As the business end of 1974 World Cup loomed, for the sentimentalists, the field of title contenders still included Brazil. But for most, it had thinned to three: The Netherlands, hosts West Germany and upstarts Poland. And like in a good shoot-’em-up western, the main characters were all nervously eyeing each other’s gun hand.
Save for the early exit of Italy at the feet of the Poles, the opening phase had been largely unremarkable.
Holland approached their campaign like entertainers, starting with an imperious 2-0 dismissal of Uruguay. Johnny Rep headed in the opener after just seven minutes and then swept in a cross from Rob Rensenbrink just before the end.
In a battling, goalless draw with the Dutch, Sweden then took the sheen off that win. Their amazing goalie Ronnie Hellstrom blocked, caught or punched away everything that came his way.
Stung, the men in orange and white vented their frustration on Bulgaria, thrashing them 4-1 with Johannes Neeskens converting two penalties in the opening half. Johann Cruyff was upended in the fourth minute and the other Johan blasted the spot kick straight down the middle. His second kick from the spot, on the stroke of half-time, was equally powerful though, once again, not well placed.
After 71 minutes, Rep made it 3-0. Inadvertently, Rudi Krol subsequently turned the ball into the Dutch goal; that would be their only blemish before the final. It was quickly forgotten when substitute Theo de Jong dove low to head in Cruyff’s left-side cross, an emphatic finish to a quite spectacular first-round campaign.
In arguably the toughest preliminary round group, Poland underlined their quality by winning all their games. Right-winger Grzegorz Lato opened their account and finished with a double in a 3-2 win over Argentina. He then grabbed another brace in a 7-0 rout of Haiti. But it was centre-forward Andrzej Szarmach and skipper Kazimierz Deyna whose goals saw off Italy 2-1.
So in Group B of the second round, the well-organised Poles and the dangerous Swedes would be West Germany’s major adversaries. Group A would pit the South American giants, Brazil and Argentina, against the high-flying Dutch, who had now shown off their full array of skills and become the outstanding favourites.
Of the final eight, seven were plotting strategies to stop Michels’ squad in this second round mini-league.
Blessed by fair weather thus far, the tournament was about to experience change that would favour the physically stronger teams. But what would really shape the path to the grand finale would be cleverly conceived tactics, penalties, brilliantly worked goals, outstanding goalkeeping, dangerous challenges and disputed decisions.
In the Cup’s 92-year history, only a few select teams have dominated every opponent from the first kick to lifting the trophy. Brazil did so in ’70 but theirs was a well-organised unit, inspired by the matchless Pelé. Now, just four years on, Holland seemed on course to emulate that achievement. But a confrontation with West Germany’s battle-hardened troops seemed inevitable.
In the event, the pair did clash.
Whatever the truth behind their loss to East Germany, Helmut Schön now took West Germany’s defensive structure up a notch. Out went Cologne’s Bernd Cullman, to be replaced by a more physically aggressive defensive midfielder, Reiner Bonhof. And the Moenchengladbach player also possessed a rocket of a shot.
From there on, West Germany basically operated on a 5-4-1 system with the 22-year-old Bonhof playing mostly alongside centre-back Schwarzenbeck, with captain Beckenbauer sweeping behind them.
Cologne’s Wolfgang Overath controlled the middle, with the Eintracht Frankfurt pair of Jürgen Grabowski and Bernd Hölzenbein on the flanks. Uli Hoeness was the utility midfield workhorse while Gerd Muller, a stronger though slower version of the 25-year-old hotshot of 1970, played alone up front.
In essence, Germany had fashioned their own model of Total Football. They could now pack their midfield or defence with five, depending on game situations, without the risks associated with Holland’s style of all players for all roles.
The Dutch changed nothing. Hot favourites, they were basking in the glory of two first-round wins and a draw, and half-a-dozen classy goals that had spread the gospel of the miracle of Total Football.
Veteran Wim van Hanegem was the midfield lynchpin, with the other Wim, workhorse Jansen, and playmaker Cruyff on either side. Up front, Johan Neeskens often started at centre-forward with Johnny Rep and Rob Rensenbrink flanking him. But because they were at a minimum competent almost anywhere on the pitch, scheming to man-mark this Dutch side was a coach’s nightmare.
During Wilhelmus Rijsbergen’s stint as Trinidad and Tobago coach in 2007, I asked him about those heady days.
“We played a dangerous game,” the former centre-back conceded, calling it often nerve-wracking.
He cited the practice of sweeper Arie Haan moving up, creating a four-man midfield to press behind three forwards, leaving just himself and wing-backs Suurbier and Krol to defend against any break.
What he did not say was that such risks were not mitigated by the man tending goal. In 33-year-old Jan Jongbloed, they had a quite ordinary ’keeper whose technique and reaction time made him, at the very least potentially, the team’s Achilles heel.
The Dutch opened their second-round campaign with a comprehensive 4-0 rout of Argentina. After ten minutes, Cruyff registered their now habitual early strike. He ran onto a chip over the defence, disdainfully rounded goalie Daniel Carnevali and tapped the ball into the open goal.
Another 15 minutes passed before Rudi Krol doubled the lead, drilling a loose ball in low from the edge of the box. Heavy rain in the second half did not slow them—Rep headed in Cruyff’s cross on 73 minutes and Cruyff completed the scoring with a volley from distance in the final minute.
Goals by Neeskens and Rensenbrink in either half then saw off East Germany.
Ahead on goal difference, Holland faced Brazil in their last game, knowing a draw would suffice to take them into the final.
And in a titanic clash in Dortmund, the defending champions should have drawn first blood. Taking a double deflection, a shot from distance fell at the feet of Jairzinho. But with Jongbloed on his knees, Rijsbergen somehow got a foot in, deflecting Jair’s shot just wide of the post.
On the heavy field, roughhouse tackles, body checks and the like littered the no-holds-barred duel. Brazil seemed to think they could intimidate their adversaries—the Dutch were giving as good as they got.
The first half ended goalless but the South Americans had a defensive flaw that Holland would twice exploit. Brazil’s midfield comprised Rivelino and the two Paolo Cesars, Lima and Carpegiani, all attacking players. So, when wing-backs Ze Maria and Francisco Marinho overlapped, as was their wont, cover for them at the back was, to put it kindly, not guaranteed.
Wim Van Hanegem’s quick 50th minute free kick found Neeskens, whose chip picked out Cruyff unmarked behind left-back Marinho (F), caught ball-watching and out of position. Forced to come over and challenge Cruyff, Mario Marinho left the centre open. Neeskens had continued his run and Cruyff threaded the return pass low inside the box where the number 13, sliding in, hooked the ball high into the roof of the net. Closing in to block, Luis Pereira arrived a fraction too late.
Fifteen minutes later, Holland damblayed the move but on Brazil’s right flank this time. Left-back Krol chipped the ball over Ze Maria–caught in no-man’s-land–to Rensenbrink but never slowed his run along the touchline. Rensenbrink returned the pass and, as Ze Maria froze, Pereira was forced to leave the centre and challenge. Krol’s cross was to the near post where the completely unmarked Cruyff leapt into the air to slam a volley past Leao.
At 2-0, the fat lady was in very good voice.
The remaining 25 minutes proved humiliating for the outgoing champions. Enjoying most of the possession, Holland strung passes together, leaving Brazil chasing shadows around the field. And when a frustrated Pereira caught Neeskens, going at full pelt, high on the knee, it was all over. The card was the big defender’s second booking and off he went.
It ended 2-0. The Dutch were in the final.
And what a final it would be!