[SPAIN-NETHERLANDS] A few days before the 2010 World Cup final, with two nations bubbling in anticipation of a potentially classic meeting between the Netherlands and Spain, a legendary figure steeped in the culture of both countries encapsulated the quirky psyche of his homeland and its place in the world's game.
In the newpaper El Periodico de Catalunya, the great Dutch midfielder Johan Cruyff, who coached Barcelona in 1988-96 and is credited for creating the club's player development program that spawned many of Spain's 2010 World Cup players, wrote, “Who am I supporting? I am Dutch but I support the soccer that Spain is playing. Spain, a replica of Barca, is the best publicity for soccer.”
Anybody else would be branded a traitor, or least a hypocrite, but not Cruyff, one of the game’s all-time greats whose immense talent and brazen ego drove the Dutch to their first World Cup final in 1974. Yet less than four years later, he retired from international play at the age of 30.
When Cruyff left, so did the orchestrator of a “Total Soccer” system implemented by Coach Rinus Michels. He had guided a band of scraggly, rebellious, and supremely talented players who burned into the mind vivid images of orange shirts interchanging positions and responsibilities as they relentlessly overwhelmed opponents. It has become synonymous to soccer played by the Dutch, but it originated elsewhere.
Decades earlier, a brilliant Austrian squad dubbed the “Wunderteam” dazzled opponents prior to the country being conquered by Germany (which “persuaded” three Austrians to play for it in the 1938 World Cup), and in the years after World War II, the “Magic Magyars” of Hungary bewildered foes by their rapid, clever exchanges of passes and positions. The Meisl brothers, Hugo (a coach) and Willy (a sportswriter), termed this system of play “The Whirl,” which is just about all that many teams shredded by the Dutch in the 1970s can remember of what happened to them.
Prior to 1974, the Dutch and the World Cup were barely acquaintances. The second tournament, hosted by France in 1934, featured knockout play from the get-go, and the Netherlands headed home after losing to Switzerland, 3-2. Four years later in Italy, the Dutch dragged eventual finalist Czechoslovakia to overtime before losing, 3-0, to exit again after one game. Not until the world had fought another terrible war and Europe been rebuilt would the Netherlands return to the World Cup.
The term Total Soccer has lingered over Dutch soccer for more than three decades marked by futility and near-misses by the national team. The 1978 squad, lacking Cruyff and Michels, didn’t really play Total Soccer, yet still reached the final – albeit with the same disappointing ending as in 1974. Since then, Dutch fans have set many parts of the world alight, emblazoned in their wild-orange shirts and hats and scarves and wigs and shoes, and just a 1988 European Championship in the trophy case.
As a first-time finalist, Spain obviously covered unfamiliar ground, yet so, too, did the Dutch when they beat Uruguay, 3-2, on Tuesday to end a 32-year absence from the World Cup final. It was the Netherlands’ first win in a knockout semifinal.
In the 1974 and 1978 tournaments, teams advancing out of group play did not enter a knockout phase. Instead, teams were re-grouped for a second stage of round-robin play; the Netherlands and West Germany topped four-team groups to qualify for the 1974 final, four years later, again the Dutch emerged, this time to again face the host, in this case Argentina.
Both times, many neutral observers regarded the Netherlands as the better team. The Dutch breezed into the 1974 final past Argentina, Brazil and East Germany (which had upset the West Germans, 1-0, in the first round) with three wins, eight goals scored, and none conceded.
The start to the 1974 final is a mesmerizing minute of Total Soccer. The Dutch kick off, connect about a dozen passes, and win a penalty when Cruyff is felled in the box. Johan Neeskens drills it past German keeper Sepp Maier, and before a German player has touched the ball, a stunned Olympic Stadium crowd in Munich sees on the scoreboard: Niederlande 1, Deutschland 0.
Afterward, in their contrarian way, some Dutch players confessed that going ahead so early and so easily worked against them.
They didn’t press their shocked opponents, who quickly regained confidence and, backed by the crowd, rallied with a Paul Breitner penalty kick and classic finish from Gerd Mueller to take a 2-1 lead into halftime. Maier repelled a few shots in the second half and West Germany, which had upset the mighty Hungarians 20 years earlier, won its second world title.
Cruyff, citing fears for his safety and that of his family after a break-in at their home in Barcelona, where he had played since 1973, retired in October, 1977, and refused to reconsider his decision. Coached by Ernst Happel, the Netherlands barely got through the first round. It squeezed past Scotland on goal difference (plus-two to minus-one) in second place with a 1-1-1 record.
Yet the Dutch got to the final: after thrashing Austria, 5-1, and tying West Germany, 2-2, they beat Italy, 2-1, with spectacular long-range strikes past legendary Italian keeper Dino Zoff by Ernie Brandts and Arie Haan.
They had rallied back from a Brandts own goal to beat Italy, and in the final, they came back again.
Substitute Dick Nanninga headed an equalizer in the 81st minute, and then came the most agonizing moments in Dutch soccer history: in the final seconds, Robbie Rensenbrink chasing down a long pass to hit a bouncing shot from a bad angle that evades keeper Ubaldo Fillol …. and hits the near post. Relieved, and driven by its fanatical fans, Argentina rattled in goals by Mario Kempes and Daniel Bertoni to win its first world crown.
Since then, the Dutch have lost a cracker of a quarterfinal to Brazil, 3-2, at USA ’94, and an excruciating penalty-kick shootout to the same opponent after a 1-1 tie in the 1998 semifinals. They missed out entirely in 2002, and four years ago fell to Portugal, 1-0, in the round of 16.
The legend Cruyff fancies them not, but Oranje’s devotees yearn for the third time to be their time.