goals he scored, that would be to deny the consistently unassuming nature of his commitment to the team’s success, and the fruitful partnerships he formed with other players, particularly of late with Van der Elst. The Dutchman’s name however, is forever written into the annals of the tournament as its record goalscorer. His 25 strikes in 36 games surpassed that of Gerd Müller and Gianluca Vialli and, as the Cup Winners Cup is now assigned to the annals of history, it’s a record that will stand for all time.
The following season, Anderlecht finished as runners-up in the Belgian league once more, this time losing out to Beveren. It would be the first season Rensenbrink had played in the Belgian capital without winning either a domestic or continental trophy. It also saw his lowest scoring return since joining the club, recording just a dozen goals in 31 league outings. It seemed that the conclusion of his time in Brussels was approaching. The end was confirmed at the end of the 1979-80 season. Now 33 years old and having scored just three goals, with Anderlecht finishing in a lowly fifth position in the league, changes were afoot.
Goethals left, and was replaced by Yugoslav manager Tomislav Ivić. In his first erm with the club, he would deliver Anderlecht their first league title since 1974, but Rensenbrink wouldn’t be part of the celebrating players. In the summer of 1980, he moved to the USA, following on the footsteps of Cruyff, Neeskens and a few other former Oranje team-mates, joining the Portland Timbers. It would be a brief tenure in the Oregon city though. In 1981, the ambitious second tier French club Toulouse persuaded Rensenbrink to return to Europe and assist in the club’s renaissance. Again, it was a short stay, but the move did have the happy ending of Rensenbrink’s 12 game stint with the club delivering promotion, before he decided on retirement. The stature of his career in both domestic football with Anderlecht and on the international stage with the Netherlands was assured, but could so easily have been massively enhanced.
Less than a month after defeating Austria Wien in the 1977-78 Cup Winners Cup Final, Rensenbrink would be in Argentina with the Oranje in pursuit of the Dutch World Cup dream. He would score four times in the initial group stage, and once more in the second group that delivered the Netherlands to their second successive World Cup Final. After Dirk Nanniga had equalised Mario Kempes’ opening goal for the hosts, with the last seconds of the game draining away, a long free-kick from Krol found Rensenbrink closing in from the left flank to collect the ball with just goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol to beat, but at an acute angle. Prodding the ball past the beaten goalkeeper, the world held its breath as the ball bounced towards the unguarded net. Robbie Rensenbrink was about to become immortalised in the annals of Dutch football, and etched into the records of the world’s greatest football tournament. Streets in his native Amsterdam would be named after him, children born at that time would bear his name and his fame would surely eclipse even that of Johan Cruyff. A second or so later though, the ball seemed to drift off course. It struck the post and was hacked clear. Those street names remained the same, young boys were named Johan, and Cruyff was still the Dutch icon; Robbie Rensenbrink merely a member of the supporting cast.
Perhaps that was true for the Oranje, but for the purple shirts of Anderlecht, the respect and appreciation ran so much deeper. More than 200 goals in his term with the club speaks loudly enough, but coupled with the fact that Anderlecht not only achieved their first European triumph, but reached three consecutive Cup Winners Cup Finals, while he was wearing the purple shirt, only adds to the lustre of his reputation. In 2008, Robbie Rensenbrink was voted Anderlecht’s greatest ever foreign player. It was a well-deserved accolade, and one that reflects the legendary regard for a player who turned down opportunities to star in his own country to become a hero in purple.
(This article was originally produced for These Football Times’ “Anderlecht! magazine).
In 1962, The World Cup jamboree travelled to Chile on the west coast of South America, that narrow strip of a country squashed between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. Four years earlier, in Sweden, a teenage Pelé had introduced himself to the world and, along with his team-mates, had taken Brazil to the world title – the first team ever to win it playing outside of their own hemisphere. Now back in South America, the boys from Brazil, were the hottest of favourites to retain their title, and with Pelé now four years older, few doubted who the star of the show would be. The Seleção would indeed triumph, but after the glittering entry onto the international stage in 1958, in Chile, Pelé’s role would be little more than a cameo, offering a different, unheralded, player the opportunity to take on a starring role.
Pelé’s went into the tournament carrying a groin injury, but starting the tournament without their star player was simply unimaginable and, on 30 May, a little under 13,000 people at the Estadio Sausalito, Viña del Mar saw coach Aymoré Moreira send out his team to begin the defence of the World Cup, as the holders faced Mexico. Moreira, was the brother of Zezé Moreira, who had coached Brazil at the 1954 World Cup, where Brazil were beaten 4-2 in the infamous ‘Battle of Bern’ after topping their group. Aymoré Moreira had one big advantage over his sibling though. He had Pelé – at least for a while. Alongside Pelé in the forward line were more heroes from four years earlier, Garrincha, Didi, Vavá and Mario Zagallo. El Tri were hardly on a run of outstanding form, but in the first half, their defensive doggedness kept the Brazilians at bay. Coach Igancio Trelles was well aware that once the holders took the lead, there would be precious little chance for his team to regain a foothold in the game.
When the half-time break came and went without their defence being breached the Mexicans gained in confidence as frustration grew among the Brazil players. At such times, a team needs its stars to open the seemingly locked door. Fortunately, ten minutes after the restart, Pelé illustrated that he had the key. Driving forward into the right-hand side of the Mexico penalty area, he skipped past one challenge, and then another before being bundled out of possession. The ball broke back to a Brazilian though, who immediately fed the ball back to the young star. Evading one more rash challenge, he looked up to see Zagallo running in from the opposite flank. A neatly clipped cross found the Botafogo winger, who threw himself forward into a diving header to fire the ball past Antonio Carbajal in the Mexico goal, and Brazil had the lead.
If the world had required evidence of, not only Pelé’s impudent skills, but also his seemingly indispensable value to the Brazilian team, it came with 17 minutes left to play, cutting in from the right, he outpaced one opponent, ran round a second and skipped past a third, despite a clumsy attempt to bring him down. Regaining balance, he then dribbled past a fourth Mexican before driving home left-footed. It was a strike of rare genius and locked out the game. To many, it seemed likely that, with Pelé’s exuberance at their disposal, Brazil were well on course to retain the Jules Rimet trophy. Far fewer were aware at the time though that the effort of shooting whilst falling had further damaged that groin injury. There would be a price to pay later.
Three days later at the same stadium, Moreira sent out an unchanged team to face Czechoslovakia. The Czechs had triumphed in their first game during a tight encounter against Spain. The winning goal coming late from Jozef Štibrányi. Avoiding defeat against the holders would give them a great opportunity to progress to the quarter-finals, and coach Rudolf Vytlacil et up his side to frustrate in the manner that Mexico had achieved until undone by Pelé. As things transpired though, their effort would be more successful. Brazil had dominated the early period of the game in terms of possession, but the Czechs were understandably unadventurous, concentrating on keeping a firm defensive block in place. As in the earlier game, it felt like a stroke of Brazilian genius would be required to prise their opponents open. This time however, Pelé wouldn’t have the answer.
The key incident in the game happened on 25 minutes. Garrincha had already struck a post amongst a flurry of efforts on the Czech goal from distance, heroically denied by goalkeeper Viliam Schrojf. Then came Pelé’s effort. Firing from outside the box, the ball was deflected by Schrojf and struck the upright and bounced clear. As it did so, Pelé immediately turned towards the Brazil bench with an arm raised, clearly in pain. He hobbled away, holding the top of his left thigh.
There was little chance that any rudimentary medical treatment would remedy the injury and, to all intents and purposes, Pelé’s World Cup was over there and then, just a quarter of the way into the second group game. Substitutions were still a thing of the future, and the player seemingly destined to star in the tournament was shuffled out to the left wing to hobble pointlessly up and down the flank, more as a spectator of the game than a participant in it. Bereft of their most influential player, and reduced to ten men, Brazil were reduced to the realms of mere mortals, and the game petered out into a goalless draw. It was an ideal result for Czechoslovakia and, as things later transpired was sufficient to see them through to the quarter-finals. For Brazil, the draw was far less important than the fate of Pelé, when it quickly became clear that their assumedly serene passage to retaining the trophy was now in immediate peril.
The following day, Spain defeated Mexico thanks to a last-minute goal from Atlético Madrid midfielder, Joaquín Peiró. It meant that, if Brazil could then defeat the Spaniards three days later, it would assure both the holders and Czechoslovakia of progress to the last eight. Without the services of Pelé however, that would be a far less easy task than may otherwise have been the case. Brazil needed someone to come in and replace their star player, preferably without the team’s play missing a beat.
Amarildo Tavares da Silveira, simply known as Amarildo, was a team-mate of Zagallo’s at Botafogo, after starting his career with Flamengo. Botafogo were back-to-back Rio State Champions in 1961 and 1962, and this success earned Amarildo a place in the Brazilian squad to defend the World Cup in Chile in 1962, after making his debut for the Seleção just the previous year. It was to the 22-year-old, less than a fortnight shy of his 23rd birthday, that Moreira would turn. It’s doubtful that the instruction would have been along the lines of “Go out there, replace Pelé, and don’t let anyone notice the difference,” but in reality, that was the task in front of him. It was the only change in the team that faced Helenio Herrera’s Spain, including the likes of Ferenc Puskás and Francisco Gento on 6 June. Amarildo was keenly aware of the burden of responsibility he was being asked to bear. “Pelé was considered irreplaceable … so I was the replacement for the irreplaceable.” It was a huge ask for a 22-year-old. “For me the responsibility was enormous,” he later recalled. “Pelé was always a star and I was called in to replace him in the game against Spain. It was mata-mata (do or die).”
In all likelihood, Spain needed a victory to qualify, and the canny Herrera tweaked his line-up that had struggled so far. Out went Luis Del Sol, José Santamaría and Luis Suárez, replaced in a team that focused on pacey attacks and mobility to unsettle a Brazilian back line that had hardly been tested as yet in any meaningful way. In this game that would change. In the first period Spain had the advantage. Although many attacks petered out on the edge of the Brazil box, the Europeans looked the more dangerous. It was there of little surprise when one of their efforts from range found the back of the net. Adelardo driving home from just outside of the box, ten minutes ahead of the break. A neat exchange of passes created the gap and Gilmar was beaten beyond his right hand as the ball found the corner.
The second period started in much the same pattern, with Spain pushing forwards. Another goal may now settle the issue. It nearly came from a free-kick to the right of the Brazil penalty area when a run forward by Spanish skipper Enrique Collar was unceremoniously baulked. The offence may even have been just inside the area, but Chilean referee Sergio Bustamante took the easy option and placed the ball just outside. Puskás floated over the free-kick. A weak defensive header fell to Joaquin Peiro, and his bicycle kick deceived Gilmar. Inexplicably, however, Chilean referee Sergio Bustamente appeared had spotted a supposed offside infringement, and the goal was scrubbed off. Watching the video, it’s difficult to discern the offence, but Brazil had escaped, and were in need of a hero. He would arrive in the shape of the player who had stepped into Pelé’s boots.
Cutting in from the left, Zagallo arrowed a low cross towards the near-post, meeting up perfectly with his fellow Botafogo player’s run and Amarildo struck an unstoppable first-time effort past Gilmar. Somewhat against the run of play, Brazil were level, but there was more to come from the unexpected hero. The game was now fairly even, with both teams aware that a goal for either would probably see them qualify, while conceding would make progress very unlikely. With ten minutes to both teams seemed to run out of ideas, pressing with vigour, but without much penetration. The winning goal was, however, imminent.
With eight minutes left, Garrincha teased and taunted two defenders on the right flank before reaching the dead ball line and floating a cross towards the back post. Rising to head home the winner was Amarildo. Just as Pelé had answered his team’s call against Mexico, the player chosen to replace him had done the same in this game. From being a goal down, Brazil had come back to win 2-1. They were through to the quarter-finals and the defeat of Spain had dragged Czechoslovakia over the line with them. “My history changed that day,” said Amarildo.
The last eight game pitched Brazil against England, and while Amarildo, of course, retained his place in the team, this match would very much be remembered for the performance of Garrincha. The bowlegged winger gave a warning of what would follow, when an early foray saw him beat three English defenders before a last desperate challenge by Johnny Haynes halted his progress. England wouldn’t be as fortunate on his next attempt. With 30 minutes gone, it was the head, rather than the dazzling, beguiling feet, of Garrincha that opened the scoring, nodding in from a Zagallo corner. Before the break though, England were level when Gerry Hitchens pounced on a chance after a header from Jimmy Greaves had hit the crossbar.
The equality didn’t last long. Six minutes after the restart it was another header, this time from Vavá that restored the Brazilian lead, and not long after a ferocious curling shot by Garrincha closed out the game to put Brazil into the semi-finals, where they would meet the hosts. Amarildo didn’t score in the game, but his busy presence was a constant threat, as it would be in the next game. This was Garrincha’s star performance and a supporting role from the Botafogo forward was all that was required.
The crowds at the Estadio Sausalito in Viña del Mar had climbed steadily as Brazil progressed, and by the time they defeated England, had reached the heady figure nearly 18,000. For the semi-final, against the hosts, taking place at Santiago’s Estadio Nacional, that figure would increase four-fold, making it the highest attendance for any match in the tournament – including the final.
The vast majority of the support was for the home team of course, but passion and desire can only take you so far. Chile had finished as runners-up in their group. Victories over Austria and Italy – the latter during the infamous Battle of Santiago – meant that the final game, against West Germany, who had enjoyed similar successes, was to decide who would claim top spot. A 2-0 victory to the Europeans settled the issue, and the hosts were compelled to face the Soviet Union who had topped their group, remaining undefeated. First-half goals from Leonel Sánchez and Eladio Rojas however, bracketed a single strike from Igor Chislenko, and took Chile into the last four. It was the minimum requirement for a host country, but their next task would prove to be beyond them, despite a number of ‘interesting’ decisions by Peruvian referee Arturo Yamazaki.
In such games, the first goal becomes even more important than usual. If the underdog, albeit the home team, goes ahead, belief grows into convincing proportions. If the first strike goes the other was though, there’s an inevitable feeling of harsh reality dawning. Chile nearly achieved that first goal when Rojas struck the post with Gilmar beaten. It would be a false dawn. With six minutes on the clock it was Garrincha opening the scoring for Brazil. The holders had already had, what appeared to be, a clear penalty denied by the eccentric Yamazaki, and a goal wiped out for offside. This time though there would be no reprieve. A cross from the left evaded all touches and ran through to Garrincha who cut inside before firing a ferocious shot into the top left-hand corner of Escuti’s net. The diving attempt to save was little more than a gesture.
Brazil were now in comfortable command and just past the half-hour mark, it was Garrincha scoring again, to double the lead, running in to head home from Zagallo’s left wing corner. Downcast Chilean heads suggested that the players knew the game was inexorably slipping away from them, but two minutes ahead of the break, skipper Jorge Toro offered up some hope with a wonderfully struck free-kick that had Gilmar clutching at fresh air as it fizzed past him and into the net. After the half-time break, again, the first goal would be surely crucial, and Brazil didn’t have long to wait.
Two minutes in, and another corner did for the hosts. This time it was Vavá heading home, although Escuti’s elaborate dive to try and stop the effort may well have merely diverted the ball away from a defender standing on the line, and into the net. The Chileans were nothing if not dogged however, and when a handball from Zózimo was penalised, Leonel Sánchez drove the penalty left-footed into Gilmar’s left corner with the goalkeeper rooted to his line. Each time Brazil had extended their lead to two goals, Chile had dragged the deficit back to a single strike, but how many more times could they go to the well before the bucket came up empty? The question would be posed when Vavá notched his second headed goal of the game, with Amarildo waiting behind him, had he fluffed his lines.
With just a dozen minutes left, Chile became increasing desperate in their efforts to retrieve the game and organisation descended into ill-discipline. Two minutes after falling 4-2 behind, Honorino Landa was dismissed for a foul on Zito, and then, to even things up, Garrincha followed him three minutes later after lashing put at Rojas. As he left the field, the winger was struck by an object thrown from the crowd. Any pain was mitigated by the fact that, despite the dismissal, Garrincha would be allowed to contest the World Cup Final, against Czechoslovakia four days later, back at the same stadium after Chile had beaten Yugoslavia with a last minute strike by Rojas to claim the bronze medals.
After finishing second in their group, the Czechs had faced two other East European teams, overcoming Hungary by a single goal in the quarter-finals, before defeating Yugoslavia to earn the right to play in the final. So far, they had been the only team to prevent Brazil from scoring in the tournament, with much of their progress being down to a stingy defence and the extravagant goalkeeping skills of Schrojf who, ahead of the game, would be presented with the award for being the tournament’s outstanding goalkeeper. It was a moment dripping with irony as, soon into the game, it would be a catastrophic error by the previously excellent Schrojf that punctured Czech dreams.
As was the case four years earlier, Brazil experienced an early shock when they fell behind to a goal from the outstanding Czech player, and later Ballon d’Or winner, Josef Masopust. With just 15 minutes played, the Dukla Prague midfielder’s intelligent run from deep, matched up with a slicing pass from Tomáš Pospíchal. First to the ball before Zózimo could get a challenge in, Masopust drove the ball under the diving Gilmar, and Czechoslovakia were ahead. In the past, the Seleção had been able to call on the Mercurial skills of Pelé when falling behind, but for this game, the great man was merely a spectator and it would be his understudy who delivered instead. In the group game, the Czech defence had been organised, determined and resolutely unfazed by Brazil’s attacks, both before and after Pelé’s injury. If they could do so again, they could claim football’s top prize. The dream however was to last a mere 100 seconds.
Amarildo later recalled how the astute observations of Brazilian physio Paolo Amaral deserved an assist for the equaliser. “After the group stages had finished in Viña del Mar, we had gone to watch the Czechoslovakia game against Mexico. Their goalkeeper Schrojf – every time the Mexican wingers came down the wing to cross, he always came off his line to intercept the ball. He did this four or five times. Amaral said ‘Look, Amarildo, the keeper always comes out before they cross the ball.’ It didn’t seem like a big thing at the time, but I must have made a mental note of it.”
A throw-in on the left flank found Amarildo, and the man who had only ever expected to be a back up player at the tournament entered central stage in football’s biggest game. Controlling, he quickly turned to scamper away from Andrej Kvašňák, and then shimmied past Svatopluk Pluskal. In the Czech goal, seeing that the forward was now only a metre or so from the goal-line, Schrojf was already moving away from his near post, anticipating a cross from Amarildo. Noticing the inviting gap presented however, Amarildo remembered his conversation with Amaral. Instead, he decided to channel his inner- Pelé and take on the improbable shot. Caught out by the audacity, Schrojf could only stumble back towards the post he had relinquished as the ball arrowed past him and into the net. As Czech hands fell no top of heads in despair, the young forward was mobbed by team-mates. “Normally when I’d score, I’d jump in the air, but I didn’t get a chance. It felt like the whole team, including Amaral were on top of me.” Although the game was now only level, the general feeling was that now that Brazil had breached the Czech dam, more chances would surely follow. They did, but without being converted.
After the break, the Czechs assumed a more front foot approach and were arguably unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty when a clear handball by Djalma Santos went unpunished by Soviet Union referee, Nikolay Latyshev. It was a fleeting moment that, when passed, would carry a cost. In the 69th minute, the killer blow fell. With the Czechs now tiring, it was Amarildo creating the goal, neatly tricking a defender, before checking back to float a perfect cross for Zito to head home at the far post. The victory was confirmed ten minutes later as another error by Schrojf put the result beyond any Czechoslovakian aspirations. A high looping cross into the box from Djalma Santos appeared to be an easy catch for the goalkeeper but, perhaps bothered by the low rays of the setting sun, Schrojf lost the flight of the ball, fumbling the catch, and Vavá accepted the tap in with elation.
As so many had forecast, Brazil retained their title. For all but around 115 minutes of action however, they had done so without the services of Pelé. Others had stepped forward to fill the void. Garrincha had been unplayable at times, and shared the Golden Boot award as the tournament’s top scorer with Vavá. For many though, it was the unknown forward, thrust onto centre stage that had done most to prevent the loss of the team’s shining light from condemning them to darkness. As the medals were awarded, Pelé shed tears of joy for the success, and Amarildo beamed with satisfaction. A player unknown outside of his own country had stepped into the great man’s shoes, and delivered.
After his success, Amarildo would be rewarded with a move to Serie A, joining the Rossoneri of AC Milan, where he would play for five years, scoring 32 goals in a shade more than a century of league games pitted against the most obdurate defences in the world of football at the time. He would then move on to Fiorentina, winning the 1969 Scudetto with I Viola, before returning to Brazil in 1974 with Vasco da Gama. Captain of the great Brazilian side of 1970, Carlos Alberto Torres has little doubt about the scale of Amarildo’s achievements in Chile. “In the 1962 World Cup, we lost Pele,” he said, before adding that, “The team then released Amarildo on the world, a player who even today is remembered very fondly, and who helped Brazil win their second World Cup.”
(This article was original produced for the ‘Footy Analyst’ website).
In May 1996, Robson was enjoying the fruits of his work at Porto when he took a phone call the president of FC Barcelona. Ostensibly it was to discuss a potential transfer target from the Portuguese club, but the conversation moved on to another target that the Catalans had focused on.
At the time, the Blaugrana were a club in turmoil. A messy divorce from Johan Cruyff had left the club rudderless. The board had decided on Louis van Gaal as the man they wanted to put all the pieces back together again. At the time however, the coach was contracted to Ajax, and wouldn’t be available for another twelve months. Barcelona, a ship perilously holed and taking in water needed an experienced hand at the tiller to guide the club into safer and calmer waters before handing over to Van Gaal. They had settled on Robson as the ideal candidate. As things transpired though, the Englishman would deliver a season that bordered on being the very best in the club’s history, and convinced them to maintain his services, even after Van Gaal’s appointment, as a lifebelt that the club could use if the Dutch coach came up short.
Robson was content at Porto and, with the club’s future looking bright, there were very few jobs that could tempt him away. One would be a return to his beloved north-east and Newcastle United. That chance would arrive later. The other was to take charge of one of the continent’s iconic clubs, FC Barcelona. It was one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunities that he simply could not ignore. He would also take José Mourinho with him.
Many coaches, even the most experienced, would have blanched had been offered such a poisoned chalice to quench their ambitious thirst. Cruyff had achieved legendary status at the Camp Nou and was worshipped by the Cules, delivering four La Liga titles, three Supercopa de España successes, and a Copa del Rey, domestically. In Europe, he had added a Cup Winners Cup and led the club to achieve their Holy Grail of a European Cup win as well as lifting the Cup Winners’ Cup. It was the hardest of acts to follow.
Robson had no doubts however and, in his first press conference was in no mood to apologise for sitting in the seat previously occupied by the Dutchman. In firm tones, he insisted that there would be no shadow of Cruyff haunting his time as coach. ‘I am not afraid to follow him,’ he confirmed. ‘When the President of the United States leaves, they have to get another President of the United States.’ It was typical Robson, calm, honest and reassuring, but sustained by the confident belief that he would deliver.
Cruyff’s final season had been a disappointment, and one that convinced the Dutchman that the time to leave had arrived. Rows with the club’s hierarchy may have been the trigger causing the split, but the deterioration of the teams’ performances were a strong underlying cause. Third place in the league, seven points adrift of champions Atlético Madrid was hugely disappointing, although it did offer a place in the upcoming season’s Cup Winners Cup competition, an opening that Robson would seize upon. It had followed a season where second place to Real Madrid had felt so much worse. Barcelona had also fared poorly in cup competitions, losing out in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey to Radomir Antić’s Atléti as Los Colchoneros completed the domestic double, and in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup. The club’s squad was packed with talented players but needed a renaissance. Robson would deliver that, and bring in a player who would achieve a God-like adoration at the club.
Despite only being seen as a stop-gap appointment, Robson was not shy in venturing his opinion when the president asked about how the squad could be improved. ‘The President said to me “we need bums on seats, we need a top-class striker, do you know where there is one?”’ Robson recalled. ‘I said yes, I know there’s a young kid at PSV that I like very much. I think he’s terrific, but he’s a risk.’ He was, but it was a risk worth taking. Barcelona sent $19.5million to PSV Eindhoven and, in return, received the services of the player who earned the nickname of “El Fenomeno” – Ronaldo. Eight months, and 47 goals in 49 games later, when Van Gaal took over from Robson, the Brazilian would also move on, joining Inter Milan. The fee of $27million also delivered a handsome profit on the club’s investment.
With the services of the Brazilian prodigy added to the Blaugrana squad, Robson got to work rebuilding the belief in the squad he inherited that had fallen short across the previous two seasons. Early evidence of the transformative effect of Robson was illustrated in August of the same year when his team hammered the previous season’s double winners 5-2 in the first leg of the Supercopa de España with the goals coming from Giovani, Pizzi, plus El Pequeño Buda, Iván de la Peña and, inevitably setting the tone for the coming season, a brace from Ronaldo. Atléti would fightback in the home leg, but their 3-1 victory was short of hauling back the deficit and Robson had his first trophy.
Cruyff had bequeathed Robson a European qualification and, in September, Barcelona set off in pursuit of the Cup Winners Cup. A hesitant opening encounter with AEK Larnaca was safely, if less than wildly convincingly, passed thanks to another two goals from Ronaldo. It took the Catalans into a meeting with Red Stat Belgrade. By now the club were delivering convincing performances and a 4-2 home win followed by a goalless draw in Belgrade was encouraging, sending the club into the last eight and a tie with Swedish club AIK.
The home leg came first and, when the visitors took an early lead inside two minutes, a test was looming for Robson’s charges. With assured serenity however, they struck back through Popescu to equalise and further strikes by Ronaldo and Pizzi meant that the goalless draw achieved in Stockholm was more than enough for a place in the semi-finals.
Alongside Barcelona, Liverpool, Fiorentina and Paris Saint-Germain made up the final four. Robson’s team were paired with the Italians, the first leg again being played at the Camp Nou. This was a much sterner test, and despite Nadal giving the Blaugrana the lead, a goal from Batistuta squared things up and gave I Viola the advantage heading to the Stadio Artemio Franchi for the return leg. To turn matters in Barcelona’s favour, facing such an uphill struggle, would require a coaching and tactical masterclass. Robson delivered one.
On 24 April, the Blaugrana produced the perfect disciplined performance to return with a 0-2 victory and progress to the final in in Rotterdam’s Feyenoord Stadion against PSG who had defeated Liverpool 3-2 on aggregate. As so often is the case in showpiece finals, the game itself failed to live up to the billing, but a penalty from Ronaldo was sufficient to take the trophy to Catalunya. Robson had two trophies out of two. After the fallow period of the last days of Cruyff’s tenure, Robson had turned Barcelona back into a strutting powerhouse of a team hungry for trophies.
At the same time, as well as improving their league performances, things were developing nicely in the Copa del Rey. A round of Sixteen encounter had brought the club an extra El Clásico meeting with Real Madrid. The ties are played over two legs and the first game, at the Camp Nou promised success when Ronaldo gave the Blaugrana the lead. Goals by Šuker and Hierro though put a different complexion on the game before Nadal and Giovanni gave Robson’s team a fig leaf of cover to take to the Spanish capital for the return leg. It demanded another ‘Fiorentina’ performance and Robson’s team delivered with a 1-1 draw.
The next round saw a titanic battle with cup holders and reigning Spanish champions Atlético Madrid. A 2-2 draw at the Estadio Vicente Calderón appeared to give the Barcelona the edge, but the return game would go down in history as a goal glut decided the tie. With 30 minutes on the clock, the Camp Nou was subdued into stunned silence as a hat-trick from Milinko Pantić had Atléti three goals clear and apparently coasting to victory, but Robson had drilled his team well and given them an almost unshakeable belief in themselves. At the break he delivered his words of wisdom and the team responded with vigour. Five minutes before half-time, Robson had made his intentions clear. Laurent Blanc and Popescu were taken off with forwards Pizzi and Stoickov replacing them. The response was immediate.
Two minutes after the restart, Ronaldo scored and then repeated the feat three minutes later. Inside the opening five minutes of the second period, a declaration of intent had been made. Atléti were hardly happy to roll over though and, a minute after the Brazilin had cut the gap to a single goal, Pantić hit his fourth of the night to double it again. Figo struck back on 67 minutes, and the Catalan cauldron of a stadium was at fever pitch with 20 minutes to play, as Ronaldo squared things on the night. In a basketball -like game inside the final ten minutes it was Pizzi who notched the winner. As well as his team being able to deliver disciplined away performances, Robson had shown that they could also indulge in a slug-fest with the best that Spain had to offer and still prevail.
Having defeated the previous two seasons’ champions, the Copa del Rey was now surely there for the taking, and so it proved. Las Palmas were buried under a seven-goal aggregate thumping and, in the final, 83,000 fans would see the Blaugrana twice fight back from falling behind against Real Betis with Figo hitting the winner in extra-time. It was a third trophy garnered by Robson. Strangely however, it would have been somewhat of cold comfort for the Cules. Weeks earlier, their dream of a complete whitewash of all available trophies had disappeared with a freak league defeat against a club who were already relegated at the time.
With three games left to play, Barcelona had been in pole position to become league champions and put the club in position for a clean sweep of titles. A visit to the Costa Blanca and Alicante-based club Hércules looked a fairly straightforward task. There was however a measure of discontent in the club with rumours of Ronaldo moving on to Inter becoming increasingly difficult to ignore and, the Brazilian was unavailable to Robson for the game, along with Pizzi and Giovanni. Even then though, with depleted forces, there seemed little danger – or was there?
Despite their troubled season, Hércules had already upset the Bluagrana, being the only club to visit the Camp Nou and come away with a victory. Robson was also reading the runes as despite his tremendous success the possibility of him being retained instead of Van Gaal was seemingly a lost cause. The dark clouds were gathering, although few people outside of the club recognised it.
The game itself was a bewildering occasion. After just three minutes, it seemed that form was playing out as Guardiola put Barcelona ahead and, although they couldn’t add to the lead, there seemed little danger from a team with nothing to play for. Perhaps that freedom from the weight of relegation, now a mathematical certainty however, released the Hércules players to perform and offer one last moment of glory. Shortly before the break Paquito Escudero equalised and six minutes after the restart, the unthinkable happened as Hércules went ahead, with Serbian defender Dubravko Pavlicic sliding in to divert the ball past Vítor Baía.
Robson’s team now needed two goals to maintain their advantage in the league over Real Madrid. In the following 40 minutes they laid siege to the home goal but, despite dominating the game and firing shots in from all angles and distances, the goals that had come so easily to them throughout the season – they would score 102 times in 42 league games, by far the best in the division – were now beyond their reach. At the end of the game, the club that would finish one spot from the foot of the table had completed a league double over Barcelona, and destroyed their hopes of league glory.
Real Madrid overcame Extremadura by five goals in their corresponding fixture. Barcelona’s doom was set, as Robson recognised. ‘Mathematically, we’ve still got a chance, but realistically it’s very difficult now.,’ he lamented. It was. Los Blancos efficiently wrapped up the required points and a season that offered a clean sweep of trophies had been scuppered by a relegated club whose wins over Barcelona had denied them the best season in their history.
At the end of the season, Van Gaal arrived and, in gratitude – with a thought as to whether his services may be needed again – Robson was offered an emeritus post as ‘Technical Director’. Van Gaal did well in the early years of his tenure at the Camp Nou, delivering successive league titles, but was it any better than Robson would have done? Statistics can be made to support any argument, but by the time Van Gaal left the Camp Nou, his win percentage was 55%. Robson’s had been 65%.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘Footy analyst’ website).