The past was orange and European, the future grey and isolated

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.

(L-R) Aad Mansveld of FC Den Haag, Johan Cruyff of Ajax

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.


Photo: PA

Cruyff, a 50-year fascination


Photo: Matt Brown via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

WHEN YOU ARE 12 or 13 years old, you have heroes. You have infatuations. You want to emulate and imitate. In 1972, that might have meant sticking platform shoes on or glitter in your hair. Or pretending to be Dutch.

To most people, the Netherlands was a flat country with windmills and people wearing clogs. But in the early 70s, perceptions of the land of Edam cheese changed. A gangly, elegant and self-assured man called Hendrik Johannes Cruyff walked into the lives of football fans, not just in Amsterdam, but across Europe. Until 1971, when his team, Ajax, won the European Cup at Wembley, Johan Cruyff was a name in World Soccer or Leslie Vernon’s column in Goal.

We didn’t have wall-to-wall football on TV, so the printed word and rumour was all we had to build up our knowledge of overseas teams and players. When he did appear on British TV, commentators would call him ‘Cruff’!

I was an avid reader of the International Football Book series, so I knew a bit about Cruyff and Ajax when I went to Wembley in May 1971. I was captivated by their unusual white and red shirts, the Ajax fans – all long hair and clogs – and the klaxons, which would provide the soundtrack of World Cup 1974.

It wasn’t a brilliant game, but Ajax won 2-0 and began their three-year rule of European football, inspired by Cruyff and his sidekick Johan Neeskens. It was the age of Total Football, and the chief orchestrator was Cruyff and the Ajax manager, Rinus Michels.

You couldn’t buy Ajax shirts in the UK, indeed anywhere, because the marketing gurus had yet to discover you could make money out of selling replica kits to fans. But I had a makeshift white shirt and I wanted to convert it to an Ajax outfit. My mother found some red material and sewed a central stripe down the front of my shirt. It looked very Heath Robinson, but from a distance, I might have resembled Cruyff’s younger brother. The shirt divided opinion. Some admired it, others derided it. But I was happy, because I was paying homage to my new found hero. As a Chelsea fan, Cruyff and Ajax went close to competing with Osgood, Hollins and Cooke for a while.

I followed Cruyff’s progress carefully and watched Ajax beat Inter and Juventus in 1972 and 1973 respectively. Like many people, I loved the way they played, flowing football that was skilful, intelligent and cultured – with just a little aggression. Cruyff’s own contribution, his bursts of speed through defences, his passing and ability to arrive in the penalty area at the right time, made him the perfect player of his time.

He was also single-minded and was one of the first players to ‘know his worth’. Culturally, he is now compared by some social historians as being as important to the Netherlands as John Lennon was to the UK. Like Lennon, Cruyff represented many of the changes that were going on in Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He had his own philosophy and was fond of one-liners that became known as ‘Cruijffiaans’. The Dutch were one of the last countries to shrug aside the narrative of the free love generation and Ajax were often described as footballing hippies with their colourful clothes, beads and blond hair.

My interest in all things Dutch extended to music. One of my favourite bands of the time was Focus, a slightly eccentric group that relied on virtuoso guitar and organ playing and phonetic vocals. Moving Waves was a classic album and tunes like Sylvia, Hocus Pocus and House of the King still get regular airings on my iPod today. With Ajax, Cruyff, Edam cheese and Focus, I couldn’t help feeling that Holland must be a great place to live. A utopian society, even.

But in an ideal world, Cruyff would have lifted the World Cup in 1974. I had predicted a Holland v West Germany final, but tipping a 2-1 win for the Dutch. They had skipped their way through the competition with the sort of performances that had characterized Ajax’s European Cup runs of 1970-73. But little did we know that the empire was starting to crumble. Ajax, for example, had already lost their talisman to Barcelona, a transfer that made Cruyff the most expensive player in the world. He went on to make a similar impact in Catalonia, but Barca never won the European Cup with Cruyff in their line-up. Ajax went crashing out of Europe in 1973 to CSKA Sofia, the sort of team they would have brushed aside when they were in their pomp. As for the Dutch national side, they saw the final as a chance to settle old scores.

In Munich, Cruyff’s first-minute acceleration into the penalty area ended with Neeskens scoring from the spot. The favourites were ahead, but sadly, nay tragically, they lost 2-1. The Dutch were grief stricken as if the defeat marked the end of an ideology. It probably did, because Cruyff would never play in the World Cup finals again.

The Dutch master and I came across each other again in February 1977 when England faced the Netherlands at Wembley.  Cruyff was still only 26 and had plenty of mileage in his tank, and he was joined by six members of the side that lost the World Cup final. He had already announced that he would not go to the 1978 finals in Argentina, but that had not blunted his edge.

Some say it was one of the best individual performances by a visiting player since Puskas and co. in 1953. He had 61 touches of the ball and of his 50 passes, 30 were positively forward balls. One report said: ‘He switched play with some stunning 40-yard passes which left the crowd and England’s defenders gasping.’ England lost 0-2 and Cruyff dictated play from start to finish, directing traffic, cajoling his team-mates to find new positions and piercing the England defence time and time again. It was a joy to watch.

In Argentina, without Cruyff, the Netherlands did remarkably well, albeit in a more functional way. They did have their moments and reached the final once more, losing to the hosts, as they did in 1974. With Cruyff would they have won? I think so, but it’s one of those ‘if only’ episodes.

Cruyff enjoyed success as a coach and won the European Cup with Barca. His legacy in Spain is every bit as strong as it is in his homeland. In recent months, Cruyff has been credited with being the grandfather of the Spanish ‘tiki-taka’ style that has proved so successful for club and country. That may be a little harsh on Pep Guardiola, but it does demonstrate the influence the great Dutchman has had on European football.

I thought Cruyff had been passed into my memory bank, but in 1987, I recall one incident that illustrated how important he had been to my footballing education. When I moved to Hertfordshire, my house number was 14. The day I picked the keys up, I remember thinking to myself, 14….Johan Cruyff. The ultimate ‘Total Footballer’ was still with me, somewhere. He still is.