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

Kempes and Luque, the brilliant bandoleros

WE remember the litter-strewn pitches of Argentina 1978 as well as the military presence, the controversy and, from a footballing perspective, the left foot and cavalier approach of Mario Kempes, the player of the tournament and leading scorer.

Kempes was the only player in Cesar Luis Menotti’s squad for the World Cup that did not play in Argentina. He moved from Rosario Central, where he had scored 85 goals in three seasons, to Spain’s Valencia in 1976. He was an instant hit in La Liga, finishing leading scorer, and winning the prestigious Pichichi trophy, in 1976-77 (24 goals) and 1977-78 (28 goals).

Still, pundits were more focused on Brazil’s new wonder boy, Zico, and the absence of Johan Cruyff rather than the relative strengths of the host nation, who would, they said, only win because it was written by the Junta.

But that aside, Argentina were an exciting team to watch, largely because Menotti wanted to play fast, flowing football. In Kempes, he had the perfect forward to finish off the work started by the likes of Osvaldo Ardiles and Rene Houseman. The question was, how would Menotti use his star forward – as an out-and-out leader of the line or just behind a front three, the position he had made his own in Spain?

Kempes also had the ideal partner up front in Leopoldo Luque, River Plate’s muscular centre forward. Both dark, long-haired and leggy, accentuated by shorts that emphasised their limbs, Kempes and Luque looked like they could easily be members of a rock band such as The Doobie Brothers. There was an air of menace about them and they were both extremely awkward to defend against, especially Kempes, whose left foot was lethal, not only in finishing, but also in dragging the ball away from defenders. Kempes had the knack of creating his own chances, often by performing a seamless movement that included bring the ball under control, making space and teeing himself-up for a shot on goal. Luque, meanwhile, was fast and strong and dovetailed nicely with Kempes.

Yet Kempes and Luque had not played together for Argentina since 1976 when the hosts kicked-off their campaign on June 2, 1978 against Hungary. Kempes had been somewhat isolated by the decision to only play domestically-based players, but his currency was so strong after two years at Valencia that the chain-smoking Menotti could not afford to leave him out of the squad.

Hungary had the nerve to open the scoring in Buenos Aires in the 10th minute, stunning the passionate crowd. But five minutes later, a Kempes free kick was parried by the Hungarian keeper and Luque followed-up to equalise. This was the moment the world was introduced to the crescendo of noise that would greet every Argentine goal in 1978. Seven minutes from the end, Daniel Bertoni won the game for a relieved Menotti and Argentina’s campaign was truly underway.

Four days later, Argentina beat France 2-1, another difficult victory, but won by a superb strike from Luque, who flicked the ball up from an Ardiles pass and volleyed past goalkeeper Bertrand Demanes.  They had come through the group and just had to face Italy to decide who won Group A and stayed in Buenos Aires for the second stage.

Luque was missing owing to an arm injury and Kempes was employed as a direct front-runner. He was far less effective and Italy won 1-0, sending Argentina to Rosario in a group that would include Brazil, Peru and Poland. For Kempes, it was a return home to the club where he made his name.

Still without a goal in the competition, Kempes really came alive in the second phase. He netted twice against Poland, the first an effortless near post header that he took in his stride, the second a low shot after Ardiles found him ready to bite. Luque was still missing, but returned for the big South American clash with an out-of-sorts Brazil. A physical game ended 0-0, but the initiative had switched to the 1970 winners by the time Argentina faced Peru in the final group game. Brazil had won two and drawn with Argentina, establishing a goal difference of +5, while Argentina had +2. They needed a four-goal win to reach the final.

Kempes gave them the lead after 21 minutes, a typical manoeuvre that saw him control and strike all in one, again with the left foot. Alberto Tarantini made it 2-0 with a header just before the interval and Kempes, predictably, scored with his trusty weapon on 49 minutes. “It’s on, now!” screamed the commentators and within seconds, the fourth goal came, Luque diving full length to send the ball over the line from close range. Anything else now was pure icing on the cake and Houseman provided that in the 67th minute, leaving it to Luque to apply more salt to the gaping wound in the 72nd.  A 6-0 win that was full of conspiracy theories; remarkable, suspect, heartbreaking, joyous – name your superlative.

The Netherlands would provide the opposition in the final, a less vibrant, more pragmatic and Cruyff-less side that had matured as the competition progressed. Nobody truly expected them to win and when Kempes opened the scoring with the type of routine that had typified his game throughout the competition, taking the ball on his left and nudging it into the danger zone before scoring with a low shot, it didn’t look good for the Dutch. But they came back and equalised to send the game into extra time, but only after Robbie Rensenbrink almost induced 70,000 coronaries by striking the post in the dying embers. Kempes did it again, though, scrambling the ball home in the 105th minute after he had worked his way through the defence. Bertoni added a third five minutes from time. Argentina had won 3-1 and Kempes, with six goals, received the Golden Boot.

Kempes and Luque had played together 16 times for their country. The first time was in August 1975 when Luque netted a hat-trick on his debut against Venezuela, a game that also saw Kempes score. The duo’s record for Argentina is remarkably similar – Kempes scored 20 goals in 43 games, Luque 22 in 45. Their 17th and last appearance together was on January 1, 1981 when they lined-up against Brazil in Montevideo. That was Luque’s last international game, whereas Kempes went on to the ill-fated 1982 World Cup, his final bow in Barcelona, also against Brazil.

Kempes and Luque are, naturally given their achievements, legends in Argentina. Messi and Maradona are at the head of the queue, but these two direct, skilful and venomous strikers have one advantage over the big names of Argentine football – they won the FIFA World Cup in Buenos Aires. Forty years ago, they could have walked on the waters of the River Plate.

Photo: World Cup final 1978, Press Association.