Ruud Doevendans

Ruud Doevendans has been an official columnist for a Dutch club and owns one of the largest collections of soccer videos containing hundreds of World Cup matches. We at PWC are proud to have him as a columnist. He will share his views about the past, present and future of the World Cup.

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From virtually worst to almost first

    A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a prominent participant in the forums of this site – a fellow Dutchman - and he asked me why I always seemed to be negative about the Dutch national team. I was surprised, because I didn’t realize. But it’s true that I’ve been very much criticizing the current national team for their lacklustre performances of the past years, and yes, I wrote this article about Holland in the early 70’s not only being a brilliant team, but also having their share of luck. Therefore it may seem as if I’m not proud of the Dutch national team, but that’s not true. I am. But you know how it goes: you are the most critical on the things that you love the most. That’s how it must have been. I think this small country with only 16 million people has accomplished many great things on the soccerfield, winning the European Championship 1988, six Champions Cup trophies and being runners-up in the World Cup twice. And, maybe above all, coming as close as it gets to winning the world title in 1978.

    After having played so magnificently in 1974, Holland qualified rather easily for Argentina 1978. The Dutch team really was a world power those days. Iceland was never a problem, Cruijff and Co. beat Belgium twice and the only slip-up was at home against George Best’s Northern Ireland that got a 2-2 draw in Rotterdam. But in Belfast, Holland took the points after a Willy van de Kerkhof goal. So they reached Argentina without a problem. Of course there were some internal brawls as coach Jan Zwartkruis wasn’t considered to be enough heavyweight for being headcoach in a World Cup, and Ernst Happel – a former Feyenoord-trainer when they won the Champions Cup in 1970 – was installed as supervisor. But then came the big blow: Johan Cruijff couldn’t be persuaded to play in another World Cup. Even nationwide demonstrations with the slogan “Trek Cruijff over de streep” (“Draw Cruijff over the line”) were not enough.

    Jan van Beveren had withdrawn earlier as had Willy van der Kuylen and on top of that, left-footed mastermind Wim van Hanegem – crying in front of the camera’s - decided not to travel because he wasn’t granted a starting job by his former clubcoach and idol Happel. Four superstars and they were not going! What rested were a few youngsters, some survivors from World Cup 1974, some outsiders and star players who had their best years behind them: Wim Suurbier, a 33 years old veteran at rightback, Johan Neeskens being not as dominant as four years before, and now libero Ruud Krol who hadn’t been able to find his topform back the whole year. All hopes rested on the small shoulders of Rob Rensenbrink, the contorsionist dribbler who had been Le Grand Vedette in Belgium at Anderlecht, and the main reason they won the European Cup Winners Cup in 1978. Still Holland didn’t start as favourites in the World Cup 1978.

    And they didn’t play that way in the beginning. Holland were lucky to start against Iran, although we needed two Rensenbrink-penalties to get rid of them. It ended 3-0, but winger René van de Kerkhof injured his wrist badly and we didn’t know at first whether he would be able to proceed in the tournament. In the next game, Peru held Holland to a 0-0 draw and Johan Neeskens injured his ribs, carried off the field by Peruvian goalkeeper Ramon Quiroga. The third groupmatch was against a disappointing Scotland-team. Disappointing at least until that moment. Archie Gemmill however scored a fantastic solo goal after Jordan and Gemmill himself from the spot had already put Scotland in front. Holland was on the verge of being eliminated, Wim Rijsbergen tore ankle-ligaments, but in the end (2-3) they just advanced to the second stage. With only three points, behind Peru and leaving Scotland just behind them. Drawn for the second stage in one group with Austria, eternal rivals West Germany and Italy. Nobody, really nobody in Holland expected them to have at least a little chance for success in this difficult group. Germany were always unbeatable for Holland, Italy had shown to be a great young team that had even beaten the home-side, and Austria had done well in the first round. But the World Cup was yet to start!

    Holland just had to change. Because of their injuries, and most of all because of their bad performance in the first round. First, Happel brought in goalkeeper Piet Schrijvers in place of Jongbloed, who really hadn’t played so badly. But Schrijvers was the Ajax-goalie, and when you realize that influential skipper Krol was also an Ajax-player, I think this story has been explained. Then the big surprise, the inclusion of three young players: central defender Ernie Brandts of PSV, clubmate and workhorse Jan Poortvliet, and Twente-leftback Piet Wildschut. No Suurbier, no Rijsbergen and no Neeskens. We just didn’t know what to expect, that early evening on June 14th when Holland faced Austria. And I think the team didn’t know either. But when “goose” Ernie Brandts headed Arie Haan’s free kick past Friedl Koncilia and into the net, it suddenly was 1-0 to Holland. We rubbed our eyes: Brandts!?!? This man had been a nobody a year before, playing at minor side De Graafschap. His transfer to champions PSV had already been a big issue, and his inclusion in the Dutch squad for this tournament an even bigger one. But he didn’t wear no. 22 for nothing, we thought. Brandts, this long, seemingly slow non-looking, was never going to play. And now he had scored in the World Cup! And it was only the beginning.

    When Rensenbrink scored the second from the spot, and Rep even made it 3-0 a few minutes later, we were falling from our chairs. Was this Holland, the same team we had seen struggling to go past the amateurs from Iran, getting beaten by Scotland that, on their turn, hadn’t been able to beat nor Peru neither Iran? A team without at least seven big players! And was this Austria, the better of Spain and Sweden, and only narrowly defeated by Brazil? We couldn’t believe what we saw. After the break, Rep scored his second and Willy van de Kerkhof, the vacuum cleaner in midfield, number 5. In between there was a consolation goal from Obermayer. Five-one! Was this the sign, that Holland was back on track? The next game would be the ultimate test: West Germany was waiting.

    Holland played the same 11 players against the neighbours, but the start was very different: Abramczik headed the Germans in front after Schrijvers could only parry a Bonhof free-kick. We were better, just like four years earlier, but it took an Arie Haan thunderbolt to beat Sepp Maier for the first time in the tournament, and the score was even. After that, it seemed a matter of time before Holland would take the lead, but once more we stumbled over a Müller. Not Gerd this time, but the other Bomber, the little one: Dieter. He scored the 2-1, and I remember it as the last time I cried. I was shattered, couldn’t bear this injustice. It was going to happen again, we were losing it, and once again so undeserved. But then René van de Kerkhof, the winger with the wrist-problem, rounded two defenders and beat Maier with a curling shot. Even diving Rolf Rüssmann who tried to stop it with his hands, couldn’ t help it: 2-2. Suddenly the world became bearable again, life was worth living. A very important equalizer, important for the starting-point for the last game against Italy, but most of all for the selfconfidence of the players: they could withstand Germany, and had done better than the starstudded formation four years earlier.

    A draw would be enough to reach the final, when Holland met Italy in Buenos Aires. But this was easier said than done. With Neeskens back in the team and guarding Rossi, Holland were in trouble from the start. Italy dominated, and took the lead after Brandts slided the ball into his own net, injuring Piet Schrijvers on his way. Jan Jongbloed came in to deputize for Schrijvers, and we weren’t convinced that it was an improvement. Lucky enough, we escaped a number of times and reached half-time only one goal down. And in the second half, everything changed. Neeskens played in midfield now, and Holland could put much more pressure on the Azzuri. Brandts, he again, launched a mighty right-footed bullet that left Zoff stranded, and when Arie Haan tried his luck from more than 30 metres, Dino Nazionale again couldn’t find the right answer. Two-one, we were going to reach the final again. Italy never threatened in that second part, Bettega, Rossi and Causio were kept at bay by Brandts, Poortvliet and Jansen.

    I remember the day of the final like it was yesterday. Anyone who thinks that I’m not a fan of Oranje, should have seen me that day. I was as chauvinistic as could be, there were flags hanging all over in the living room and I was shouting for Holland all day. Shouting, although I knew deep down inside that it was going to be difficult. Not to say impossible. Argentina had convinced, were the home side and then there was this Italian referee Gonella. I was afraid from the start, that he would favour Passarella and his fellow-men. It already started before the kick-off. Passarella kept complaining about the wristband that René van de Kerkhof wore. Now I was a big fan of Daniel Passarella, and wouldn’t hear a bad word about him, but this referee should have stopped this show immediately. Only after Ruud Krol had said, that Holland was prepared to go back into the dressing-room and refuse to play, they allowed a little bit of tape around the plaster and the match could start.

    Holland were the better team in the beginning, and Rep missed two great chances, a header just wide and a shot that was tipped away by a superb Fillol. But the goal fell on the other side, when Kempes squeezed through Brandts and Haan to beat Jongbloed with a low shot. Just before the break, Rensenbrink could have equalized but again this quick devil Fillol got a foot to it. It was a fight, and Holland coped very well with Argentina, who were driven forward by a roaring crowd of almost 80,000 spectators. In the second period, Holland tried to find a gap in the well-organized Argentinian defence, but there were also chances for Argentina on the break. Until 8 minutes from time, giant substitute Dick Nanninga headed in a cross from the right. For this once, Fillol really had no chance. Holland’s team, with some nobody's between them, were level.

    Then the moment that no Dutch soccer fan will ever forget. Krol played a long ball in the penaltybox, and Rensenbrink from a very difficult angle and under big pressure, put it on the outside of the post. Thirty seconds into injury time! Very few 13 year olds suffer a heart-attack, but I must have been close to it that moment. Nobody knows what might have happened had Holland scored, maybe we would have been playing still today for the Argentinians to equalize. But you can’t come closer to winning it all as Holland was, that special moment. Rensenbrink, even today, is very calm about it when being asked. He always said: “It was the almost impossible chance, I had no space at all to put it in I think. Still, a few centimetres to the right and it can go in. But I have never blamed myself.” I think he’s right. It was very difficult, he had to make a sliding and Fillol cut the angle very quick. But still...

    After that moment, we knew a cold shower was waiting for us and it came just before the break in extra-time. Kempes again fought his way through the Dutch defence, the ball bounced back from Jongbloed to Kempes, and he, Poortvliet and substitute Suurbier together tabbed in over the line. The third goal, scored by Bertoni although I was shouting for a handball at first, was only the confirmation of what we already knew. This wasn’t Holland’s night.

    Holland was even closer to the biggest thing on earth, than four years earlier. But this defeat has never had the impact as losing in Munich to the Germans. There, in 1974, Holland had the best team, I think that no-one will argue against that. We could have won the title, we should have won it. In Holland we are proud of that team, but it had deserved a better end. You can not be satisfied with it. In 1978, we could have won the World Cup, but there were so many forces working against it, that it was almost impossible. The result was already more than we could have expected, without Cruijff, Van Hanegem and Van Beveren. I consider it as a bigger achievement than in 1974. In 1974, every player was at the peak of his career. There was never a better Cruijff (apart from the final), never a better Van Hanegem. Krol and Suurbier were great, Rijsbergen a discovery, Neeskens uncompromising, Rep scoring goal after goal.

    In 1978, the Holland team was a team that had to live from their dedication. There weren’t so many outstanding individuals. Maybe only Rensenbrink. But the rest of the team was built on character, and it almost paid out. After a miserable start, but isn't that how it can go? Ask West Germany 1974 and Italy 1982! You must never lose the faith. Holland 1978, a team to be proud of and the evidence, that it is a good thing for a team to include some hungry youngsters instead of players, who have seen it all.



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