Glorious Failure: The Total Football of the Netherlands in 1974
Sometimes in sport, history tends to remind us that we think of the runners-up in a more vivid sense than the eventual winners. Think back to Greg Norman at the Masters in 1996 blowing a 6-shot advantage. Or Jimmy White finishing runner-up in six World Snooker Championship finals. And who can forget the Magical Magyars, one of the very best teams in the history of football, throwing away the World Cup in 1954? To me, the greatest runner-up in the history of not just football, but sport in general, is the great Netherlands team that competed in the 1974 World Cup.
Having only competed in two World Cups before 1974, the Netherlands didn’t feature in many eyes as champions elect. They did, however, have three essential components that, combined, would change the way the game was played forever. Firstly, the coach, Rinus Michels, was a tactical genius who adapted the style of play, executed perfectly by his team. Secondly, they had Johan Cruyff – arguably Europe’s greatest ever player who was at the peak of his powers going into the 1974 World Cup. And thirdly, their style of play ‘Total Football’, which Michels adapted, essentially giving his team free reign on the pitch. This style, in essence, comprised of every player being able to play in any position, so if one player moved forward with the ball, someone else would move into that position. This happened all over the pitch during any single match and proved to be extremely successful.
Using this style, led by the creative genius of Cruyff, they easily qualified for the second group stage. As the tournament went on, more and more people started to take notice of the progress of the team and fell in love with their easy-on-the-eye footballing style. Although Ajax and Feyenoord had won four out of the previous five European Cups, the national team had not achieved anything of note. This was about to change dramatically.
Johan Cruyff arrives at French passport control. His Ajax team beat Marseille 2-1 in the European Cup second round.
Anonymous: Marseilles, 1971 pic.twitter.com/R9U8pfPMrO
— The Football Brief (@tfb_contact) January 29, 2018
The Netherlands were more efficient than beautiful during the first group stage, beating both Bulgaria and Uruguay, whilst drawing with Sweden (in which the now famous Cruyff turn made its debut). It wasn’t until the second group stage that the Dutch turned on the style and really showed the world how the beautiful game could be played. Drawn alongside Argentina, Brazil and East Germany, the winners of the group would gain a place in the final. The first real inclination of the Dutch pedigree and their ability to destroy opponents came against Argentina. It was an utterly compelling performance against a team who would go on to win the tournament in 1978, ironically against the Netherlands themselves. Cruyff further asserted his position as one of the best in the world by scoring twice, with further strikes coming from Krol and Rep. Following this, East Germany gave them more of a game in the second match, but the Netherlands won 2-0 to set up a ‘winner takes all’ match against Brazil.
This game represented this Dutch team’s zenith in the competition, and perhaps the dynasty of Total Football. With the winner sealing their place in the final, the tension and importance could not be higher. This Brazil team were still a threat, although some important players had retired following their record third World Cup victory in 1970, most notably their former main protagonist, Pele. They were still a team to be reckoned with. Could Brazil use their tournament experience to outclass the free-flowing Dutch side to win an unprecedented fourth title?
In the battle of two of football’s most revered styles of play in the history of the sport, the oranje prevailed. The match has been described as one of the dirtiest in World Cup history. It was tight until the second half in which the intellect of Neeskens and the sheer brilliance of Cruyff eventually put Brazil to the sword, and meant they qualified for their first major tournament final. West Germany would be the opponents, who were looking for victory on home soil.
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💬 In Quotes – Johan Cruyff
1️⃣3️⃣ “Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it”
Read about a football powerhouse, a man of integrity and a keen student of the beautiful game…
— The Football Brief (@tfb_contact) April 19, 2020
What happened in the first minute of the 1974 World Cup final went down in footballing folklore. The Netherlands kicked off and passed the ball in their typically attractive style, Cruyff went on a solo run and was fouled in the West German box and a penalty was awarded. What a start to a final. Neeskens stepped up and coolly slotted the ball past Maier. The Germans struggled early on but were awarded a penalty of their own in the 25th minute, which Paul Breitner converted. The onus was on the Germans to press for a winner and not let the home crowd down. The winning goal eventually arrived in the 43rd minute, courtesy of Gerd Müller, in what was his last ever international goal. The second half saw plenty of chances for both teams, with the Dutch chasing goals. They trusted their system but the second and third goals never came. A nation was heartbroken. The squad was welcomed back home with plenty praising their performances, but it would go down as one of football’s greatest ‘what should have been’ moments.
The greatest legacy of all came not through silverware, but the adventurous style of play they demonstrated to the world. Should they have won? Yes. But does this diminish our appreciation for them? Absolutely not. Sometimes the runners-up are remembered more fondly than the winners, especially when they have a unique style. For one special summer in 1974, this was the gift the Netherlands team gave to the world.