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The Best Teams Never to Win the World Cup: Holland 74′

“In the tunnel we planned to look them in the eye, to show we were as big as they were. They had the feeling they were invincible – you could see it in their eyes…While we waited I tried but I couldn’t do it. They made us feel small.” –Bernd Holzenbein, West Germany.

It is surprising to think that any member of the German team would articulate such inferiority against an opposition who had a relatively non-existent history in the competition – until the 70s Holland had failed to even qualify for a World Cup since 1938. The Dutch did however boast a talent pool of near dream like capacity. They had also dominated European club competitions in the early 70s (Feyenoord won the 1970 European Cup and the 1974 UEFA Cup and Ajax, of course, were triple European Champions between 1971-1973) meaning their talented stars were proven, winning professionals. And in Johan Cruyff they had a footballing avatar of the Dutch zeitgeist of the time.

Going into the final they were feared. But they would not have even made it to the World Cup had it not been for a wrongly disallowed goal in the deciding qualification game against Belgium. Rinus Michels, former Ajax coach, was appointed as head of the national team after qualification. His desire was to instil the principles of total football, principles that had guided his former club to unprecedented European domination, into all the Dutch players. Two friendlies within a month of the opening group game charted their rapid progression. The first was a 2-0 loss to a German second division team. The second was a 4-1 victory against Argentina. Michels’ only focus was the opening group game and, crucially, after beating Argentina in Amsterdam, his team had belief.

The Dutch footballers arrived last in Germany for the World Cup. In interviews Cruyff had always been articulate, intelligent and calm. There was an understated but palpable confidence in his demeanour that extended onto the pitch (the latter probably shaped the former). He encapsulated much of the rapidly transformed post-war Dutch culture. And like the country’s swift progression on the social front, the Dutch players mirrored it on the pitch with a dominating 2-0 opening game victory against an utterly bemused Uruguay. The game could easily have seen six or seven goals but Johnny Rep’s header and short range finish sufficed. Uruguay looked genuinely baffled and helpless every time the Dutch launched into their intense, high pressing defensive game.

An anticlimactic 0-0 draw with Sweden followed, its defining moment being the debut of the ‘Cruyff turn’; Jan Olsson remains proud to be the first man so completely duped by the movement. Holland’s 4-1 defeat of Bulgaria set the nation alight and caused a usually indifferent population to become encumbered with the need to passionately support their team.

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Knowing they had the full attention of millions back home, the Dutch played their irrepressible best and demolished Argentina 4-0. Despite torrential rain the players were able to impose their passing game with Cruyff scoring two – both assisted by the sublime Van Hanegem – and taking the brunt of every illegal tackle from the Argentineans.

East Germany were then dispatched 2-0, leaving a date with the defending World Champions (Brazil) in what was effectively the semi final. Brazil were not the pretty outfit from the previous competition. Instead they played a very aggressive and physical game and could have scored two in the opening twenty minutes. Despite the pressure in the early stages it was the white shirts of Neeskens and Cruyff who netted the goals in a bruising encounter. The Dutch had beaten the World Champions. The only people seemingly not surprised by the victories – what spellbound the watching public more than the victories themselves was the manner in which the team played – were the Dutch players. After all, many had won back to back European titles at the pinnacle of club football; Cruyff had captained Ajax to a triplet of European Cups and was now playing for Barcelona. They were not unknown quantities. The romanticism surrounding the Dutch leading up to the final – and compounded by their eventual loss – occurs when considering the nation’s development in the decades leading up to it. It seems a patently self referential (and superficial) comment but everything about the team – the players’ demeanours, the principles of football, their style, their captain as an embodiment of all the aforementioned – was so…well, it was just so Dutch.

The final in Munich against West Germany remains etched into the psyche of the Dutch football-watching public (probably more so than the 78’ defeat). The match kicked off and, after two whole minutes of play, the first German to touch the ball was Maier – the goalkeeper – picking it up out of his net. Holland had caressed the ball around the park since kick off and as the German fans booed, Cruyff jinked with pace and accuracy past two defenders, and was brought down in the box by Hoeness. Neeskens scores. What follows is always difficult to explain. The Dutch refused to press for a second. Instead they stubbornly, arrogantly, kept the ball. Johnny Rep tries to explain:

“We wanted to make fun of the Germans. We didn’t think about it but we did it…We forgot to score the second goal…It was our fault.”

1-0 is never enough until the whistle is blown. Despite the entire Dutch aura, the intelligence, the style, the passing, and the praise; 1-0 was not enough on 7th July 1974. Holzenbein cut inside from the left and threw himself to the floor in the penalty box. Breitner scored the resulting spot kick. Germany continued to attack incessantly and in the 43rd minute the portly, and legendary, Gerd Muller scored with a clever snap shot from twelve yards out. The second half saw Holland apply themselves, dominate, and come painfully close to an equaliser. But it never materialised. Holland remains the historic romantics and Germany the serial iconoclasts.

As I said earlier, there is a quixotic attachment to Cruyff and his men of 74’. This sentiment pervades history and holds a tangible, morbid allure for the Lost Final and its Dutch Masters. In retrospect, every hallmark literary device is at work to make this a great tragedy, for all the ages: a culture represented by a group of individuals, turning heads and revolutionising opinions as they progress, only to be conquered by their hamartia – that very Greek notion of the fatalistic flaw. What was their undoing? Hubris? Maybe. I don’t know. But one thing I am sure of is that not winning it, contradictorily, intensifies their romanticism. As Jan Mulder eloquently said, ‘We are still talking about the great team that lost because they lost. If they’d won, it would be less interesting, much less romantic.’

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Here’s a video of some of their highlights (you may want to watch this on mute)

Holland 1974 World Cup

Article title: The Best Teams Never to Win the World Cup: Holland 74′

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