Matthew Monk is a school teacher
from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of
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The first modern footballer
There was always something about Johan Cruyff. He was a different, exciting entertainer in a time when football was
supposedly devoid of such players. He came along at exactly the right time and managed to create an image and legacy for
himself in the space of a few short games at one world cup that other players better players have been forced to forge
over their entire careers. His legend exists today, the Cruyff turn is still seen as the ultimate football skill, and his place in
football history is assured forever.
Britain woke up to the world of football only in the 1950s. Before that no Briton had the slightest idea that better footballers
existed than those who plied their trade in the English and Scottish first divisions. Blame has to be laid squarely on the
shoulders of the media newspapers in particular who ignored first Uruguay's brilliant team of the 1920s and 1930s and
then did the same with the Italians, Austrians and Brazilians. The problem? None of these teams had come to Wembley and
defeated England, and that meant that they could not be the 'best' team in the world. And accordingly there was no
possibility that their players could conceivably be the best in the world either. It was nonsensical propaganda of the worst
form, yet it took hold and was widely believed in the UK and beyond.
That all changed the moment Puskas and his Magical Magyars ripped England to pieces in 1953. From that moment
onwards he became the world's greatest player, and with the televising of the 1954 World Cup on British TV this image was
further ingrained. This is the defining moment in British football history, the moment when the game gained a worldwide focus
and gave birth to a continuing line of "World's best player" accolades, of whom Puskas and his Real Madrid compatriot,
Alfredo Di Stefano, were merely the first.
Puskas reigned supreme only for 5 years, until Brazil appeared in 1958 to alter our conceptions of football for ever. Before
Pele, Garrincha and Didi created a new brand of football in Sweden (and more importantly did it all before the BBC's
television cameras) South American football was seen as cynical and overly extravagant. Now it was marvelled over.
Astonished TV viewers and hardened newspaper men had suddenly seen the future of football it had nothing to do with
English strength or Scottish guile, and everything to do with Brazilian subtlety and grace.
And so it remained until 1970. Pele became the King of football gradually over the next 12 years, taking the "World's best
player" accolade for himself simply because of his audacity and skill. But there was a problem. Even though the 1970 Brazil
side is still seen to embody everything good and positive about football, it was the end of an era. Brazil and Pele ruled world
football for 12 years, and then abruptly left its centre stage. By 1972, European-style defence was back in vogue and
elaborate attacking play even that displayed by the West German European Champions of that year was losing out to
pragmatism and the need to win at any cost. Most importantly, Pele retired and handed his crown back. And to no one in
There was no natural successor for Pele, even though his Brazilian team mates were obviously outstanding footballers. Some
candidates for the crown existed - Jairzinho, Rivelino, Tostao, even Bobby Moore - but they were not regarded in quite the
same way as Pele, Puskas, Di Stefano or even Eusebio had been. George Best was touted by his apologists in England, so
was Beckenbauer and Netzer, but no single player captured the public imagination enough. The problem was Pele. He was
so different to every player that had ever come before him, he was unique, and seemed to have it all. He was to many the
living embodiment of the perfect footballer, and is still regarded (in the UK at least) as the greatest player of them all even
today. It was no surprise that his contemporaries simply could not compete with his memory. He was too good a player for
And so 1974 rolled around, and the UK feared the worst. English football was in crisis, mired in scandal and plagued by its
weakest generation of footballers for 20 years. Don Revie's side had not even managed to qualify for the World Cup finals
being eliminated by little regarded Poland. Scottish fans were a little more hopeful, still clinging to Celtic's 1967 European
Cup success as a sign that their home-grown players could compete with the best in the world. But that was about that for
The UK in 1974 was a turgid, depressed place. Power and petrol supplies were regularly cut; working hours were long,
hard and fruitless. Wages were not high and expectation was something for people in happier countries. And even the
golden football of Brazil was not there anymore. The West German World Cup was not exactly looking very promising
And then along came the boy from Amsterdam with the skinny legs, the long nose and those amazing skills and abilities.
West Germany's World Cup was a controversial issue in England. World War II and the rationing and austerity that
followed it were still fresh in the minds of everyone over 35 in the UK. German people were not trusted, liked or accepted
by the vast majority of the population. Almost every single person in the country had a relative who had fought, been
wounded or died fighting the Germans, and few people thought the Germans should be allowed to host the World Cup. It
was bad enough that West Germany had 'robbed' the Hungarians of victory in 1954, that they had so nearly spoiled the
English party in 1966, but what really grated with the English was that Seeler's team had eliminated England in the Leon
quarter-final in Mexico. That was inexcusable, especially as England had so many excuses of their own for why they lost that
match in the first place. And now, the Germans had gone past England for the first time ever, with a generation of footballers
spearheaded by Beckenbauer, Netzer, Overath and Muller that was head and shoulders above the English. The country was
jealous, in other words.
British jealousy did not simply stop at the West German footballers however. Britain was jealous of the way West Germany
had picked itself up from the ashes of 1945 and rebuilt itself into the premier European economy. It had a transport
infrastructure second to none, a marvellous healthcare and welfare system, and most gallingly to British football fans raised
on a diet of bombed out wastegrounds the finest set of football stadiums anywhere on Earth.
The 1972 Munich Olympics are remembered in Britain for three things. Some (an ever dwindling number it has to be said)
remember Mark Spitz and Olga Korbut tantalising in the swimming pool and gymnasium, but what most people really
remember is the Black September terrorist attack, and Munich's futuristic Olympic Stadium. And it was the stadium which
really amazed and astounded Britain. How on earth could such a futuristic looking thing be used simply for hosting football
matches? West Germany appeared to be some sort of exciting, 21st century utopia, while Britain had barely changed since
1960. And they were going to win the World Cup again!
So imagine the surprise felt in living rooms and pubs the length and breadth of the UK when Cruyff's Holland appeared
almost from nowhere to mesmerise and teach in equal measure.
Many British fans knew of Cruyff and Ajax before 1974, but not that many had ever had much opportunity to see him play.
Ajax had first arrived in 1966, 6 months after England had won the World Cup. Hosting Liverpool in the second round of the
European Cup on a foggy night in Amsterdam, Ajax were a revelation. Liverpool were demolished and outplayed by the first
steps of Total Football, 5:1. That made people sit up and take notice a little, but nothing really changed until Feijenoord
defeated Celtic to win the 1970 European Cup final in Milan especially as Milan had beaten Ajax in the final the year
Next came Ajax's three wins, including their first over Panathinaikos at Wembley. Cruyff himself had an ever growing
reputation, as did Neeskens, Krol, Gerrie Muhren, Arie Haan and Piet Keizer. But they were still not thought to be the
match of England at a national level. Club football was one thing, international matches were something else, and so far the
Dutch had not been very good.
All that changed in West Germany. Two days into a barren and unexciting competition, Cruyff and co struck against Uruguay
and Bulgaria, pulverising the South Americans and Eastern Europeans, and springing the tournament to life. British viewers
still obsessed with the Mexican spectacular of four summers before were concerned by the sterile, aggressive nature of the
tournament and the Total Football of the Dutch seemed to be the perfect antidote. Cruyff was its conductor, probing and
poking simple (yet utterly amazing) passes to his almost as brilliant team mates. And there a legend was born. Next came the
Cruyff turn, perfectly encapsulating a man and a footballing ideology. With his adidas shirt shorn of its third stripe in a
free-flowing expression of the individualism which was missing totally from the British game, Cruyff suddenly became the
undisputed greatest footballer on the planet. And all this achieved to British eyes at least in the space of three World Cup
Is this in itself so unusual? Didn't Paolo Rossi do as much in 1982? Didn't Diego Armando Maradona do even more in
1986 and 1990? Yes, but more was to come from Cruyff and the Dutch when it mattered most, at the crossroads of football
generations when the golden era of Brazil was finally laid to rest in Dortmund.
That one game, the virtual semi-final in the Westfalenstadion, cemented Cruyff's place in history. Total Football was played
to its maximum and arguably the finest World Cup goals ever scored outside of the Azteca in Mexico City were created and
completed by the Dutch captain. The supposed simplicity of the passing and movement shown by Holland is nothing but the
most elaborate smokescreen ever weaved by an international team. Everything right about well organised, tactical football
was on display as the planet found a truly worthy successor to Pele's Brazil. It was just and right that Cruyff and his team
mates chose this match against the newly defensive, 'tactic! al' Brazil to display just what they could do.
First, it was Cruyff and Neeskens who combined to punish the sloppy, aggressive Brazilians. Van Hanegem took a quick
free kick awarded against the last bastion of Pele's era, the mighty Jairzinho and fed Neeskens. Two perfectly executed
passes with Cruyff later, Neeskens had looped the ball on the volley over Emerson Leao's outstretched hand and into the
back of the net. Perfect football.
And then came an even better goal. Rudi Krol, as comfortable on the ball as a sweeper has ever been, suddenly appeared
on the Brazilian flank. Wim Rijsbergen another 'defender' picked out his team mate with an exquisite ball, freeing Krol at
once. Krol chipped the ball through to Robbie Rensenbrink who stopped the ball dead with the tiniest movement of his chest
before turning to return an inch-perfect pass to the galloping Krol. By now, and within three seconds, the ball had travelled
80 metres and Krol was clear of the Brazilian defence on the edge of the penalty area. Next came the sublime part, a pin
point cross delivered onto Cruyff's right boot and an imperious volley. Holland became majestic in that movement, and
suddenly moved into the big league of global football. This was not so much a victory over the outgoing World Champions as
a passing of the torch of footballing excellence. We saw the birth of modern, professional football with the blueprint for the
next 30 years provided by one awesome goal. 4-3-3 was dead, long live 4-4-2.
And then of course, Holland had to lose to the Germans. The story could not have ended in any other way for Cruyff and
Holland to still be remembered with as much affection. Victory while undoubtedly deserved and righteous was also
unnecessary. In the same way that Puskas had not needed a World Cup victory to cement his greatness, neither did Cruyff.
And this is where Cruyff deviates from Holland.
Cruyff further confirmed his greatness to many by refusing to appear in Argentina four years later on the grounds that a
militaristic Junta-led regime as that of Videla should have no right to host the greatest sporting event in the world. FIFA's
decision was akin to handing Botha the tournament in apartheid South Africa; it was unjust, unjustifiable and plain wrong.
Cruyff stood up for what he believed in, gave away his final chance of winning the World Cup, and refused to participate.
Now that is the stuff that heroes are made of.
Thanks in no small part to this one brief period in the global spotlight, Cruyff forced his way into the most exclusive club in
world football. He is now a member, along with only Pele and Maradona, of the ultimate pantheon: the greatest footballer
ever to live. Whether he reaches first spot is questionable. Many, many people the world over suggest he does, but whether
he or anyone else - could have ever really done enough in one tournament to become the very best the world has ever seen
is a fact historians centuries from now will have to discuss. The evidence suggests he did not. Pele conquered the world at
17, was blighted by injury for 8 years and then came back when everyone thought he had lost it all to star in the greatest
team ever assembled. Maradona failed to cope with the expectation of becoming the new Pele or Cruyff at first, then came
back to single-handedly win the 1986 tournament, before almost repeating the trick in Italy. What would a Cruyff inspired
Holland done in Argentina? What would they have done in Spain in 1982?
We will never know because Dutch football requires its players to be individuals first and if that has a detrimental effect on the
team as a whole, then so be it. The heights Cruyff inspired Holland to in 1974 meant that a comprehensive English victory
over the most fractious of Dutch teams at Wembley during Euro 96 is seen to be England's finest home performance since
1966. The effect the man and his team had on world football in a very short time is enormous. He is a legend, and because
of him, Dutch football and the 1974 World Cup is legendary.
Info on how
the World Cup was founded and about the trophy as well.
on every match in every tournament.
Interesting columns about the past, present and future of the World Cup.
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