A look back at Netherlands participation at the World Cup in 1978, which saw the Dutch without Johan Cruyff lose the final against Argentina.

  • By Michael Bell
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78 wcIt was four years after Netherlands greatest ever side, featuring the brilliance of Johan Cruyff, lost cruelly in the final of the 1974 World Cup to huge rivals West Germany, but in 1978 nobody expected the Dutch to do as well.

Why? Well for one Cruyff wasn’t travelling to Argentina for the tournament, which at the time stunned everyone, and a number of theories as to why were banded about. Some thought the Barcelona great was injured, others that he wasn’t getting enough sponsorship money, while another rumour was that his wife, Danny, had banned him from going after Cruyff was pictured in 1974 with four naked women in a Jacuzzi.

However years later, Cruyff admitted the real reason for not participating in the World Cup was that he promised his wife not to go after both were held at gunpoint in their family home in Barcelona by an intruder. The crazed fan, who turned up at Cruyff’s house with a gun, apparently tied the Cruyff family up, before the plot was foiled. After this, Cruyff’s wife no longer felt safe, and he agreed to remain with her instead of going to Argentina.

Feyenoord midfielder Willem van Hanegem, another star of the 74 World Cup, also decided to remain at home after failing to be guaranteed a starting spot under coach Ernst Happel, who was chosen to lead the side, after guiding Club Brugge and Feyenoord to European Cup finals.

Happel picked the following squad for the tournament (It was still packed with huge talent):

Jan Poortvliet, Ruud Krol, Wim Jansen, Jan Jongbloed, Arie Haan, René van de Kerkhof , Willy van de Kerkhof, Rob Rensenbrink, Johan Neeskens, Johnny Rep, Ernie Brandts, Piet Schrijvers, Dick Schoenaker, Adri van Kraaij, Piet Wildschut, Wim Suurbier, Dick Nanninga, Jan Boskamp, Hugo Hovenkamp, Wim Rijsbergen, Pim Doesburg, Harrie Lubse

Without Cruyff in the side, it gave Rob Rensenbrink, who was a bit of an outsider in the side that reached the 1974 final having not been playing for PSV, Feyenoord or Ajax, the chance to showcase his considerable talents.

It wasn’t vintage Total football, but Netherlands got off to a good start in Mendoza, beating Group B outsider’s Iran 3-0 thanks to a hat-trick from Rensenbrink (two from the penalty spot). A 0-0 draw with eventual group winners Peru then followed, before a 3-2 defeat to Scotland, saw the Dutch scrape through to the next round on goal difference.

The game against Scotland is still remembered as one of the all time classic World Cup games, thanks to Archie Gemmills jinking run and finish, while Johnny Reps blast from 30 yards into the top corner wasn’t too bad either.

The next group stage paired Netherlands up with Italy, West Germany, and Happel’s home country Austria, which on paper was a tough draw for the Dutch.

First up was Austria, who had come out on top in a group that contained a Brazil side littered with stars such as Zico, and Rivelino. However the Dutch proved far too strong for the Austrian’s and found themselves 3-0 up by half time thanks to goals from Ernie Brandts, Rensebrink (penalty), and Johnny Rep. Another from Rep, followed by Willie van der Kerkhof’s late strike saw Netherlands finish 5-1 winners.

A rematch of the 1974 World Cup final followed as Holland squared up once again with West Germany, as the Dutch seeked revenge. It was a different looking Germany side that won four years earlier, with no Gerd Muller, or Franz Beckenbauer in the squad, but they were still a strong team, and took the lead twice through Rüdiger Abramczik, and Dieter Muller, but the Dutch also equalised twice thanks to Arie Haan, and Rene van der Kerkhof as the match ended 2-2.

The draw meant the final game between Italy and Holland would progress through to the final, and it was the Italians who took the lead 19 minutes into the decider as Ernie Brandts put the ball into his own net. However Brandts then made up for his error by sending an unstoppable strike into the top corner from just outside the box four minutes into the second half.

If Brandts goal was good, then Haan’s winner fourteen minutes from time was unbelievable.

The Italian defence stood off the forward, and from around 40 yards, the Dutchman released a thunderbolt of a strike which flew past Dino Zoff and in off the post. An incredible strike which sent Netherlands through to meet Argentina in the final.

Going into the last games in Group B, Brazil were heavy favourites to progress into the final as they faced Poland with a superior goal difference over Argentina, who faced the impressive and well organised Peru. Brazil beat Poland 3-1, meaning Argentina were left with the unlikely scenario of having to beat Peru by four clear goals. The game ended 6-0, and the host nation progressed.

Netherlands were playing in a ferocious atmosphere created in the Estadio Monumental Stadium, the home of River Plate, as Argentinian fans created a wall of noise. Johnny Rep would later describe the atmosphere in the stadium as “Boiling.”

The game almost never went ahead due to Rene van der Kerkhof’s broken hand.

Van der Kerkhof was playing with a cast on his arm, which was not a problem before the final, but after Argentinian captain Daniel Passarella made a fuss to the referee Sergio Gonella, the midfielder was forced to remove it.

Dutch coach Ernst Happel was furious, and ordered all his players to leave the pitch, but sensing a huge story on his hands, the referee withdrew his objection, and allowed Van der Kerkhof to wear the cast.

The match was controlled by the Argentinians and they deservedly took the lead eight minutes before half time with Mario Kempes scoring. Netherlands never really looked like troubling the hosts but on 82 minutes they found an equaliser through Dick Nanninga, who steered a header into the net to stun the hosts.

In the final minute of the game, Netherlands had a huge chance to win the World Cup, but after latching onto Ruud Krol’s long free kick, Rensenbrink’s effort rebounded back off the post. Its a moment that still haunts Dutch fans around the World, and the closest the nation has ever come to winning the World Cup. A few inches to the right, and Netherlands would have been World Champions.

The game moved into extra time, but the Dutch were knackered, and with goals from Kempes, and Daniel Bertoni, Argentina triumphed 3-1.

argRensenbrink later described his last minute miss, saying, “”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.”

After the tournament a number of conspiracy theories came out surrounding Argentina’s win, and whether the tournament was rigged by the Argentinian government.  It now seems that it definitely was.

Former Peruvian senator Genaro Ledesma even confirmed that his nation had agreed to lose the final group game against Argentina in 2012. The Argentinian’s were also believed to have been on performance enhancing drugs, with reports coming out after the tournament that one of the players urine test indicated he was pregnant.

Netherlands have never challenged FIFA to overturn the final despite all the evidence of wrongdoing, probably because of the fact that the Dutch players themselves did not play to their potential in the final, and were seemingly beaten fair and square.

1978 was the beginning of the end for the total football generation in Netherlands, as the Dutch failed to qualify for both the 1982 and 86 World Cups, before the likes of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Dennis Bergkamp got the nation back on track in the late 80’s and 90’s.

This year, Netherlands will travel to a World Cup in South America for the first time since the loss in Argentina, and like in 1978, nobody is expecting much from the Dutch, who go into the tournament as reigning runners up, after the defeat to Spain in the 2010 final.

Can Netherlands banish the Argentinian demons in Brazil?




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