[Editor’s note: this post was written the morning of Friday July 2, prior to Holland’s upset of Brazil. We will need to update this post for Friday’s victory–the most significant in Dutch history at least since dramatic quarterfinal win over Argentina in 1998 (see video below), and perhaps since winning Euro ’88 over the USSR.]
Today’s first quarterfinal match may just be the most anticipated of the bunch–Brazil vs. Holland. It’s a contest between two great footballing nations, both known over the decades for playing beautiful football–technically precise, individually and tactically creative, seemingly able to maintain possession as long as they want–and for producing some of the greatest players of all time. From Brazil: Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Roberto Carlos, Romario, Garrincha, and of course Pele. From the Netherlands: Ruud van Nistelroy, Denis Bergkamp, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten, and the greatest and original Dutch master, Johan Cryuff.
Where Brazil and Holland differ, of course, is in their records of World Cup success. Brazil has won the Cup five times, more than any other nation–in 1958, 1966, 1970 (those three with Pele on the squad), 1994, and 2002.
By way of comparison, Italy has won four times, Germany three (twice as West Germany), Argentina and Uruguay twice each, and England and France once each.
Conspicuously absent from that list is Holland. The Dutch have come close–twice in a row finishing in 2nd place, both times losing to the hosts: to West Germany in 1974 and to Argentina in 1978, and advancing to the semifinals in 1998, only to lose to Brazil in a penalty shootout.
The 1974 World Cup is especially poignant to fans of the Dutch. That side, led by Cryuff, is considered by many aficionados to be among the greatest teams to have ever played the game, and introduced the tactical philosophy of Total Football. From a recent column about Holland’s chances in this World Cup, by NYT columnist Rob Hughes:
The Dutch have a philosophy that even a man standing 60 meters from the ball is active because if a teammate can see him, he can use him with a long pass and long vision. It has long been supposed by many that the Netherlands invented what is called “total football,” in which everybody moves, everybody improvises, everybody is interchangeable on the field.
To get a sense of that legendary 1974 Dutch side, take a look at this compilation of highlights:
…or at this passionate (if amateurishly designed) tribute to that team–put together by an English guy who was 18 years old in 1974, and upon whom that Dutch team made a deep impression:
This extraordinary collection of talented footballers set the world on fire for a few brief weeks in the summer of 1974. They captured the imagination of a generation of fans in a way that no team, before or after, have matched. They played football in a way we hadn’t seen before, with skill, strength, intelligence and attitude merged together into a mixture that was uniquely theirs. They didn’t actually win the World Cup, heaven knows why, but they created a set of memories that have lasted a generation now, and will continue undimmed for a long while to come.
To your author, an 18-year-old living in England, obsessed with football but somehow never having really witnessed anything you might call football history, this was my defining moment in the game. I was too young to remember the Real Madrid of Puskas, the Man Utd of the Busby Babes, the Tottenham of Blanchflower, or the great Hungarian or Brazilian teams of the 1950s, too young to appreciate what the English World Cup win in 1966 meant. Even the Brazilians of 1970, brilliant though they undoubtedly were, didn’t have the same appeal. They looked like superhumans, beings from another place, which in those days Brazil might as well have been.
As, one might note, the Brazilians seem like again today. But in 1974, the Dutch thoroughly defeated those seemingly superhuman Brazilians, who had won 3 of the previous 4 World Cups, by a score of 2-0 in the 2nd group stage (back when they used to do that). See FIFA’s “Classic Match” page about that game, or view the highlights:
But the Dutch fell 2-1 to the host West Germans in the final game, despite famously taking a 1-0 lead off a penalty kick awarded in the first minute of the match, before West Germany had even touched the ball!
The Dutch generation of the ’70s, and their style of play, inspired a 2nd generation of great Dutch players and teams in the ’80s, culminating in the Holland’s lone international trophy–the 1988 European championship, won by a squad was led by the trio of Gullit, Rijkaard, and van Basten. This time they defeated the host West Germany, in the semifinals, and then defeated the USSR in the finals, which featured one of the most famous goals of all time, a sharp volley by van Basten:
(A personal note: I spent that summer of 1988 with my family in Calcutta–a soccer town on as fanatical as any in the world–and so I watched much of that Euro tournament with my cousins and uncles, and read about the Dutch team in the local newspapers. Although I’d watched Maradona carry Argentina to victory in the 1986 World Cup, it was watching Gullit lead the Dutch that summer that made an impression on me then, and I’ve been a follower of the Oranje ever since.)
But that group led by Gullit, Rijkaard and van Basten never experienced World Cup success, falling in 1990 to arch-rivals (and eventual champions) West Germany 2-1 in a bitter Round of 16 match.
By 1998 a new generation of Dutch stars had arrived on the national team: Denis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert, the de Boer twins. The Dutch made a great showing in that World Cup, beating Argentina in the quarterfinals off a 90th minute goal by Bergkamps that ranks among the greatest of WC goals (and ranks among my favorite WC memories):
Holland then faced Brazil in the semifinals. Ronaldo scored at the beginning of the 2nd half to put Brazil ahead 1-0, but Patrick Kluivert equalized in the 87th minute to send the game to extra time. But there were no further goals, and Brazil won the game in PKs (and then went on to lose to host France in the final):
Remarkably the Dutch failed to even qualify for the 2002 World Cup, and the 2006 squad’s World Cup ended in a blaze of yellow and red cards, in a Round of 16 match against Portugal that came to be called the Battle of Nuremberg.
And so we come to 2010. Yet another generation of Dutch stars has come up, excelling for the top clubs in Europe: Arjen Robben for Bayern Munich, Wesley Sneijder for Inter Milan, Robin van Persie for Arsenal. We will see today if they can upset the heavily favored Brazilians, or whether they follow the Dutch tradition of producing sublime football that falls just short of victory. But perhaps being a follower of Dutch football entails an existential stance in which those moments of beautiful football render the ultimate result an afterthought.
(See here for a post I put up towards the beginning of this World Cup which has a few more videos–highlights from Dutch stars through the years: Cryuff, van Basten, Bergkamp, Seedorf, van Nistelrooy, Davids, Kluivert, down to the guys on the current squad.)