A chance for Holland to exorcise footballing demons

Soccer Politics: Germany’s absence denies final symmetry.

holland 311 (photo credit: AP)
holland 311
(photo credit: AP)
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 tournament.
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 demoralized.
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 athlete-warriors.”
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.
World Cup 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.
As Holland’s Johnny Rep acknowledged years later to Winner, “We forgot to score the second goal.”
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 offside.
On Sunday in Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium, having suffered another shattering defeat in the 1978 final, to Argentina, Holland is at last contesting a World Cup Final again. Its opponents, Spain, narrowly overcame Germany in the semifinals to enter its first-ever final and create its own chance to make soccer history.
In terms of footballing symmetry, it is actually the Spanish, with their zestful, freeflowing football, who are truer heirs of the knights of 1974 than today’s more cautious Dutch. Cruyff made his name with Ajax of Amsterdam, but burnished the legend, and became a renowned coach, at Barcelona, and his principles were evidently carefully internalized there.
Historical symmetry would have required that Holland’s opponents today again be the Germans. And wider ostensible historical justice would have required that, this time, 36 years later, the “Brilliant Orange” would prevail – finally grasping the World Cup, finally slaying decades of on- and off-field demons.
But what was true in 1974 is true today. International football, and especially the World Cup, is a sporting contest, a focus of often positive, sometimes negative, usually harmless, competitive national pride. The style of teams’ play may sometimes reflect their national characteristics, for better and for worse. The performances may add luster to nations’ selfimages, or stain them. Presidents and prime ministers may seek to bask in their players’ glory, or sidestep their players’ ignominy.
Football can help nations win friends worldwide and make them enemies. It is said to have started at least one war – between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969 – and can certainly exacerbate and help alleviate hostilities.
But even in 2010, its fiercely contested field of play is no substitute for the battlefield.
More's the pity.