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 the Netherlands was something of a utopian country.
Not only did the Dutch have Cruyff, Ajax of Amsterdam and Edam cheese, but they also had Focus, the instrumental band of Hocus Pocus and Sylvia fame. What a fantastic place! Progressive football, excellent cheese and an off-the-wall rock band.
The rise of Holland came at a time when Britain joined the Common Market and there was nothing more “European” than total voetbal, Cruyff, Thijs van Leer of Focus and the wonderful Ajax team of the early 1970s. And of course, there was Golden Earring and “Radar Love”. For some youngsters, entering Europe opened our eyes to what was possible in the fields of food, culture, sport and fashion. And of course, football started to become more “international”. The Netherlands represented modernity, the future, a more cosmopolitan and sophisticated place to be.
What’s more, the Netherlands were also brilliant exponents of It’s a Knockout’s version of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup – 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 and enlightened approach to life.
For me, alignment to the Dutch was a natural process. I was, after all, half Danish, which endorsed my “euro credentials”, and frankly, Britain seemed a very grey place compared to the continent. In 1971, I had enjoyed a taste of Europe when I travelled to Denmark by train with my Dad, taking a ferry to Hoek van Holland and then a train that went through Holland and Germany and snaked into Copenhagen at midnight some 30 hours later. This trip sparked my interest in European football, as well as pan-European travel.
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 lush 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, they etched out a 2-1 win and the Dutch side, which flew so close to the gods, was beaten. They couldn’t believe it, the world couldn’t quite believe it, but those that knew the Germans, didn’t question the outcome and knew that even after that first minute setback, when they went a goal down without touching the ball, they had the resolve to come back. I had a sickening feeling in my stomach the following day when I realised that this wonderful, captivating Dutch team would never be the same again. “What’s the matter with you, it’s not as if you are Dutch,” said my pals. I had predicted, at the start of the competition, that Holland would beat West Germany 2-1 in the final. “It was their destiny to win this competition,” I complained. “They were the best team.”
After three successive European Cup wins between 1971 and 1973, Ajax had started their decline in 1974 – Cruyff and Neeskens, the heart of the team, had gone in search of pesetas and other members of the team were lured abroad to more lucrative markets. And by 1975, Focus were but a memory, unable to build upon their breakthrough year in the UK. It’s a knockout also ran out of steam, which just left the Edam cheese, which was now under threat from the yellow-skinned Gouda. If Edam was Ajax, Gouda was Feyenoord. As for the Dutch national team and its players, a great future was already behind them.
Although a Cruyff-less Holland got to the final of Argentina 1978, it was more by persistence and good fortune than judgement. Ironically, if Rob Rensenbrink – who filled the orchestration role of the Dutch master with Cruyff gone – had scored at the end of 90 minutes instead of stroking the ball against the woodwork, the Dutch would have surprisingly and shockingly beaten the host nation. But how would have got out of the stadium and a Junta state that dropped bound 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 seismic failure of 1974.
So, my orange Adidas shirt was indeed a fitting tribute – to the finest team never to have won the World Cup and to the best European footballer I have ever seen in action. While orange became a wholly unfashionable colour, I never turned my back on it. Furthermore, some years later, I visited the Munich stadium where it all happened, walked onto the pitch and stood roughly where Gerd Müller swivelled and scored the winner for West Germany. “Bastard,” I muttered! No hard feelings, though – Müller, along with Cruyff, stares down at me in my office each day!
Even today, I can’t help thinking of Ajax, Johan Cruyff and Munich 1974 when I put Moving Waves, Focus III or Hamburger Concerto in the CD player. That music, very much of its time, goes together with the gesturing, traffic-cop image of Cruyff, dictating play or accelerating forward with the ball…perhaps a ball of mild and creamy red-waxed cheese. The European dream may be almost over for Britain, but thankfully, its influence has already shaped our lives for the better. We should perhaps remember what Europe has given us when the fog of political deception cuts the continent off in the near future and some people naively delight in our splendid isolation.