When players and tournaments left their mark – a hope for Euro 2012

Another major football tournament approaches and like the past half dozen or so – be it World Cup or European Championship – it is bound to disappoint.

At the last one, World Cup 2010 in South Africa, we saw a Dutch side kick into touch the heritage of their forefathers. Holland, after all, gave us total football, but the “class of 2010” gave us total misery. It’s a shame, because so many of us who remember the golden age of Cruyff and co. were really hoping for a glimpse of something special.

Who gives a toss for football tournaments these days?

I spent much of the mid-1970s walking around in an orange adidas t-shirt, a tribute to the Dutch national team of the period, and in particular, Johan Cruyff. In some ways, I was ahead of my time, because donning sportswear was not the fashion statement that it is today. However, I thought it was cool. In fact, I considered that Holland was a great place with so much going for it.

Not only did the country have Cruyff, Ajax and Edam cheese, but it also had Focus, the instrumental band of Hocus Pocus and Sylvia fame. What a great place! Great football, excellent cheese and an off-the-wall rock band. What’s more, the Netherlands were also brilliant exponents of Jeux Sans Frontieres. How I longed to go to Amsterdam, the land of free love, brown cafes and clogs. The Dutch, to me were all pseudo-hippies with a real chilled-out, liberal approach to life.

But back to Cruyff and those flying Dutchmen. It was nothing short of a tragedy that Rinus Michels’ team did not win the 1974 World Cup. They played superb, flowing football but they also had a hard edge- not many people recall how gritty Johann Neeskens and Ruud Krol could be. The Dutch team were also so wrapped up in their “We’re free” attitude to life that they forgot to win the competition. Once they took the lead against the West Germans, they decided to rub the hosts’ noses in the Munich turf. But they underestimated the steely psyche of the Germans, who were not going to walk out of the giant Bedouin tent that was the Olympic Stadium without a fight.

Typically, the Germans etched out a 2-1 win and the Dutch side, which flew so close to the gods, were beaten. They couldn’t believe it, the world couldn’t believe it, but those that knew the Germans, didn’t doubt the outcome. Walking around the Olympic Stadium in 2010, still a remarkable sight,  I tried to imagine what that July afternoon must have been like. The end of the Dutch dream, the confirmation of German machine-like efficiency.

Ironically, 1974 was also the end of the great Ajax side – Cruyff and Neeskens, the heart of the team had gone in search of pesetas, and by 1975, Focus were but a memory, unable to build upon their breakthrough in the UK. It’s a knockout was also running out of steam, which just left the Edam cheese to eulogise over. As for the Dutch national team, they were never quite the same.

Although a Cruyff-less Holland got to the final of Argentina 1978, it was more by luck than judgement. Ironically, if Rob Rensenbrink – who filled the orchestration role of the Dutch master – had scored at the end of 90 minutes, the Dutch would have surprisingly beaten the host nation. But how would they have got out of a Junta state that dropped dissidents from helicopters into the River Plate?

In some ways, although there would have been some justice in a Dutch win, it would not have made up for the failure of 1974. So, my orange shirt was indeed a tribute – to the finest team never to have won the World Cup and to the best European footballer I have ever seen. And I can’t help thinking of Ajax, Cruyff and Munich 1974 when I put Moving Waves into the CD player. It would be nice if Euro 2012 left us with some similarly lasting memories instead of a sterile, overblown tournament that just goes on too long.

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