Matthew Monk

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 this event.

Mail Matt

Read earlier columns

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 particular either.

    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 them.

    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 expectation.

    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 before.

    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 group matches.

    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.
Detailed info on every match in every tournament.
Interesting columns about the past, present and future of the World Cup.
Every nation with appearances in the World Cup. Detailed info on every country.
Player profiles of many of the most influential players in history.
An A-Z collection of strange and different stories in World Cup history.
A big collection of various statistics and records.
Every mascot since it was introduced in 1966.
Test your knowledge about the WC. Three different levels. No prizes, just for fun.
Rankings of lots of stuff. For instance Best Goals, Best Players and Best Matches.
Our collection of links to other soccer sites with World Cup connection.
Some banners and buttons for you to link to us if you want.
A little information on who keeps this site available.
| '30 | '34 | '38 | '50 | '54 | '58 | '62 | '66 | '70 | '74 | '78 | '82 | '86 | '90 | '94 | '98 | '02 | '06 | '10 | '14 |
Copyrights © 1998-2014 - This website is created and maintained by Jan Alsos. It is an unofficial website not affiliated or connected in any way to FIFA. All rights reserved.