Who cares about the also-rans? Nobody remembers the losers, right? Wrong. They do when they were as talented as… Holland 1974.



Who cares about the also-rans? Nobody remembers the losers, right? Wrong. They do when they were as talented as… Holland 1974.

Why were Holland great in 1974?

In the early 70’s football had been revolutionized, essentially by the brilliant mind of one man: Johan Cruyff. He approached the game in a brand new way. Where the game had previously been played in strict formations, Cruyff introduced a new dynamic that would change soccer forever.

Total Football
Cruyff’s style of play was quickly named ‘Total Football‘, a reference to how the new style involved the entire team on offence and defense. Total football was an explosive evolution of the sport. Where players had previously played fairly statically in set positions, both Ajax and Holland would often have players seek space outside their normal areas. Important concepts in modern soccer such as the defensive backs overlapping along the sidelines or midfielders extending their runs into the oppositions penalty area were pioneered by the Dutch.

With players like Cruyff, Van Hanegem and Neeskens at the peak of their powers, Holland took the 1974 FIFA World Cup™ by storm, with a 4-0 victory over Argentina exemplifying their irresistible attacking verve.

Abandoning traditional attitudes to positioning, the Dutch were playing a more fluid brand of attacking football than had ever been seen before: players interchanging with each other all over the pitch, with forwards dropping deep and midfielders pushing forward at will. They even managed to out-flair the World Cup holding Brazilians in a 2-0 second-round victory.

So what went wrong?

After conquering the South American giants, the only thing standing between them and the World Cup was West Germany. And like Hungary before them in 1954, the celebrated Dutch attack foundered against teutonic German grit.

Germany looked insecure, Holland uber-confident. Holland were the bookies’ favorites and the neutrals’ too.

And they got the best possible start, with Cruyff winning a penalty inside a minute and Neeskens converting from the spot. But rather than capitalize on the lead, they seemed to go from relaxed to overly mellow. The pace slowed, the passing grew sloppy.

Paul Breitner equalized from the spot midway through the first half and, with Holland pushing forward, Muller scored on the counterattack to give Germany the lead just before the interval. The Dutch grew desperate and the second half, their forays more furious but less clinical. Sepp Maier, in the German goal, did the rest, with save after save. The FIFA World Cup™ had slipped through their fingers.

What happened next?

The Dutch team had dazzled the world with their skill and demanding style of play. The area of total football would carry the Dutch national team to a second World Cup final four years later, but this time without Johan Cruyff and Willem van Hanegem.

But the trauma of 1974 was exacerbated. In the FIFA World Cup™ final against host nation Argentina they lost another tightly fought and controversial game in extra time.

Other posts in this series:
Hungary 1954
Portugal 1966