The Dutch footballing master Johan Cruyff comes first in our list of the greatest Dutchman to ever play at a World Cup.

cruyff 1974Before him there was Pele who took the World Cup by storm, and afterwards there was Diego Maradona, but Cruyff performance at the 1974 World Cup means he is up there with the legendary duo as one of the finest players in the history of the tournament.

Cruyff was already known around the world before the tournament after inspiring Ajax to six Eredivisie titles, and three straight European Cups before a move to Barcelona in 1973. A forward with unbelievable skill, balance, and a footballing brain which seemed to be two steps ahead of any opponent, Cruyff was the superstar of Total football, and what he wanted, he usually got.

Cruyff was captain, and had a say in tactics, making Michels drop his former Ajax strike partner Piet Keizer for Rob Rensenbrink after a feud developed between the two. The Dutch football federation even let Cruyff off for not wearing the Adidas sponsored national team kit, which he changed from three stripes to two, due to his sponsorship deal with Puma.

The whole team was built around Cruyff, and in his free role the forward dazzled from the beginning of the tournament, which started with an easy 2-0 win over Uruguay. However It was against Sweden in the next game that Cruyff produced the piece of sublime skill that stunned football fans around the world, and is still known to this day as the ‘Cruyff turn’.

The game itself was a drab and boring 0-0 draw, but it will never be remembered for that, but instead for a moment of genius from Cruyff which left Swedish defender Jan Olsson bamboozled. Its the 23rd minute when Arie Haan flights a ball onto the left wing to find Cruyff, who has his back to goal, and is being closed down by Olsson. The winger seems to miss-control at first but then brings the ball back to his feet, despite being closely marked by the Swedish defender. Cruyff then drops his shoulder to go left before caressing the ball with his right foot, pulling it back and then spins to the right to leave Olsson wrong footed and completely outwitted.

He may have done the move before, or Cruyff could have taken it from another player but doing it on the biggest stage in front of millions, before the days were football matches all over the world could be seen on the internet, made it huge, and propelled the Dutch team into the hearts of anyone watching.

Cruyff’s finest game in the tournament came against Argentina in the first match of the second round. The Dutch were excellent for the whole ninety minutes, showing how deadly total football could be, and Cruyff was at the centre of it. The captain was all over the pitch, defending one minute, attacking the next, and constantly encouraging his team-mates to make the passes that in his head he knew would win them the game. The match also saw Cruyff net his first goals of the tournament,

His first goal was a showcase of his superior technique as he takes down Van Hanegem’s ball over the top with his right foot, nudges it round the goalkeeper, and then slots into the empty net with his left. Cruyff added his second and the Dutch’s fourth with two minutes left, brilliantly volleying in first time from an acute angle after Van Hanagem had a shot saved.

Netherlands went into the final group game against Brazil needing only a draw to reach the final. The Brazilians for years had played the best football in the world, but the Dutch outclassed them in 1974, as Cruyff sealed a 2-0 win with an outstanding flying right foot finish after a fine team move.

Onto the final Netherlands went, and they were heavy favourites against hosts West Germany, but fate turned against Cruyff and co. Everything was going to plan when Cruyff jinked through the German defence before being brought down for a penalty on two minutes. Neeskens slotted in the penalty, but from that moment Netherlands decided to toy with their opponent instead of going in for the kill.

Germany fought back with a penalty of their own, before Gerd Muller completed the comeback and sealed the win for Germany.

Johan Cruyff was named the player of the tournament, but the greatest Dutch side that had ever lived had failed in the most important match in Dutch football history. To this day it is still a huge talking point in the Netherlands.

Cruyff would not join the Dutch squad for the 1978 tournament due, according to the man himself, a kidnap attempt which saw his wife make the player promise he wouldn’t leave for Argentina.

The world only witnessed the greatness of Cruyff at the biggest tournament in the world for a few weeks, but the forward left an impression on a nation which inspired the future generation of Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp and co.

Without Cruyff the Dutch national team would not be as successful as it is today, and for that reason he is the greatest Dutchman to ever grace a World Cup finals.

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