I confess I have no idea how the regular bloggers find the time to produce so much. How, for example, does Eric McDonald manage to produce a lengthy, comprehensive, articulate, high quality and well thought out post almost every day? There are loads of things that I feel I could say, but I just don’t have the time, and by the time I could get round to it the moment has passed. Of course that could be an organisation problem on my part. I do have to admire the likes of Eric and Jerry Coyne, who has a full-time job as well to contend with.

Anyway I do intend this to be my first post apart from the introduction and I always intended to make it one about football, important in so many ways. I get the feeling that it will go nowhere but I would like to pay some homage to major football history. We all know of events after which nothing is quite the same. Parenthood, for one thing, is something that most anyone who has children will recognise as such an event. But it could be first hearing a different type of music, or reading a book,  seeing a movie, finding religion or abandoning it. Or, in this case, watching a football match.

I’ve recently returned from the Caribbean and as usual a great time was had by all. There was a tinge of sadness, however, as it was probably the last time we’ll spend on holiday with both our boys.

But to the matter in hand. Many years ago I bought a book about football in Holland – Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner. I was thinking about this book because one son read it during our holiday and now it’s in the possession of the other – for a while, I’m missing an old friend.  Football, arguably more than any other activity including religion, is a cultural phenomenon – even the anti-football culture of many Americans attests to this. As such, it’s a vehicle for deeper anthropological and cultural understanding. The best football books, such as the outstanding Football Against the Enemy  by Simon Kuper, make this clear. A lot can be understood about a country or region’s culture by studying its football (or lack of it).

So it is with Holland. The country has a varied history, shaped by its politics, its people and its geography, although any other country could make such a claim. In times past it’s had a great empire, been occupied by foreign powers, been a refuge to the persecuted, such as Spinoza, has had its share of great artists, and has been a pioneering bastion of free expression. All this in a small, crowded, corner of  North-west Europe where space is at such a premium that houses resemble beanpoles and walking up stairs is best done with crampons and an ice-pick. With an ever-present threat of flooding against reclaimed land – much of the country was previously underwater – the Dutch have historically demonstrated and continue to demonstrate an inordinate amount of resourcefulness. You could say that Holland (and even the Dutch talk of Holland rather than the Netherlands) is the thinking person’s country.

And their football has been the thinking person’s football. What goes with thinking is arguing and Dutch football is notable for it. Thinking (or at least critical thinking) tends to enhance recognition of an opposing view – without necessarily enhancing the tolerance of those espousing it – as well as an acceptance of the complexity of argument when applied to the real world. This goes towards explaining the apparently somewhat contradictory observations that the Dutch have welcomed in their midst a Muslim population higher than most of Western Europe while simultaneously being foremost in displaying antipathy to their worldview, and also the personal enmities that the Dutch national football team is famous for.

A flight of fancy for any football fan is to imagine the membership of the world’s best-ever football XI. Not an easy task for anyone for the usual reasons:

  • Very often they didn’t play at the same time or tactics or equipment were different in earlier times. Very few people can now claim to have seen Alfredo di Stefano, Dixie Dean, Tom Finney or Ferenc Puskas play, and even if they did, there’s no doubt that modern tactics and levels of fitness might make them look very different.
  • A great player could suffer from his surroundings. Think of George Best, forever condemned to third-rate international football, and he therefore never took his talents to a world cup. Jari Litmanen and, of course, Neville “binman” Southall are others that spring to mind.
  • Probably most importantly, when we speak of the world’s great footballers we sometimes forget that football is a team game. Eric Cantona was being derogatory when he called Didier Deschamps a “water carrier”. But Deschamps at least was a world cup winner. The water carriers tend to get left out but they are no less crucial to all-round team functioning, in football as in life.

Therefore, the most memorable footballers are in general the strikers or the attack-minded midfielders. You could get ten great candidates for the number 10 shirt but the back six tend to select themselves much more readily. Personally I’d go for Schmeichel; Thuram; Baresi; Beckenbauer; Maldini and Makalele. That would be subject to change but the really hard choices would come further up front. Try a world XI without some of: Pele; Tostao; Maradona; Zidane; Ronaldo; Ronaldinho; Shevchenko; Blokhin; Cruyff; van Basten; Gerd Muller; Netzer; Zico; Platini; Eusebio; Garrincha; Gullit; Rivera; Baggio; Socrates, and not least, Lionel Messi or Wayne Rooney.

A tough task and something that I wouldn’t care to spend too much time on. But the best team is a different matter. Many say that the Brazil ’70 side has no equal. But no-one remembers the defence, not for their defending, anyway. (I’m aware that right back Carlos Alberto scored probably the single most memorable world cup final goal but that’s all he’s remembered for). Therefore, as far as teams go, I wouldn’t put them at the top – I actually preferred the 1982 Brazilians. The French teams of 1984 and 1998, the Italians of 1982 and of course the West Germans of 1974 get honourable mentions. And time will tell if the current Spanish squad can join that list. It’s fair to say that the best club teams, nowadays being able to pick-and-choose players from anywhere, are at least the equal of the best international teams. Real Madrid in the 1950’s, Sacchi’s Milan, the early 1970’s Ajax and Bayern…and Barcelona today are up there.

But there’s only one candidate for me in the end. There have been many great Dutch teams and great Dutch players since Holland came of footballing age in the late 1960’s. The 1988 European Champions – the team of van Basten, Gullit, Rijkaard and the Koemans certainly deserved their success. The 1998 world cup in France was a stage for the van Boers, Overmars and Bergkamp. None, however, can come close to the 1974 team.

Against Sweden, left to right: Cruyff, Jongbloed, Haan, Keizer, Rijsbergen, Rep, Suurbier, Jansen, van Hanegem, Krol, Neeskens. This was almost the first choice team. in the other games Rensenbrink was selected instead of Keizer.

We were warned. Dutch club teams had won the European Cup from 1970-73, with the last three of those years the champions being Ajax Amsterdam, playing a brand of football of obvious thoughtfulness and quality. The Dutch first team leading up to the world cup contained eight Ajax players – although Keizer didn’t end up as first choice and the certainties Hulshoff and Gerrie Muhren were in the end unavailable for selection. I can remember first hearing of Johan Cruyff in 1969, in a magazine I was reading which described him as “the Dutch George Best”. He didn’t look the part. Leading up to the tournament the Dutch were up there with West Germany and Brazil as favourites. However, they qualified only on goal difference, and in those days qualifying rounds that didn’t involve British teams were sorely neglected inside my little corner of the world – indeed if one didn’t actually go to football matches he would rarely see them. Only the FA Cup Final and big international tournaments were televised.  We knew a bit about Brazil, Italy and West Germany but this was about the measure of the typical English football fan in 1974.

Even when one considers that England won the 1966 World Cup with Ramsey’s wingless wonders in Britain the thought was still extant that good players, and good players alone, was all that was needed to win things – this despite the humiliation suffered at the hands (and feet) of the Hungarians in 1953. Home advantage helped England, but essentially the England 1966 team succeeded because they played to their limitations. Few tactical innovations had come from the British Isles in the 20th Century, although British ex-patriots were often highly influential elsewhere – including Holland –  as football missionaries. How wrong we were. Holland took the field against former champions Uruguay and proceeded to obliterate them. The 2-0 score was a travesty – reflecting poor shooting and good goalkeeping as much as anything – if it had been a six goal difference it wouldn’t have seemed unfair in the least. But it wasn’t only the skill of the players that came across: this was a different way. Total Football. As I said at the start, occasionally in general life we experience things that change us forever. Watching Holland destroy Uruguay in 1974 was akin to the effect that Hound Dog must have had in 1956. Even today it’s exceptional. In the video below, after only 14 seconds, there’s an astounding shot of the entire Dutch outfield team, defending as one, on screen – while half the Uruguayans found themselves in no-man’s land – yards offside.

By now we’ve all seen Spain 2010 and Barcelona 2011, but then this was revolutionary stuff. As Jonathan Wilson says in his excellent history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, “Football is not about players, or at least not just about players; it is about shape and about space, about the intelligent deployment of players, and their movement within that deployment“. Never before or since has the simple truth of that statement been more glaringly obvious.

Apparently the phrase “total football” arose as a description of the Dutch style during the 1974 World Cup. Neither Winner nor Wilson fail to appreciate the importance of the total football concept for both Holland and for football, although Wilson simultaneously credits the Ukrainian Valeri Lobanovsky alongside the Dutchman Rinus Michels with its independent invention and development. However, Lobanovsky’s Dynamo Kiev teams, while undoubtedly good to watch, were more system-oriented with consequently less freedom. Wilson describes the “total” aspect of the football on display as akin to other disciplines of the time – the notion of individuality within a system and the relationship of the sometimes disparate individual elements to the whole. It’s difficult to describe fully – for best effect see the video above.

This manifested itself in several ways but two above all. Firstly, the idea of space – according to Winner the Dutch are used to thinking in spatial terms more effectively than the rest of us just because in their small, crowded, threatened, country they have to. In football, the theory goes, one must maximise space when attacking and minimise it when defending. The offside trap becomes an attacking option. Secondly, the formation was basically an evenly-distributed square, but all the players were allowed to move anywhere within that square. In practice, of course, the team still had defenders, midfielders and attackers, and it wasn’t unusual to see players whose function changed according to circumstance. But the world had never seen seen this degree of flexibility. Moreover, while it was common enough to see lateral exchanges in games the Dutch practised longitudinal movements. The full-backs Krol and Suurbier would often be found to be the most forward attacker while their defensive positions were occupied by forwards. It became barely possible for the opposition, used to more rigid formations, to cope with it either defensively or offensively.

Also it has to be said that the Dutch at that time had more than their fair share of great players, and none more so than Johan Cruyff. However, looking back over the history of Dutch football it seems that the players best remembered as individuals came later – the van Bastens, the Gullits and Bergkamps, for example. only Cruyff, Neeskens and occasionally Rensenbrink make it into these lists. But I would say that the 1974 players suffer some injustice here. Rep, Krol, Suurbier and Haan, to name just a few, could easily have fitted into the later teams and not suffered by comparison.

After the game against Uruguay, the Dutch progressed through their group with a less-inspiring draw against Sweden and a return to form with an inspirational 4-1 win over Bulgaria. By this time all the footballing world was talking about Holland and total football.

In the 1974 World Cup there were no knockout stages. Group winners and runners-up went into a further group stage. All the other three groups produced surprises. Holland avoided the hosts, West Germany, because their surprising defeat by their East German neighbours left them second in their group. The other teams in Holland’s group  – the group runners-up – were world champions Brazil, who failed to score as many goals against Zaire as Yugoslavia (but more than Scotland), and Argentina, who were against a very good, but underrated, 1974 Polish side.

Argentina, the first opponents, had some good players, and they did knock out Italy, but suffered from the familiar split personality long evident among football teams from that country. It was no contest. No game showed the superiority of the Dutch players and system as much as this one. Enjoy the highlights and learn a little Dutch at the same time:

Argentina then lost their second match in the group to Brazil while Holland were playing East Germany. In the event the Dutch hardly broke sweat in a 2-0 win – it’s said that they were saving themselves for their last group match. So to Brazil. The world champions were in decline, a little like Argentina in that they couldn’t resolve the conflict between their traditional individual brilliance – they didn’t have the players to perform as they had in Mexico – and their need for a more disciplined, “European”, approach. Indiscipline would have been a better word for it, and this match was in many ways the most disappointing of the competition, with the Brazilians falling further from grace than anyone expected, and Holland, while maintaining control, little better. Nevertheless the Dutch in winning 2-0 still appeared to have something to spare and won their group as the outstanding team of the competition. What is clear from the victory against Brazil, and Holland’s determination to match their opponents physically as much as in the footballing sense, is that the Dutch team saw themselves as winners, if anything even more than as artists.

So to the final against West Germany. The hosts themselves were an outstanding team, and counted on several brilliant individuals – notably Beckenbauer at his peak (he would have been ideally suited to the Dutch team), the idiosyncratic full-back Breitner and the goal machine Müller. All three were from the European Cup holders Bayern Munich and the Germans were the European champions. In all, the German team included six Bayern players from the 1974 European Cup Final, while the Dutch starting line-up contained six from Ajax’s 1973 winning team. Therefore in a sense it was a game between the two dominant European teams of the decade at that point. West Germany should not have been underrated. Nevertheless, people like me did just that, and Holland had become the bookmakers’ favourites.

We were expecting a classic, dominating display and the first 15 seconds seemed to confirm our expectations. The Dutch scored before any German player even touched the ball – a clear-cut penalty converted by Neeskens. What happened after that was fearful:

On the day West Germany were deserved winners, looking back. I’ve already said that they a fantastic team themselves by any measure. And the Dutch unaccountably slid back into a half-hearted defence after taking the lead –  look at the room given to Holzenbein just before the German penalty. There have been other excuses – Rensenbrink and Haan were not fully fit; the German penalty was a blatant dive (it was, but a penalty nonetheless); the Dutch were upset by tabloid revelations on the day of the final. After conceding the initiative it was no surprise that Müller (who else?) put the Germans deservedly ahead. The second half was one of utter, desperate, Dutch domination but they hardly looked like scoring. Watching from Derbyshire on our new colour television I was distraught. This was worse than León 1970.

In football history, and in history generally, we have a tendency to over-romanticise and assign possibly undue importance to heroic or unexpected failure. Every Dutchman remembers where they were and what they were doing on the day of that final – more so than with the victory in Euro 1988. It’s true that the Dutch squad of 1974 never actually won anything. But their place in football history is deserved nonetheless. They were the first, as I already commented, to completely place individuality within the context of the whole – something the Brazilians of 1958-1970 didn’t quite manage. That way we can appreciate them at so many different levels. I think you have to have been there (or like me, at one remove), because it’s so difficult to describe, but football –  and this person watching it – was changed forever.

A problem with smaller countries is that they find it difficult to maintain their place once achieved, and the Dutch were no exception. Almost all the 1974 team played in the Dutch league but by 1978 only Krol was left from the Ajax contingent – the rest seeking their fortune elsewhere. In 1978, again, a majority of the squad were home-based, but the Dutch clubs had fallen somewhat in the previous four years. They weren’t expected to do as well in Argentina. Nevertheless, despite losing in their group to a farcically-overrated Scotland, they got to the final again –  Rensenbrink hitting the post in the final minute of the most hostile footballing environment I’ve ever seen – losing in extra time.  Ajax again rose to the commanding heights of European football in 1995, coached by Louis van Gaal with a young team even better, individually, than the 1970-3 side. But again, before too long, they were all off to greater rewards in Spain, Italy and England.

The legacy of 1974 is clear enough. The combination of individual skill and teamwork within a plan with a determination to win and an intellectual approach has never been bettered, and maybe never will be. The catenaccio of Helena Herrera, so dominant in the mid-1960’s, could be described as the system without the art, while the 1970 Brazilians represented the art without the system. Michels’ and Cruyff’s Dutch are memorable for creating the art within the system and the system within the art. Of course it helps to have been innovators in that regard. I’ve watched the videos of the Uruguay and Argentina games again here and the memories just come flooding back. It’s like being 18 all over again.

I’d like to mention one player from that squad above all. Rob Rensenbrink, in my humble opinion, is the best footballer that seemingly no-one has ever heard of – although things could have been very different for him had he not missed in the 1978 final, had he not stayed loyal to Anderlecht, and had Cruyff been born somewhere else. Not being from Ajax or Feyenoord, and of a naturally self-effacing character, he tended to slip below the radar a bit in 1974, and maybe his lack of fitness for the final was indeed crucial. I watched Rensenbrink seemingly single-handedly take West Ham apart in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final of 1976 before I realised just how good he was.

Rensenbrink hides behind the biggest badge ever seen

Rensenbrink hides behind the biggest badge of all time.

These events happened over 37 years ago, and although I’d like to say I remember them just like yesterday that wouldn’t be completely honest. I’m indebted to Steve Burns, who takes a similar view of that team, and has taken the time and trouble to produce a website of great clarity and depth dedicated to the 1974 team. I wouldn’t have been able to write this post without it, and if anyone should ever read this post, I couldn’t recommend his labour of love highly enough.

Steve Burns’ homage to Holland 1974.


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