1974, 1978, 2010: three times the bridesmaid, never the bride. No nation has reached as many World Cup finals as the Dutch without ever winning the trophy.
England fans may feel that fate has treated them a little harshly in the World Cup over the years but spare a thought for the Oranje. At least the English have had their hour in the sun (well, two hours to be precise). Those poor souls are still waiting. Many consider that the Netherlands best chance of lifting the trophy came in 1974, when they took the lead in the final against West Germany after only two minutes but then somehow conspired to throw it all away. Perhaps. But the Dutch were to reach the final again four years later, managing to do so in the absence of their finest ever player.
What if Johan Cruyff had made the trip to South America? Could his presence have finally tipped the scales in favour of the Dutch?
Johan Cruyff was instrumental in the transformation of Dutch football. The Netherlands was one of football’s backwaters until his career began, a makeweight at both club and international level. By the time he hung up his boots, however, Dutch sides had repeatedly conquered Europe and, twice, almost the world.
There were many reasons why Dutch football had been propelled into the game’s upper ranks, but perhaps the greatest single factor of all was Cruyff’s mercurial talent. Yet, after the end of the 1974 final, he walked out of the World Cup for good, vowing never to return. It wasn’t the rigours of age that had discouraged Cruyff; he was only 31 in 1978 and his career would still have another six years to run.
The cause of his self-imposed absence was never properly explained at the time and many years would pass before it was; Cryuff eventually revealing that a botched kidnap attempt on his family in Barcelona in 1977 had, quite understandably, resulted in him putting them first and football second.
Cruyff’s last act with the national side was to help them qualify for the World Cup finals in Argentina, which they did with ease. The Dutch squad that subsequently travelled to South America may have been denuded of its best player, but it was still heaving with talent. Ten of the thirteen players that had faced West Germany in the final four years earlier were still in the squad, including Ruud Krol, a defender just as capable of initiating attacks as he was at stopping them; Johan Neeskens, a fearsome midfield enforcer and Johnny Rep, a flying winger who was the ‘Goldenballs’ of his day.
The impressive Dutch side were seeded and subsequently drawn into a group which shouldn’t have presented them with too many problems, though it would clearly prove to. A perfunctory opening victory over Iran didn’t raise too many eyebrows, but then came a scoreless draw with Peru and, most surprising of all, a defeat to a Scotland side still in with a slim chance of qualifying despite not having won a game.
The Scots needed to beat the Dutch by a margin of three and that goal by Archie Gemmill (just watch Trainspotting) put them within touching distance of doing so. That impossible dream lasted for only three minutes, however; Rep scoring next with a 25-yard piledriver to reduce the deficit back to one.
The format of the 1978 tournament required the eight qualifiers from the first-round to be placed into two further groups of four, the winners of which would contest the final. The unexpected defeat to the Scots meant that the Netherlands only qualified as runners up, their punishment being a place in the toughest of the two second round groups. That reversal of fortune belatedly sparked the Dutch into life, with their 5-1 thrashing of Austria reminding the world just why they were one of the pre-tournament favourites.
A thrilling 2-2 draw with West Germany followed and then came the result that secured their place in the final: a 2-1 defeat of Italy decided by a long range strike from Arie Haan that remains one of the finest goals ever scored at a World Cup. Victory, however, came at a price. The Dutch goalkeeper, Piet Schrijvers, was injured as Italy scored their goal, having to be replaced by the thirty-seven-year-old Jan Jongbloed, whose best days were clearly behind him. Jongbloed would be needed again for the final.
Awaiting them were the hosts, who had also taken an eventful route to the final. A vicious military junta ruled the country at the time and numerous conspiracy theories have alleged that they somehow smoothed Argentina’s path to the final. There are, however, some rather inconvenient facts. The host nation was drawn into easily the toughest of the first round groups and those in charge were evidently powerless to prevent Argentina from losing 1-0 to Italy in their final group game.
Fortunately, earlier victories over Hungary and France had garnered Argentina sufficient points to guarantee passage to the next round, where a 2-0 victory over Poland got them off to a sound start. A 0-0 draw with Brazil followed and then came the infamous 6-0 victory over Peru that secured their place in the final on goal difference. To many it seemed too large a margin of victory to be true, but the Peruvians made a decent effort before they eventually succumbed to intense Argentine pressure in the second half.
The hosts may have been in the final on merit, but they were still not above a bit of gamesmanship. They arranged for the Dutch team bus to take a tortuous route to the stadium, taking it through narrow streets thronged with aggressive Argentine supporters, and then delayed kick-off by spuriously objecting to the cast worn by René van de Kerkhof on his injured arm.
The Dutch waited for the match to start before getting their revenge, unleashing a barrage of fouls against the Argentineans before twice almost scoring; Rep narrowly heading the ball wide and then having a rasping shot saved well by Fillol. The Argentinean goalkeeper also made an impressive stop from Rob Rensenbrink just before the interval, by which time the home side were in front after Mario Kempes had slid the ball underneath a sluggish Jongbloed.
The second half belonged to the Dutch, though it took them until eight minutes from the end of normal time to finally find an equaliser; the tall substitute Dick Nanninga rising above the Argentinean defence to power home a header.
Extra time beckoned, but just as the match moved into injury time the Dutch came heartbreakingly close to winning. Krol took a free kick from inside the centre circle, launching a pass beyond the Argentine defence and into the path of Rensenbrink, who nudged the ball past Fillol, only to see it rebound off the post. If the ball had gone in the Argentineans would barely have had time to restart the match, let alone find an equaliser. Those of a superstitious nature may well have concluded that Argentina’s name was fated to be on the trophy, and so it proved; Kempes scoring in extra time after slaloming his way through the Dutch defence and Bertoni adding the final flourish five minutes from the end.
For the second World Cup in succession the Dutch were left to look on as the small golden trophy was handed over to another team. But would things have been any different if Cruyff had made the trip to South America? Four years earlier the Dutch maestro had inspired his side to a 4-0 thrashing of Argentina as they marched imperiously to the World Cup final.
The Argentina side of 1978 didn’t roll over so easily, but they were pushed all the way by the Dutch in Buenos Aires and were only the width of a goalpost away from losing the final. Cruyff was one of the most sublime players to have ever wandered onto a football pitch and it’s hard to conclude that his presence wouldn’t have had a decisive impact on the outcome.
The Dutch reached the final easily enough without him; with him they would surely have had a crucial advantage over the hosts. How the military junta and ferocious home fans would have reacted if Argentina had lost, however, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it was all for the best that Cruyff stayed at home.
Simon Turner is the author of ‘If Only: An Alternative History of the Beautiful Game’ published by Pitch Publishing. You can follow him on Twitter at @simonaturner100.