Wim van Hanegem is the latest Dutch football legend to enter our hall of fame.

  • By M. Joseph Valler

van ham

To the Dutch, Willem van Hanegem is considered to be one of the best players in their footballing history. When his name reaches the border, however; it fades. With his emergence being in pre-internet days, the midfielders’ status as a forgotten footballer is unsurprising; Van Hanegem only appeared in a single World Cup (1974); one in which Johan Cruyff’s star shone brightest. Also, aside from a single season in the burgeoning North American Soccer League (NASL), van Hanegem spent his entire career in the Netherlands. If Ajax fans had their talisman in Johan Cruyff, Feyenoord had theirs in Wim van Hanegem – one whose face adorns more items in the De Kuip club shop than that of any other former player.

Willem van Hanegem was born on 20th February 1944, in Breskens, Zeeland. In that same year, the Schedle Estuary in Antwerp was a contested area for the Allies and Germans and despite Allied control over Antwerp, the Germans still occupied fortified positions throughout the estuary. In order to clear this area and allow supply convoys direct access to the port, on the 11th of September 1944, six months after van Hanegem was born; the Allied forces launched Operation Switchback. Switchback involved the carpet bombing of Breskens and although Willem van Hanegem narrowly survived; his father, sister and two of his brothers did not. With these deaths, van Hanegem’s hatred of the Germans would be irrevocable but would not get the chance to vent these feelings for another thirty years and until in a World Cup final. The remaining members of the Van Hanegem family left Breskens after the war and headed east – which is where he would be discovered 16 years later, 130 miles away; in the town of Utrecht.

One morning in late 1960, a coach named Daan van Beek was taking a training session for his team, Velox of Utrecht. During the training, Van Beek noticed a youngster clutching the other side of the fence as he watched his local team. As the session progressed, he noticed that each time one of his players skied the ball over the fence, the youngster would chase after the stray ball and kick it back over the fence. Each time, the pass landed at the feet of a Velox player. Curious, van Beek strolled over to the fence and asked the youngster to participate. The Velox first teamers watched him enter the pitch and as he came into focus, the youngster seemed to be getting bigger and bigger. When he reached them, he stood 6ft and at 94 kilos, he was clearly overweight. His future teammates were unimpressed and they would soon realise that his eye-sight was poor too but despite this, Van Hanegerm turned up the following week and the week after. After each session van Beek was advised that the boy was “Too slow. Too fat. Can’t do anything with his right foot. Too reckless”. It seemed that only van Beek could see something in the youngster midfielder. Slowly however, this belief was rewarded and quickly showed that despite his weight, the technique was impeccable and despite seeing everything as a haze, he could create countless chances with perfectly curving through passes. By 1962, Van Hanegem, now aged 18, was already a starter in the first team and with a nickname that he would carry his whole career. The nickname was ‘De Kromme’ (The Crooked) after the bent passes and bent posture that characterised his play. At this time Velox were a second division side and only the third strongest in Utrecht (behind DOS and Elinkwijk) but despite this, van Hanegem later commented that he never played at a better club in his life.

In 1966, Hanegem decided to leave to join Xerxes Rotterdam, a first division side. At Xerxes, van Hanegem was coached by the German Kurt Linder, whose focus on discipline and harsh training methods brought him into conflict with the youngster. The methods appeared to work however as the tough Linder managed to trim down van Hanegem’s weight from 94 kilos to 81 kilos. Also crucial to his later development, a 4-2-4 formation was played at Xerxes to which van Hanegem was moved from outside left to inside left. The results were immediate and in only his second season at Xerxes, van Hanegem scored a record of 26 league goals, two shy of the top goal scorer’s crown. Xerxes would go on to finish third in the second division that season, prompting a call up from George Kessler, coach of the national team in May 1968. Although it seems as if the scepticism over van Hanegem’s ability and physique was ubiquitous, it wasn’t solely exclusive to those on the side-lines at Velox – van Hanegem’s potential was also questioned by none other than Rinus Michel’s, himself. In 1968, with four seasons at Velox under his belt and two at Xerxes, van Hanegem was still being underestimated. Watching a Xerxes match, Ajax chairman Jaap van Praag noticed van Hanegem and informed his coach Rinus Michels that he planned to purchase the left-footed midfielder. Michel’s response was that the twenty four year old was “Too slow and too one-dimensional. Not suited for modern football”. Feyenoord did not agree and van Hanegem moved to Ajax’s rivals less than six months later.

The Feyenoord team De Kromme was to join was already filled with legends or at least those ‘to be’. The defence of Theo Lanseroms, local boy Wim Jansen and captain ‘IJzeren’ (Iron) Rinus Isreal was described by one of their opponents as being ‘the most intimidating, imposing presence you had ever felt.’ On the left wing was Coen Moulijn, another local boy who had grown up kicking balls against the factory walls of his hometown and grown into ‘Mr Feyenoord’. They were led by Ernst Happel, an Austrian whose team would personified him as a man as well as former player. Happel’s Feyenoord were strong-willed, physically imposing but also technically adept – a description which could also relate to the developing De Kromme himself.

In his first season at De Kuip, van Hanegem won the Eredivisie and the KNVB cup. A year later he shone in a team that became the first Dutch side to win a major European trophy; dispatching holders AC Milan en-route to the final. In the European Cup final of 1969-70, Feyenoord would face the European Champions from three years previous; Jock Stein’s Glasgow Celtic. Believing that, ‘the game always unfolds from the midfield’, Happel decided upon a 4-3-3 formation to best Celtics 4-2-4. The Austrian’s beliefs were proven correct as Wim Jansen, Frans Hasil and van Hanegem proved to be difference at the San Siro and 2-1 extra time victory meant that Feyenoord would become the first Dutch team to win the European Cup, thus heralding a decade of European footballing dominance for the Dutch.

Over the next four years, De Kromme would lift his second and third Eredivisie titles as well as a UEFA cup (defeating Tottenham Hotspur 4-2 in the 1973-74 season); the latter however, would signal the end of Feyenoord’s short period of dominance – by this time Ajax had firmly established themselves as European giants and Feyenoord would also have wait another ten years before they could lay claim to the Eredivisie title once more. Some Feyenoord fans would have it that the snobbery and elitism of the nation’s capital has meant that Ajax are credited as being the Dutch side universally responsible for revolutionising football in the 1970’s. This suspicion is unrealistic, however; the Amsterdam team had a coach, Forward and shared philosophy that have understandably become synonymous with Dutch football and rightfully so; there is no doubt that the Ajax philosophy did change football and continues to do so. Nevertheless, as we will see Feyenoord were a very large, key component in this revolution – evidenced in the 1974 World Cup side which would go to West Germany.

In previous years, a Dutch national team comprised of Ajax and Feyenoord players had hamstrung itself due to both almost never being willing to work together as a team. In 1974, however; Ajax and Feyenoord became that team (It was not all harmonious, mind; the squad’s two PSV legends, Jan van Beveren and Willy van der Kuijlen had been left out of the squad at Cruyff’s behest). Being Feyenoord’s captain, Wim van Hanegem’s acceptance of Johan Cruyff’s unquestioned leadership and Rinus Michels Ajax-tested beliefs was one of, if not the main component of making the Dutch experiment a success. Whilst Cruyff’s leadership reinforced the philosophy on the pitch, van Hanegem controlled the tempo of the game and it would be his curving distribution to Cruyff and Rep that would assist the former to walk away with the Best Player of the tournament award. Very little footage exists of van Hanegem’s early years at Feyenoord; all we really have are those seven matches in that World Cup. In that footage we are treated to seeing van Hanegem running with stooped back, grizzly bear-like, hitting the ball toe-first as if it was a balloon. Every pass he makes looks like it has been sliced but each and every one sails over his opponent and lands at a teammate’s foot.

Fluidity was not the sole aspect of De Kromme’s game, however; at first glance you would probably say that this would be a bonus and that his strength and demeanor would be his primary attributes. Whilst sublime movements were his handwriting, van Hanegem was physically imposing and would be intimidating for any opponent. Alongside Jansen, Haan and Suurbier, De Kromme gave the Netherlands the physical edge that they still retain today. For example; the Dutch press even described the 2010 Dutch team as three ‘artists’ (van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder) and eight ‘piano shifters’. Cruyff once said of De Kromme:  “Van Hanegem has one advantage over me. When I have a bad game, I’m useless. When Van Hanegem has a bad game, he rolls up his sleeves and starts tackling.” And tackle he did. Clattering opponents and giving food for thought for those brave enough not to have averted their eyes.

The bulk of De Kromme’s ire was saved for the final however; and not just because it was the final – van Hanegem would probably have played the same game if he had met the German’s in the group stages. The Dutch, despite being favorites, lost and the nation were in mourning following a game which is still referred to as “De moeder aller nederlagen” (“The mother of all defeats”). Some of the Dutch players refused to shake hands with their West German counterparts at the final whistle and van Hanegem himself refused to attend the post-match banquet: ‘I didn’t give a damn about the score. 1–0 was enough, as long as we could humiliate them. I hate them. They murdered my family. My father, my sister, two of my brothers. Each time I faced Germany I was angst-filled’

An oft-told fable has it that in 1976, Olympique Marseille offered De Kromme an extremely lucrative contract for the time but he could not decide whether to accept. He discussed the matter with his wife and debated with his friends. A vote was even held and it was deadlocked at 2-2. Amused by the deadlock, Van Hanegem suggested that his dog now had to break the tie. Van Hanegem told them that he would say ‘Marseille”, and if Wodan barked, that counted as a yes. If he stayed silent, Van Hanegem would stay at Feyenoord. Wodan didn’t bark. So, van Hanegem turned them down; instead choosing to join AZ Alkmaar and lending his wealth of experience to a young, emerging side. Within two years of his joining, AZ had lifted the KNVB cup (their first major trophy) and, although, van Hanegem would not be present, that young team would go on to win the league title three years later.

When the 1978 world cup came along, van Hanegem was 34 and although reunited with former coach Ernst Happel, the Austrian was not willing to guarantee him a place in the team; certainly not at the expense of younger players. Van Hanegem left the Dutch training camp prior to the tournament, citing the toll the previous season at AZ had taken on his body. After the World Cup, Van Hanegem had one final run out for the Oranje before calling it a day in 1978. Domestically, he would follow his fellow Dutch compatriots Cruyff and Neeskens for a stint in the nascent NASL but this would only be for a single season and upon his return, he would rejoin his beloved home town club of Velox once more, now called FC Utrecht (following a merger in 1970). De Kromme did return to Feyenoord for two final seasons in 1981, where he picked up an Eredivise runners up medal before retiring at the age of 39. It was inevitable that he would one day be appointed first-team coach at De Kuip and when he did so, he won a single Eredivisie and two KNVB cup medals.

Throughout his career, van Hanegem had not only proved doubters wrong but had done so through graft and determination. The birthplace of van Hanegem, the province of Zeeland was an area directly affected by the North Sea flood of 1953; a tidal surge which led to the deaths of an estimated 1,835 people and in which 70,000 more required emergency evacuation. From the toil that led to its inception and the adversities it has faced since its creation, the province has a suitable a motto: Luctor et Emergo. It means I Struggle and Emerge.

What better motto to summarise the career of De Kromme.

Matthew Valler (7 Posts)