12 W/C recalls: 1974 when Total Football almost ruled the roost; sum of the parts

“Penalty! Holland have a penalty! And we are still in the opening minute of this long-awaited World Cup final!”

In many ways, the amazing 10th Fifa World Cup in 1974 bore an uncanny resemblance to its 1954 counterpart. In Germany like in Switzerland, Fifa played the second round as a group stage. The Olympic champions took down several teams.

Photo: Netherlands attacker Johan Cruyff (orange jersey) is tripped by Germany defender Uli Hoeness for a penalty kick in the 1974 World Cup final.
Looking on (far left) is Germany defender Berti Vogts.

Unusually heavy rain plagued the tournament, affecting results. And an eye-opening first-round defeat arguably made Germany’s route to the final easier.

What, however, really made the 1974 tournament unforgettable was the Netherlands squad. As Hungary had risen to be a force in the ‘50s, so did the Dutch a decade-and-a-half later. Their panache won them many durable friends. But, just as it had over the brilliant Hungarians 20 years earlier, German discipline ultimately prevailed.

The glamorous football that had earned the Samba Boys three titles in four tournaments took a near-fatal blow. Suddenly, it was more than okay to win ugly, to win at all costs. And the debate on ultra-defensive versus open attacking systems in international football veered south.

In this review, I hope to explain in some detail how the hosts’ conservative approach contrived to stop in their tracks the rampaging Netherlands and their ground-breaking Total Football tactics. I also seek to shine a light on the most attention-grabbing moments as well as some of the strengths and weaknesses of the great players of the time under review. 

Photo: Team Germany celebrate with the Fifa World Cup trophy after their 2-1 win over the Netherlands in Munich on 7 July 1974.
(Copyright Popperfoto via Getty Images)

The Netherlands’ football revolution began in the mid-sixties when former player Rinus Michels returned to relegation-threatened Ajax Amsterdam as coach. Remarkable success came immediately: in eight seasons starting in 1966, Ajax won Holland’s Eredivisie six times. 

At the centre of it was a skinny but hugely talented kid who had been around the club long before he eventually joined the roster at age 17 in 1964. His name? Hendrik Johannes Cruyff. That name would come to be remembered as Johan Cruyff.

Michels then turned to the European Cup, where Spain’s Real Madrid had ruled the roost from its inception. By then, his unique system, in which players swarmed or ‘pressed’ their opponents in both attack and defence, was garnering interest all over Europe. 

Photo: Dutch coach Rinus Michel is honoured by Uefa for his services to football.
(Copyright Uefa)

This tactic of smothering adversaries required players to cover for one another everywhere on the field so training involved learning to competently fill any role—presumably with the exception of goalkeeper. And the constant hassling often forced opponents into error; outnumbered, they would lose the ball in attack and, failing to pick up overlapping opponents, concede goals in defence.

Ajax’s success saw the system spread countrywide. By the turn of the decade, two Dutch clubs had appeared in five successive European Cup (now re-baptised UEFA Champions League) finals, winning four. 

In 1969, Ajax, featuring a now 22-year-old Cruyff, suffered a 4-1 thumping at the feet of AC Milan. The following year, Feyenoord Rotterdam became the first Dutch club to graduate to European champions, edging Glasgow Celtic 2-1. Ajax then returned to claim a hat-trick of titles; they first beat Greek club Panathinaikos 2-0 in ’71, exacted 2-0 revenge on Milan the following year and then edged Juventus 1-0 in ’73.  

By then, Michels had moved to Barcelona. Cruyff joined him there for a record fee and, in his first season, led the Catalans to the Spanish championship.

Photo: Dutch coach Rinus Michels (left) has a word with star player Johan Cruyff during their time at FC Barcelona.

At the World Cup, Cruyff would be joined by ex-Ajax teammates Ruud Krol, Wim Suurbier, Johannes Neeskens, Arie Haan and Johnny Rep. So when Michels returned as Dutch manager, other title aspirants understandably became very uneasy.

Meanwhile, down South America way, title-holders Brazil had lost four members of their all-conquering 1970 outfit. Sticking to his guns, Pelé declined to suit up for a fifth World Cup. The damaged retina Tostao had gambled with in Mexico now forced him into early retirement.

Gerson was dropped. Likewise captain Carlos Alberto, whose excellent fourth goal had appropriately put an exclamation mark on the 1970 final. 

Coach Mario Zagallo reverted to a 4-3-3 system, with Jairzinho, his seven goals second only to Gerd Mueller’s 10 in 1970, now playing a conventional centre-forward. But without Pelé and Tostao to create openings for him, the Botafogo forward’s tournament would be less than memorable.

Photo: Brazil attacker Jairzinho (right) looks for space in the Italy defence during the 1970 World Cup final.

Paolo Cesar Lima, mere bit-part player in Mexico, now partnered the gifted Rivelino in a midfield chock-full of ball carriers but without a real ball-winner. And in the diminutive Emerson Leao, they had a goalkeeper who had perhaps even more flaws than his predecessor, Felix.

On the brighter side, the shaky 1970 defence that had caused supporters so many palpitations was no more. Two formidable centre-backs, Luis Pereira and captain Mario Marinho, were flanked by Mario’s unrelated namesake Francisco, an attacking midfielder-cum-left-back, and Ze Maria.

Following West Germany’s upset victory in ’54, they had endured two decades of admirable consistency without reward. In four successive World Cups, they fought their way to the quarterfinals (1962), the semifinals (1958, 1970) and a hugely disappointing second place (1966).

In charge for that painful ’66 2-4 extra-time loss to England had been Helmut Schön, assistant to manager Sepp Herberger since ’54. But what firmly convinced the 58-year-old to change tack was, arguably, the 3-4 extra-time loss to Italy in the ’70 semifinal.

Photo: Renowned late German football coach Helmut Schön.

Open, attacking play earned you plaudits, he had concluded, but tangible rewards came from stifling defence. 

Thus, Schön’s new approach would bear close resemblance to Italy’s Catenaccio or ‘Bolt’ system, with Gerd Muller playing alone up front, just as Luigi Riva had done for the Italians four years earlier.  

Schön built his team around the Bayern Munich core of custodian Sepp Maier, Franz Beckenbauer, Paul Breitner, Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck, Mueller and Uli Hoeness. Just two years after their ’72 European Championship triumph in Belgium, several stalwarts would play bit parts only. 

Mönchengladbach and Real Madrid star Günter Netzer, for instance, the outstanding light of Euro ’72, would not see a minute of action in World Cup ’74. Not surprisingly, Schön preferred the more conservative Wolfgang Overath.

Thirty-six years after their previous appearance, Poland came to the Finals having much in common with the 1954 Hungarians. To get to Germany, they had beaten England 2-0 at home and then held them 1-1 in the return leg at Wembley, where Hungary had whipped their hosts 6-3 to announce their arrival on the centre of the world stage in ’53.

Photo: Poland 1974 captain and star Kazimierz Deyna.

Like the Magyars, they too arrived wearing the Olympic crown although, strangely, the international media did not consider them serious contenders. 

They had some familiarity with conditions in the host country too, their 2-1 Olympic final win over Hungary having come in Munich. In seven Olympic matches, they scored 21 goals, conceding just five. Their captain, Kazimierz Deyna, had scored nine times to cop the Golden Boot and winger Robert Gadocha had scored six goals. 

Goalie Jan Tomaszewski, centre-backs Jerzey Gorgon and Antoni Szymanowski, striker Wlodzimierz Lubanski and winger Grzegorz Lato were all players of undisputed world class.  

Even before a ball was kicked, during the opening ceremony at Frankfurt’s Waldstadion on 13 June, football officially acknowledged the end of an era. On centre-stage, now retired West German striker Uwe Seeler handed the Jules Rimet Trophy over to Pelé, who had played in all three triumphs that earned Brazil the coveted prize for eternity. 

Photo: Brazil legend Pele wheels away to celebrate his goal against Italy at the 1970 World Cup final.

And then the Pelé-less Brazilians, the defending champions, were held to a goalless draw by Yugoslavia in the opening game. It was the third successive time a Finals opener had ended in that kind of frustrating stalemate.

The hosts also looked quite ordinary in their opener when left-back Breitner’s shot from outside the box earned them a 1-0 win over Chile. They then eased past debutants Australia 3-0. Thus, assured of advancing, they adopted a completely lethargic approach to their encounter with East Germany.

Eyebrows were raised when Juergen Sparwasser scored to give Schon’s side’s communist neighbours a completely unexpected 1-0 win. 

Schön, some observers noted, had coached at club level in East Germany. But, contrived or not, the shock result left the East Germans as group winners with five points, drawn to face Holland, Brazil and Argentina in the second phase. 

Photo: Germany World Cup star Paul Breitner.

Second on four points, West Germany would play Poland, Sweden and Yugoslavia. 

It was difficult to avoid recalling that, in ’54, West Germany had fielded a handful of reserves against Hungary, knowing they would roll over Turkey and advance as group runners-up with a potentially less challenging draw awaiting them. 

Risky it was. And far from straightforward. But there can be no doubt that Schön’s strategic move ultimately spawned arguably the most historic final the World Cup has known.

“History! We have not had a single penalty awarded in any of the nine finals already contested. And with just 24 minutes gone in the tenth final, we already have our second!” 

But the route to that final outcome was far from straightforward. 

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