It was a clash of two footballing titans in the second group stage of the 1974 FIFA World Cup Germany ™ when the Netherlands met Brazil. Two of the best and most entertaining sides in the world had all to play for as the winner would head into the final match. against either hosts West Germany or Poland. Both teams were playing well, neither had lost yet in the tournament and each had won their first two matches of the second stage.
But there was extra spice to this clash. Brazil were the champions and had been since 1958 (save for a four-year spell after 1966). They were not just winners but they won in style with technique and skill the talk and envy of every nation. Holland were the young pretenders, threatening to steal the crown from the South Americans and do it in a style combining European efficiency with skills the equal of anything on view on the beaches of Brazil. While styles hardly clashed, colours did and Brazil swapped their canary yellow shirts for blue ones with the Netherlands lining up in white instead of their famous orange.
Total Football and life after the beautiful game
This was the golden generation of Dutch football, all shaggy hair, sideburns and intelligence. Of course it was the team of "Total Football", where defenders attacked and attackers defended. And at the centre of it all was captain Johan Cruyff leading by example. He seemed to turn up wherever there might be space and that always meant danger when he had the ball at his feet. The key to the team though was that the other players filled in around Cruyff and combined to form a coherent whole even when they seemed destined to drift into chaos.
The probing acumen of Johan Neeskens was also vital to the team, as were Rob Rensenbrink's guile, Johnny Rep's quickness and Ruud Krol's timing and forays forward. Regardless of the memorable names, however, it was teamwork and understanding which made this side arguably the best to have never won a World Cup.
For their part, Brazil were at their first tournament since the international retirement of Pele, who had been a part of three World Cup champion winning teams in the previous four tournaments. Also gone were such legends as Carlos Alberto and Tostao. And despite the fact that this team was both quick and strong, and still had 1970 heroes Jairzinho and Rivelino, the beautiful game of the champions had largely gone missing.
Gritty opening half
The Dutch, for all their flair, were not without grit and they needed it in the first half against the determined Brazilians. It was an opening period marked by some rough play and a handful of scrappy chances on both ends.
The Dutch had the lion share of possession and buildup play, while Brazil looked to exploit their speed with looping passes from midfield. With such talent on either side of the ball, both strategies produced exciting moments and fair claims of superiority.
Looking for the breakthrough
Near the quarter of the hour mark, a poor Brazilian clearance set up a golden chance for Cruyff, whose goal-bound shot was turned around the post by diving Brazilian goalkeeper Emerson Leao. The resulting corner set up another chance for Wim Van Hanegem, but his volley sailed over the bar.
Minutes later, speedy Brazilian forward Valdomiro caused the first scare in the Dutch defence when he deftly ran onto his own lob in the area. Havoc ensued, but he could not threaten the goal as Adrianus Haan rushed off his line and the ball was cleared.
Ten minutes later it was Paulo Cesar who frightened the Dutch when he broke the offside trap only to fire the ball past the right post with only the goalkeeper to beat.
As befitting a relatively even half, the Dutch answered a few minutes later with a chance of their own. Rensenbrink sent the ball to Neeskens whose left-footed pass into the box was perfectly weighted through two defenders into the path of Wim Suurbier. His shot though was too close to the goalkeeper from a tight angle.
Rijsbergen to the rescue
With time running out in the half, Brazil had their best chances of the match, but defender Wim Rijsbergen was the Dutch hero. His desperate back-heel of a cross from Valdomiro cleared the ball from immediate danger in the centre of the area. After a scramble however, the ball fell to Jairzinho. Again, it was Rijsbergen whose lunging tackle near the spot deflected the ball just around the post.
The second half got off to a roaring start when just five minutes in Neeskens adjusted himself to a deflected Cruyff cross from the right, poking the ball over the head of Brazilian goalkeeper Leao (1:0, '50).
With the opener, the Dutch gained in confidence, while their possession of the ball frustrated the Brazilians, as did the persistent offside calls against their anxious forwards.
The flow of the game continued mostly in the Dutch direction, and they were rewarded with one of the most memorable moments in the tournament. Rensenbrink's insightful ball from midfield sprung Krol down the left flank through the Brazilian defence. His cross found Cruyff driving into the box and he reached the ball with a lunging volley that gave Leao no chance (2:0, '65).
With a two-goal cushion, Rinus Michels's composed side were unlikely to jeopardise the match against even the strongest opposition. They defended carefully and in numbers, looking for counter-attacks against the desperate champions.
With Rivelino strangely subdued, the Brazilians lacked the creativity necessary to break the Dutch down to any real concern. And, except for Valdomiro's curling free kick that went agonisingly wide in the 83rd minute, the South Americans produced a surprising dearth of chances.
Their fate was sealed in the 84th minute when Luis Pereira was sent off for a nasty foul on Neeskens, who had to go off.
More than a game
The Netherlands, it seemed, had won more than a game. They had proved that Brazil could be matched and beaten at their own brand of the beautiful game. It appeared a sign of the times with the end of unadulterated free-flowing football and its replacement with Cruyff and co's "total" version. However, the Dutch were to fall to hosts Germany in the final and never really fulfilled what this match, particularly, had promised. Brazil had to wait another 20 years to win the World Cup again - but with a style completely alien to these days.