Missing Medals: The 1974 Netherlands Story

Were they footballers or were they artists? Were Cruyff, Rensenbrink, and Rep athletes competing in just another competition, or architects of physical poetry that the world had never before seen? Football was played differently before the Dutch approached the game in a new way. Rinus Michels disregarded all pre-established ways of playing the sport, and invented his own: Total football. This would become the driving force that made the Netherlands side of 1974 one of the best there ever was and one of the most remembered teams forty years later.

The Dutch manager for the World Cup, Rinus Michels, had managed Ajax for six years between the 60s and early 70s. Here, he developed his philosophy and with an incredibly talented and creative group of players that bought into Michels’ style of play completely. The team and manager worked extremely well together, culminating in a 1971 European Cup victory for Michels and Ajax, in what would be Michels’ last season in Amsterdam before the legendary coach would print his stamp on Barcelona. Ajax retained the beautiful approach to the game that Michels gave them and went on to win the next two European Cups as well as back-to-back league titles in ’72 and ’73.

Much of the ’74 Netherlands squad was also built up of Feyenoord players. The Rotterdam club had won the European Cup in 1970, right before Ajax’s three in a row, as well as a UEFA Cup in ‘74 and league successes in ’69, ’71, and ’74. When the national side travelled the short distance to West Germany to compete, they could not have been more confident. They knew they were the group of players who changed the way football was played, and picked up title after title in doing so.

Captain Cruyff was a ‘striker’, but by name only. It wasn’t only common to see him change and play other positions but the nature of the team’s style of play meant that he, along with the other ten outfield players, tactically moved around the pitch at all times and played in whatever position the situation at the time deemed them to play. Cruyff came back into midfield and ignited attacking moves for his team, occasionally he’d push out to the wing to skip past the fullback and whip a cross into the box to the onrushing ‘winger’ looking to poach the goal. Cruyff even often played in defence if that’s where the team movement brought him.

Of course it wasn’t just Cruyff doing this, the system depended on every player’s intuition to move themselves into the space in order to successfully exploit every part of the pitch as best as possible. This Dutch team hated not having possession. Off the ball, the team cohesively hunted for it, pressing hard and fast and making opposition players panic and force a tackle or a mistake. Two or three players at a time, often more, would suffocate an opposing player if he had the ball, closing down any channels of space that was available to him. This required great stamina and discipline from all the players to keep running until you had the ball again, and to turn back and follow the ball to pressurise your opposition when needed. When on the ball again, ten defenders turned into ten attackers, and you could then dictate the pace of the game to your own desires once more. Michels’ defensive unit’s discipline was also vital for the impressive Dutch offside trap, luring strikers into thinking they’ve broken free from defenders and have an opportunity to score, only to have inadvertently given away a free kick.

The Netherlands moved up and down the pitch as a unified force all the time. They defended together and attacked together. Their free movement always meant whomever had the ball for them always had numerous options on who to pass it to. Once the ball was laid off, more runs behind defenders were made in this non-stop whirlwind of Oranje attacks that left spectators stunned in awe of the beauty they created so effortlessly. Each and every player knew exactly what the other was thinking, everyone was on the same wavelength. They knew the runs that would be made before they were, they knew the passes that they could offer, they knew where the ball should be played.

This kind of understanding led the Netherlands team to creating so many dangerous chances every match. Jack Wilshere’s goal for Arsenal against Norwich in 2013/14 was often touted as the goal of the season, praised for the team’s short, quick passing, and effective penetration, but this Netherlands side created chances of that quality and beauty numerous times every game.

And yet, they shouldn’t really have even been allowed the chance. The Netherlands qualified by virtue of goal difference over Belgium, with both teams finishing on 10 points. In the game in Amsterdam between the sides, Belgium thought they had nicked a last minute winner. The linesman’s flag was raised, however, and the Netherlands escaped with the all important point. Replays clearly show the offside trap the Oranje set worked – but instead of luring the striker offside, it fooled the officials. After two games against the Belgians and some pretty football sprinkled throughout, the Dutch couldn’t muster a goal against their neighbours and were quite lucky to make it out of the group.

In West Germany, Michels’ side started well, beating Uruguay and taking the lead after only seven minutes. In their next outing, the world was gifted a move that has now become synonymous with this era of Dutch football. A looping ball came to Cruyff from across the box. After almost miscontrolling it, the Barca man regains his balance and turns his back to Swedish defender Jan Olsson and the goal. Cruyff allows himself a yard of space and, with great agility, twists his body to swing a cross into the box past Olsson’s left. As the Dutch genius’ right leg is in motion, he changes direction at the last split second, and instead of launching the ball into the box, Cruyff brings it behind his standing left leg and behind Olsson’s back as he attempts to get in the way of a cross he believed was coming. The Cruyff turn holds its place in history as one of the most beloved pieces of magic that footballing artists have ever been able to produce, and could only have been bettered if the Netherlands were then able to put the ball in the back of the net following the move, and giving YouTube clips today the happiest of endings.

A hammering of Bulgaria confirmed the Netherlands’ passage to the second group stage where they met South American giants Argentina and Brazil, and East Germany. First up was Argentina, where the Netherlands really showed their class. Cruyff, Krol, Rep etc. gave the Argentines a lesson in football, as the Oranje dominated the game from start to finish. The Argentines were hounded when they had the ball, not being allowed to create anything going forward. 4-0 was almost kind to Argentina, such was the amount of chances the Netherlands made as they danced their way through the Albiceleste defence. East Germany posed little threat too, as the Netherlands coasted their way to the matchup against Brazil that was essentially a semifinal, with both teams even on four points in the group – the winner was through to the final.

This Brazil side was star-studded too; Jarzinho, Rivelino, Caju, Dirceu. Their game was attack-based too, but no side matched the Netherlands’ total football movement. The nature of this movement confused the Brazil defence to the point of resorting to bruising physicality not normally associated with the Seleção. The teams went into the break level at 0-0, but it only took five minutes after the restart for the ferocious Dutch mastery to find themselves one up, as a quickly free kick gave the Brazilians no time to organise their back line, leaving Cruyff with enough space on the right to send in a low cross for Neeskens to convert acrobatically.

Throughout the game the Brazilians were stifled like their Argentine counterparts were against the same opposition. The beauty of the Dutch unified attacks were impossible to resist falling in love with. Cruyff added another to send his team to the final to meet great rivals and hosts, West Germany.

Perhaps it was arrogance that was the most decisive factor that outdid the Netherlands in 1974. Then again, perhaps it was also arrogance that brought about the Netherlands’ second minute lead without a West German player even touching the ball. Cruyff’s lightning-fast change of pace brought him into the German box and taken down by Uli Hoeness for a penalty. Then, the Netherlands thought the World Cup was won.

However, by half time, West Germany were in the lead. Paul Breitner scored a penalty and the great Gerd Müller scored his last ever goal for the national team to give them the lead that the Germans wouldn’t lose. The Netherlands huffed and puffed, passed and moved, and attacked and defended all as a unit. Alas, a German back line of Beckenbauer, Schwarzenbeck, Vogts, and Breitner couldn’t be breached again.

The Dutch made football truly beautiful in 1974, but they knew it as well as we do now. It is without doubt that the 1974 Netherlands side is one of the greatest ever, and it doesn’t need to be said that they’re one of the best teams to never win the World Cup too. They revolutionised football, but in the end it wasn’t enough to overcome the resilience of West Germany.


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