Holland’s summer of love so nearly didn’t happen and Total Football was almost totalled before the world had seen it
The sliding tackle will probably be extinct in 30 years’ time, but sliding doors will always be a part of football’s landscape. “If” was one of the most important words in football’s lexicon long before Des Lynam started to believe his own hype. Should you think really hard about the extent to which butterfly effects have shaped the game, it hurts your head more than a night on the pop.
In World Cups alone there have been fives of examples of ultimately successful sides who came within a whisker of not even qualifying: France in 1982, England in 1990, Bulgaria in 1994, Brazil in 2002 – and Holland in 1974.
Football’s summer of love so nearly didn’t happen. If Belgium had not had a goal erroneously disallowed in the 89th minute of the final qualifier in Amsterdam, Holland would not have been at the World Cup in West Germany, and the game would have forked off in a different direction. Total Football was almost totalled before the world had seen it.
A 16-team tournament meant that qualification was not the formality it is these days, even for the pre-eminent sides. History also weighed on Holland. They had not made the World Cup finals since 1938, nor had they reached the European Championships two years earlier. But their star was irrefutably in the ascendant, as shown by Ajax’s three consecutive, swaggering European Cup victories between 1971-73.
Alongside Holland in qualification Group 3 were Belgium, a very handy side who had finished third at Euro 72, and the makeweights of Norway and Iceland, two essentially useless teams in an era when Nordic sides were to be seen and not heard.
Belgium and Holland played both qualification fixtures against Iceland on home soil. (Even Mum was loth to go Iceland in those days.) Belgium twice won 4-0 and then beat Norway 2-0 in Oslo. But as soon as Holland obliterated Norway 9-0 in their first game, it became apparent that they would have the edge in goal difference and that qualification would almost certainly be decided by the matches between Belgium and Holland.
The first, in Antwerp on 19 November 1972, was dripping with enmity and ended 0-0 after Jean Thissen thumped a post for Belgium. After that match, Belgium would not play another qualifier for 11 months, in which time they played only one friendly, and their semi-legendary coach Raymond Goethals presumably sat watching his bank account get fatter. In the meantime Holland, managed by the Czechoslovakian Frantisek Fadrhonc (Rinus Michels would not take over until 1974), stuffed Iceland 13-1 over two games. That left both sides level on points with two games to play: Holland away to Norway, then Belgium at home to Norway, and finally the meeting between the two in Amsterdam, 364 days after the first match. Crucially Holland’s goal difference was +21 to Belgium’s +10.
Holland made the heaviest weather of beating Norway in Oslo, but Johan Cruyff got them out of strife with a delicious backheel to create Barry Hulshoff’s 87th-minute winner. Had they drawn, Belgium – who subsequently beat Norway 2-0 at home – would only have needed a draw in the final game in Amsterdam. Now they needed a win.
Given the stakes, we might legitimately have expected cat and mouse, but nobody expected catenaccio from Belgium. Goethals, like George Graham at Anfield in 1989, went with the counterintuitive tactic of almost blanket defence – not unreasonably theorising that, in an open game and on their own patch, Holland could tear Belgium apart, and that the longer it stayed 0-0, the more nervous the home crowd and players would become. It also served to disorientate the Dutch, who had the slightly befuddled gait of men who had arrived at the wrong type of orgy.
Holland did not know whether to stick or twist and, though their natural class led to the outstanding Belgian goalkeeper Christian Piot making some very decent saves, Belgium kept the score at 0-0. Still, however, they barely attacked. They were reticent to the point of absurdity, like a boxer who knew he was going to be beaten on points but didn’t throw a punch in the final round. Then, in the 89th minute, came the Hitchcockian haymaker. With Holland pushing up for offside, the captain Paul van Himst’s long free-kick beat the Holland keeper Piet Schrijvers’s wretched flap and was touched into the empty net by Jan Verheyen. With history about to be written by the victors, Goethals’ tactical masterplan was complete. Or at least it would have been, had the goal not been disallowed for offside. Yet replays showed it wasn’t even close: when the free-kick was taken, Verheyen was being played onside by at least two defenders. It was a Total Scandal.
So Holland went through, and Belgium failed to qualify despite not conceding a single goal in their six qualifying matches. Goethals took great pride in those two clean sheets against Holland, particularly after they ran riot at the World Cup finals, and Belgium – unlike certain other countries on the wrong end of a shocking decision in a decisive World Cup qualifier in Holland – got on with their lives. For the Holland players, life would change for ever in West Germany the following summer.
So would football. With their hippie chic, Holland freed the minds – and manes – of an insular sport, yet if they had not made it there would have been no Total Football, no pom-poms and pomposity, no instant friendship between football and the cerebrum, no empowerment for future generations of Dutch players. Cruyff would have joined Barry Ferguson on the list of great players never to appear at the World Cup, and a great West German side would have got the credit they deserved. And those are only the things we can logically conclude; never mind myriad unforeseen consequences.
All that because of one tiny but crucial mistake. Total Football? Bloody hell