Sliding Doors: What if the Netherlands hadn’t qualified for the 1974 World Cup?

In November 1973, in Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium, the best side of all time played the worst offside trap in history, and football as we know it was almost over before it had begun.

The free-thinking hippie haven that was postwar Holland had given rise to great film, art and architecture. It had also given rise to great football. In the lead-up to the 1974 World Cup, the lank-haired, riddle-spouting playmaker Johan Cruyff had just joined Barcelona having led Ajax through an unprecedented period of dominance – six league titles and a back-to-back hat-trick of European Cups – and, along with a generation of unkempt and uncannily talented countrymen, he was preparing to use the summer’s tournament to flaunt a dreamlike re-imagining of football to the world. His Netherlands side had swanned through qualifying with near-offensive ease – their first five games had included a 9-0, a 5-0 and an 8-1 – but in their sixth and final game they nearly blew it all.

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Cruyff and the gang were hosting Belgium, who under Raymond “le Magician” Goethals – a chain-smoking controversialist who would go on to manage Marseille to a European Cup – were a brutally hard-to-beat team that had held them to a goalless draw in Antwerp. Belgium had also won the rest of their games, meaning Holland had to avoid defeat at home in the second ‘low country derby’ to secure their place at the summer festivities in West Germany.

It was a fraught affair, the Dutch unrecognisable from the side who had spent the last five games blitzing their way to a goal difference of +22, their star winger Johnny Rep at one point shanking wide from virtually underneath the crossbar. Then, in the final minute of normal time, Belgium captain Paul van Himst stepped up to take a free-kick on the left flank and, with the outside of his right foot, drifted the most languid of crosses into the box. Piet Schrijvers, the Dutch keeper, came for it but committed the cardinal sin of hesitating halfway, and Jan Verheyen received his gift gladly, side-footing home to keep the Dutch housebound that summer.

Except the flag was up. The decision, if it could be called that, wasn’t even close: Holland’s high line was a panicked mess and Verheyen was well onside, played on by multiple Dutch ditherers. But Holland had been spared and, in a timeless gift to trivia-geeks everywhere, Belgium wouldn’t be going to the World Cup despite having gone their entire qualifying campaign without conceding.

What happened at that tournament has long since passed into football folklore. Holland, organised by Rinus Michels and orchestrated by Cruyff, won over the world with their majestic brand of dizzying carousel-football, swept away all before them while redefining old notions of possession and position, before imploding in the final against a dead-eyed West Germany side despite taking the lead before their opponents had touched the ball.

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It was an undoubted tragedy but an impossibly heroic one, and their dramatic final-hurdle failure only added to the sense of shoot-for-the-moon romance than had built up around the team. Like Keegan’s Entertainers, they became iconic in a way they wouldn’t have done if they had simply won. On their return home they were greeted by a huge street party in Amsterdam’s Leidseplein square and a reception with Queen Juliana at the Royal Palace.

In a way, getting to the final and losing was Total Football’s perfect vindication. Born of and carried out by a gang of anti-establishment fanatics, it wasn’t an idea that fitted neatly with conventional success. Cruyff and co. wanted approval from the people, not the Man.

What it meant, in short, was the idea catching on: the radical passed into the mainstream. A bona fide icon in his homeland, Cruyff doubled down on his ideas of quick passing, high pressing and maniacal position-switching. By the time, a decade and a half later, he returned to the Camp Nou as manager, it had developed from a quirky tactical outline to an all-encompassing top-down philosophy of how to run a football club.

He soon established La Masia, the youth setup that would be the bedrock of Barcelona’s conveyor belt of success, and promptly won four league titles in succession, eventually replaced in 1996 by a man in Bobby Robson who had played at West Brom under Vic Buckingham, who had given Cruyff his debut at Ajax. If people hadn’t realised it by then, they certainly did now: this Cruyff lad was onto something.

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That 90s-era Barcelona side give rise to a cohort of footballing emissaries and from that, tactically at least, has sprung modern football as we know it, certainly at the top level. Three years ago, half the Champions League quarter-finalists were managed by men who had played at Barcelona under Cruyff. His key disciple, Pep Guardiola, provided not only the era’s defining club side, replete with its own generation of pious pupils, and indeed a trophy-hoarding international team, but also modern football’s defining coach: the fame-hungry, cash-splashing, media-obsessed Jose Mourinho, whose entire persona is in effect born of an undying (and wholly understandable) urge to stick it to the sanctimonious mes que un club clique.

Koeman’s Wembley thunderbolt, Ronaldinho’s grin, Iniesta’s velvet boots, Messi vs Ronaldo, shit on a stick, Jose under the sprinklers, “el puto jefe, el puto amo”, 10,000 conspiracies, the sad decline of Joe Hart, Nemanja Matic, Manchester City’s looming imperial phase, the internet’s ‘bald fraud’ brigade – if you’re willing to look hard enough, you can trace it all back to the summer of ’74.

In light of all that, it’s debatable whether that linesman deserves our grateful applause, or simply a clap around the head.

Sliding Doors: What if the Netherlands hadn’t qualified for the 1974 World Cup?
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