Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

Steven Beacom: Holland playing Total football? Not as we know it

23. Cruyff won't take part
He was the star of the 1974 World Cup, but Johan Cruyff refused to travel to South America for the next instalment. At the time the reasons given were political, the Dutch master disagreeing with the dictatorship in power in Argentina. Later, Cruyff would say the reasons for his international retirement were kidnap threats to his family. Either way, Holland still reached the final, but were beaten by hosts Argentina. Had Cruyff have been there, they may just have clinched their first ever World Cup and ended one of the great peculiarities of the tournament.

Every football fan I know has an affinity with the Holland team. Put that down to Total Football, invented by the Dutch in 1974.

It’s an ideology that has been passed down through generations. Why else do you think so many kids still perform the Cruyff turn in the park?

Like playing the beautiful game a la Brazil in 1970, the Total Football concept is one that every fan would like to see his or her team aspire to.

Sadly it doesn’t happen these days. The philosophy certainly isn’t applied by the current Dutch national team.

Yet they are just 180 minutes away from doing what their more celebrated and gifted predecessors failed to do and that is win the World Cup.

Holland are favourites to beat Uruguay in tonight’s semi-final and while they would be underdogs in a decider against Germany or Spain, it would be a close call.

The Dutch have always been the nearly men. They have endured more hard luck stories than England, losing in finals, on penalty shootouts in semi-finals and being robbed by questionable refereeing decisions.

While we bemoan the fact that George Best never got to play in a World Cup, the Dutch have a long line of heroes who should have won the thing.

I give you Johan Cruyff, Robbie Rensenbrink, Ruud Krol, Johann Neeskens, Johnny Rep, Aarie Haan, Marco van Basten Ruud Gullit, Ronald Koeman, Frank de Boer, Frank Rijkaard, Dennis Bergkamp and that’s just scratching the surface.

Excitement and entertainment flowed from their boots, but in World Cup terms they never had anything to show for it. The Dutch won the 1988 European Championships when Van Basten and Gullit were in their pomp, but it’s the World Cup that the Oranje crave.

To achieve that dream “Total Football” has long since been abandoned.

The great Rinus Michels used to tell his team they attacked as one, defended as one and that every single one of them could play in every single position on the field.

Legend has it that Cruyff fancied himself as a goalkeeper who could come out from the back and surprise the opposition. Myth it may be, but I’ll bet there is an element of truth in it because Cruyff genuinely believed he could do anything on a football pitch.

And sometimes he did.

In contrast to the visionary Michels, who managed the Holland team on four separate occasions, the current coach Bert van Marwijk is a more pragmatic character.

He’ll do what he has to do in order to win any given game and he’s been successful in this World Cup to date. The Dutch are the only team left in the competition who have won every match they have played.

To be fair to them they remain a decent team to watch, but unlike in days of old they don’t have you on the edge of your seat.

I’ve written before that only Wesley Sneijder of the current bunch would fit in with the great names of yesteryear.

He’s a class act, cunning like a fox and as cool as ice.

Having helped his club Inter Milan win the treble, he is now the inspiration behind his country’s bid for glory.

For Uruguay to have a chance of causing an upset they must do what Germany did to Lionel Messi in the quarter-finals. Neutralise him. Otherwise Sneijder has the ability to create goals and score them himself.

Arjen Robben is probably put out that he has not been Holland’s star man in this tournament so he will be desperate to hit the headlines. Ditto Robin van Persie while another goal threat, Dirk Kuyt, will think of the team rather than himself.

Uruguay are overjoyed to have got this far. Unlike Holland, the pressure is off for them which helps.

But being without influential Luis Suarez, who was sent off for handling that ball on the line against Ghana, is a blow.

On the upside they still have Diego Forlan, who has been brilliant in this World Cup.

Manchester United fans must have been rubbing their eyes ever since he left Old Trafford wondering if this was the same player who routinely failed for them, because he has been outstanding for clubs and country in recent years. Will he and Uruguay have enough to stop Holland though? I doubt it.

The Dutch are set for another final and a real chance to win it.

Cruyff, Van Basten and Neeskens may never have won the World Cup, but come July 11 it’s amazing to think that Ryan Babel, who has yet to play in the competition, could be running around Soccer City with a winners’ medal round his neck. Sometimes there is no justice in life.

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