They were 85 extraordinary seconds. Eighty-five seconds in which Holland scored
the opening goal of the 1974 World Cup Final. Eighty-five seconds in which – how
bitter the paradox – Holland lost the match.
It was the elegant Johan
Cruyff’s Holland which kicked off on that July 7 in Munich, against the
imperious Franz Beckenbauer’s West Germany. Cruyff’s Holland and coach Rinus
Michels’ Holland. Together, those two men had revolutionized soccer in that
The Dutch had swept all rivals aside with an unprecedented
approach to their sport en route to the final, perfecting a “total football”
strategy in which traditional norms about players’ defined roles on the field
were joyfully jettisoned. A team of remarkably talented individuals rolled
forward with flair and elan, kept hold of the ball with arrogant ease, and
traded positions, covering for each other – all for one and one for all. This
meant endless options and opportunities, and it had left opponents baffled and
David Winner, author of the definitive study of Dutch
football, Brilliant Orange, went so far in that book as to compare the sublimely
skilled and supremely confident captain Cruyff and his team to King Arthur and
the Knights of the Round Table – “a unique band of righteous, egalitarian
And they were representing a country, Winner noted
with a phrase that will echo in these parts, “whose stated foreign policy at the
time was to be a light unto all nations.”
In truth, then, this was more
than two nations’ footballers doing battle. In the minds of at least some of the
Dutch – players and spectators – this was international politics, international
rivalry, international enmity, masquerading as mere football.
To many in
Holland, the World Cup final of 1974 was nothing less than a chance at sporting
revenge for World War II.
The West Germans doubtless felt the historical
echoes, but with no comparable intensity. The Dutch sought to inflict a defeat
they hoped would demonstrate overwhelming superiority on the field of play, as a
metaphor for the belated assertion of national superiority off it.
Finals are, of course, the biggest games in football, the most elevated stage in
the sport. But 1974’s contest was more even than the greatest sport’s greatest
game. It was an encounter at which – as several of the Dutch players would
later, most ruefully, acknowledge – Holland was bent not merely on beating West
Germany, but on humiliating the hosts.
And it began with perfection,
absolute footballing perfection: Holland scored before Germany had so much as
touched the ball.
Cruyff casually kicked off to Wim van Hanegem, and
Holland retained possession, working the ball across the defense, out to the
left-wing, and then back to Cruyff in the center of the field. The captain
darted forward, shrugging off defenders’ attentions, and as he cruised into the
penalty area within sight of goal, German midfielder Uli Hoeness lunged
desperately into his path and felled him.
A penalty, after less than a
minute of play.
Converted seconds later by Johan Neeskens, after the
futile German complaints had been waved away by the referee. (That World War II
symbolism again: “You are an Englishman,” Beckenbauer reportedly protested to
the official, Jack Taylor.) The first German player to make contact with the
ball was goalkeeper Sepp Maier, and that first contact was reaching into the net
to retrieve it. Humiliation, indeed.
But the ease of that opening success
fed dangerously into the Dutch team’s arrogance and self-confidence, revealing
both as exaggerated.
And it galvanized their opponents.
Holland’s Johnny Rep acknowledged years later to Winner, “We forgot to score the
The Dutch focused instead, he admitted, on trying “to make
fun of the Germans.”
It cost them the title. A characteristically
well-drilled and determined outfit, Beckenbauer’s players hit back – through a
somewhat controversial penalty of their own and, shortly before half time, an
opportunist’s strike from the excellent Gerd Muller.
Try as they might to
break the German defenses in the second half, the Dutch could never recover, and
the game ended West Germany 2, Holland 1. A dispassionate re-watching of the
final today suggests that if either side had the right to feel hard done by, it
was actually the Germans, who had a legitimate goal denied for
On Sunday in Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium, having suffered
another shattering defeat in the 1978 final, to Argentina, Holland is at
contesting a World Cup Final again. Its opponents, Spain, narrowly
Germany in the semifinals to enter its first-ever final and create its
chance to make soccer history.
In terms of footballing symmetry, it is
actually the Spanish, with their zestful, freeflowing football, who are
heirs of the knights of 1974 than today’s more cautious Dutch. Cruyff
name with Ajax of Amsterdam, but burnished the legend, and became a
coach, at Barcelona, and his principles were evidently carefully
Historical symmetry would have required that Holland’s opponents
today again be the Germans. And wider ostensible historical justice
required that, this time, 36 years later, the “Brilliant Orange” would
finally grasping the World Cup, finally slaying decades of on- and
But what was true in 1974 is true today. International football,
and especially the World Cup, is a sporting contest, a focus of often
sometimes negative, usually harmless, competitive national pride. The
teams’ play may sometimes reflect their national characteristics, for
for worse. The performances may add luster to nations’ selfimages, or
them. Presidents and prime ministers may seek to bask in their players’
or sidestep their players’ ignominy.
Football can help nations win
friends worldwide and make them enemies. It is said to have started at
war – between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969 – and can certainly
and help alleviate hostilities.
But even in 2010, its fiercely contested
field of play is no substitute for the battlefield.
More's the pity.