If you asked a football fan who the best team to have never won a World Cup was, nearly all of them would say The Netherlands, apart from those hipsters who just seem to love Belgium. Yes, despite producing some of the best players to have ever graced the game, the men in orange have never got their hands on the golden trophy. They have managed to get to the last four twice and all the way to the final three times, so each of these times, what has gone wrong for The Oranje asks FIn Crebolder?
The first great Dutch side, and undisputedly still the greatest team to have ever donned the orange shirt. Led by Rinus Michels in the dugout and Johan Cruyff on the pitch, supported by the likes of Johan Neeskens and Ruud Krol, this team revolutionised football forever, making their way to the final playing exciting, innovative “TotaalVoetbal”. This was a style of play never seen at the top level of football before, with players interchanging positions on the ball and relentlessly pressing the opposition to win it back. Johan Cruyff summed it up perfectly many years later.
“Attackers could play as defenders and defenders as attackers. Everyone could play everywhere.”
This style of play got them excellent results, and memorable performances, such as a 2-0 win against Brazil in a crucial second round game, who tried to win through sheer force, fouling the Dutch left, right and centre, but ultimately were outplayed as Neeskens and Cruyff got the crucial goals. Before that game, they had brushed aside Argentina and East Germany 4-0 and 2-0 respectively in more beautiful performances. Even in a 0-0 game against Sweden in the first round, the Dutch still managed to entertain and innovate, as Cruyff introduced the iconic “Cruyff Turn” to the world. The neutrals loved them both on and off the pitch, and the way they revolutionised football was likened to the way that The Beatles revolutionized music, with Cruyff at the heart of it. They were undisputedly the best team at the tournament, so why didn’t they win? Well, that can be answered in one word. Complacency.
The Dutch went into the final with hosts and rivals West Germany, led by Franz Beckenbauer, as clear favourites. The match started perfectly for them, with Johan Cruyff dancing through the German team straight from kick off, and winning a penalty as he was brought down by Uli Hoeneß. Johan Neeskens coolly converted the penalty and the Dutch looked to be on their way to their first World Cup title. They continued to dominate the match, but allowed their emotions to overcome them. Many of the Dutch side had considerable hatred towards the Germans due to the German occupation of The Netherlands during the Second World War, and due to this, they decided to toy with Germany and humiliate them, instead of killing the match off. They did this for 25 minutes until Germany were awarded a penalty out of the blue after a foul by Wim Jansen. They converted the penalty and the match was level at 1-1. This gave Germany the momentum, and they got what turned out to be the winner in the 43rd minute, through Gerd Muller, with his last ever goal for Germany. The Netherlands dominated the second half, and created chances, but failed to get a goal, as key man Cruyff was contained well by the Germans, who saw out the game to win the World Cup yet again. The Dutch had the best team, the best player and the best manager in the world, but despite creating a lasting legacy and changing football forever, failed to win the tournament due to their arrogance in the final.
Despite the absence of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, the side still played innovative Totaal Voetbal, and still had stars such as Neeskens, Rep, Rensenbrink and the Van de Kerkhof brothers. The tournament was full of controversy, even before a ball was kicked, with many teams, including The Netherlands, calling for a boycott of the tournament due to the political situation in host country Argentina, who were led by General Videla. Despite the tournament getting the go ahead, the best player in the world, Johan Cruyff refused to go, due to fears of kidnapping after him and his family were victims to an attempt months prior to the tournament. The Dutch struggled at first, but excelled in the second round, destroying Austria 5-1, drawing 2-2 to rivals West Germany, and comfortably beating Italy 2-1. Led by excellent performances from Rob Rensenbrink in particular, the Dutch were yet again in the final. Hosts Argentina also reached the final, but their final match of the second round was flooded in controversy. They needed a four goal win to finish ahead of Brazil and reach the final going into their final game against Peru. Peru simply rolled over and were thrashed 6-0, with many people still claiming to this day that Argentina bribed or potentially even threatened Peru. However, nothing was proven, and Argentina progressed.
Two of the tournament favourites had reached the final, and General Videla, the dictator of Argentina, was desperate for an Argentine victory, believing it would show the nation in a more favourable light, after the events of the ‘Dirty War’. Argentina delayed kick off, complaining about a cast that Rene Van de Kerkhof had been allowed to wear throughout the tournament. The referee, perhaps intimidated by the 80,000 Argentine fans, forced the Dutchman to apply extra bandage. On the pitch, Argentina started well and deservedly took the lead through star man Kempes in the 38th minute. In the second half, the Dutch upped their game and through excellent performances by Rep and Rensenbrink, began to dominate, but were constantly denied by Argentine keeper Ubaldo Fillol, who played excellently. The Oranje eventually got their equaliser in the 82nd minute through Nanninga, and were quite literally an inch away from winning it when Rensenbrink struck the post with mere seconds left on the clock. Rensenbrink later said:
“If the trajectory of my shot had been five centimetres different, we would have been world champions. On top of that, I would have been crowned top scorer and perhaps chosen as the best player of the tournament – all in the same match. That’s why I keep things in perspective.”
The match went to extra time, and a rejuvenated Argentina took the lead in the 105th minute, again through Kempes. The Dutch then went for it, which resulted in Argentina scoring a third on the counter-attack in the 115th minute. This Dutch side still played excellent football, but were not quite as strong as in 1974 and could not prevent the host nation Argentina, who were surrounded by controversy, from winning a World Cup that they desperately wanted.
Well, we had to get here eventually… Being born in 1998, this is my worst footballing memory by a long, long way. I still believe that a part of me died when THAT goal went in. But more on that later.
Going into the 2010 World Cup, the Netherlands had a relatively average squad by their standards, and were not considered by many as major contenders. However, with the perfect mix of brains (Wesley Sneijder) and brawn (Nigel de Jong and Mark Van Bommel), along with excellent performances from Dirk Kuyt, Arjen Robben and veteran Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, the Dutch charged to their 3rd World Cup final. Throughout the tournament, the Dutch functioned excellently as a team, rather than a group of talented individuals, beating favourites Brazil on their way to the final. In the final, they would meet reigning European champions Spain, a side whose style of play was brought to the country by Dutch legend, Johan Cruyff. So, the two products of one of the greatest minds in football were to meet in the Final. It would be a beautiful game, right? Wrong. Arjen Robben outlined the Dutch approach a day before the final.
“I prefer a very ugly game that we win to a beautiful game that we lose.”
The whole Dutch squad had adopted a mentality that results were the most important thing in football, something that hugely differed from the beliefs of the Dutch sides of the 1970’s. However, it was sadly not enough. The final itself was a feisty affair, with the Dutch being the dirtier of the two sides, although the Spanish were not blameless. Straight from kick off, the Dutch pressed the Spanish aggressively, attempting to disrupt Spain’s tiki-taka.
Despite all the criticism that was given towards The Netherlands for this, and perhaps rightly so, the simple fact is, that it worked. Spain struggled to create openings and the Dutch still posed a threat themselves. In fact, over 90 minutes, the two best chances of the game were both presented to Arjen Robben. The first was courtesy of an exquisite through ball by Sneijder, which sent Robben racing through on goal, clear of any defenders. Robben managed to send Casillas the wrong way, but the Spanish keeper stuck out his leg, and got a touch on the ball with his toe, sending it wide. Robben was then again sent through on goal with ten minutes remaining by a Van Persie flick on, and after racing past Carlos Puyol, the Spanish defender, already on a yellow, desperately pulled Robben back. Robben decided to stay on his feet, but the damage was already done and Casillas reached the ball before him, whilst Puyol somehow escaped a caution.
After 90 minutes, the game was locked at 0-0. Going into extra-time, the Dutch were exhausted after 90 minutes of excessive pressing and chasing the ball. Eventually, the Oranje defence was outnumbered by Spain after Heitinga was sent off, and in the 116th minute, Iniesta dealt the killer blow, volleying in superbly, as Van der Vaart desperately tried to make a block. The fact is that this Dutch side was not one of the greatest in footballing terms, but through teamwork, resilience and a few flair players, they managed to reach the final, something that few people thought they could do before the tournament. This Spanish side was one of the greatest national teams of all time, and the fact that the Dutch went toe to toe (and foot to chest…) with them for 116 minutes emphasised their strength as a unit.
So, although the Oranje have been quite literally inches away from winning the trophy at times, the fact is that the teams of the 1970’s possessed the technique but not the mentality, whilst in 2010 they had an excellent mentality but could not match the technique of a historic team. To finally get the golden star above their crest, the Dutch will need a team that possesses both these traits. Sooner rather than later, this huge footballing nation will surely build a team to do so, and finally get their name etched onto the hallowed trophy. Roll on 2018.
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