1974 Wij waren de besten – 'We were the best in 1974' – is a Dutch book about the FIFA World Cup™ of that year. It was published in the Netherlands in 2004, an indication of the dismay and disbelief still reverberating around the nation 30 years after defeat in the 1974 Final in Munich. The team coached by Rinus Michels was pipped to the famous Trophy by host nation West Germany.
Amazingly, the meeting between West Germany and the Netherlands on 7 July 1974 was the first competitive fixture between the neighbouring countries. The pair had previously contested no fewer than 19 friendlies, but now the biggest prize in the game was at stake.
7 July 1974, Olympiastadium Munich, Munich, Germany
Germany 2-1 Netherlands
Scorers: Neeskens (NED) 2’ pen; Breitner (GER) 26’ pen, Müller (GER) 43’
Germany: Sepp Maier, Berti Vogts, Franz Beckenbauer, Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck, Paul Breitner, Rainer Bonhof, Uli Hoeness, Wolfgang Overath, Jurgen Grabowski, Gerd Muller, Bernd Hölzenbein
Coach: Helmut Schon
Netherlands: Jan Jongbloed, Wim Suurbier, Wim Rijsbergen (Theo de Jong 68), Arie Haan, Ruud Krol, Wim Jansen, Johan Neeskens, Wim van Hanegem, Johnny Rep, Johan Cruyff, Rob Rensenbrink (Rene van de Kerkhof 46)
Coach: Rinus Michels
The Dutch qualified for the Final with an imperious second group stage campaign featuring three clean sheets in a 4-0 win against Argentina, a 2-0 victory over the GDR, and a famous win by the same score over Brazil. "We’ve lost to the best team at the World Cup," Seleção boss Mario Zagallo declared admiringly after seeing his side outclassed by Totaal Voetbal.
This formation and philosophy, unique in the history of the game to date, deployed all ten outfield players in both defence and attack. If a player left his nominal position, another man took his place. But nominal was the operative word, as defenders popped up in attack, and forwards tracked back to defend.
The system demanded enormous reserves of stamina and skill from the players, but the team spearheaded by Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens were in peerless form throughout the tournament. So much so that no-one doubted the ultimate destination of the Trophy, as the Dutch exploded back onto the world stage after 36 years away from the global showcase. "If he gets the ball, I just close my eyes and run. The ball arrives automatically," Neeskens gushed when asked about his captain.
The West German hosts beat Sweden 4-2, Poland 1-0 and Yugoslavia 2-0 in their second group stage games to qualify comfortably enough for the Final, although their first-stage campaign included a historic 1-0 defeat to their eastern cousins from the GDR.
The going-in position ahead of the clash between neighbours in front of a 75,000 crowd at the Munich Olympic Stadium on 7 July 1974 was relatively clearly defined. The Netherlands, with their flowing football and sublime attacking play, were the darlings of the commentariat and favourites to win, but hosts West Germany, fielding a top class line-up including the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller and Paul Breitner, were determined to capture the Trophy on home soil.
English referee Jack Taylor whistled play underway at 4 pm local time, and the ball was in the net even before the spectators had settled into their seats after the national anthems. The record books show the Dutch playing the ball all of 13 times before Cruyff showed his marker Berti Vogts a clean pair of heels, thrust into the box, and was unceremoniously upended by Uli Hoeness.
It was to be the only incident in the match when Cruyff would get the better of his German opposite number. Neeskens stepped up to the spot, and with just 63 seconds on the clock, blasted his penalty down the middle and into the net. The hosts were behind without a single German player touching the ball.
The goal straight from the kick-off altered the character of the game, but not necessarily in the obvious way, as winger Johnny Rep later recalled: "We wanted to humiliate the Germans. It wasn’t something we’d thought about, but we did it. We started knocking the ball around – and we forgot to score a second."
Indeed, the men in orange began playing to the gallery, and slowly but surely lost their tactical shape. The punishment arrived on 26 minutes when Bernd Holzenbein tumbled over Wim Jansen’s outstretched leg in the Dutch area and won a penalty. Paul Breitner stepped up and levelled. "I looked Paul in the eyes, and I knew he’d score," Muller reported.
The crowd erupted, and Germany suddenly sensed the possibility of a second FIFA World Cup success to go with the triumph of 1954. In coach Helmut Schoen’s 101st game in charge, the West Germans proceeded to take a half-time lead. Rainer Bonhof broke down the right and crossed, where Gerd "Der Bomber" Muller scored with a shot on the turn, bringing up a century of goals at the FIFA World Cup for Germany – and, as it turned out, settling the match.
The second half can safely be summarised as an onslaught in orange, although the first chance after the restart fell to the hosts, Bonhof planting a header just a fraction wide of the post. The Dutch seized control after that, but Beckenbauer, keeper Sepp Maier and Vogts excelled as the Germans repelled wave after wave of attacks.
The bruising nature of the contest at times is reflected in the match stats and the total of 41 free-kicks - 27 to the Netherlands and 14 to the Germans. The last half-hour saw the Dutch camped in the German half, but the host nation rode their luck and held on to inflict the Netherlands’ first defeat in eight matches at the tournament.
West Germany thus joined Uruguay (1930), Italy (1934) and England (1966) as the fourth host nation to claim the trophy, and were the first to hoist the brand new FIFA World Cup. The previous version, the Jules Rimet trophy, was awarded to Brazil in perpetuity following the South Americans’ third triumph in 1970.
What they said
"It was the first time we’d played a team with a thoroughly thought-out system, which they then put into practice. And we lacked a man like Gerd Muller."
Johan Cruyff, Netherlands captain
"Going a goal down was good for us. The Dutch eased off and we were able to get into the match. And once you’ve relaxed your grip, it’s hard to recover the initiative."
Franz Beckenbauer, West Germany captain
What happened next...
The Germans were eliminated early from the next FIFA World Cup in 1978, but the Dutch again made it to the Final. However, the host nation once more proved an insurmountable obstacle, and the men in orange fell to Argentina 3-1 after extra-time. The Netherlands have not qualified for a Final or won major honours since then, with the single exception of the 1988 UEFA European Championships, which included a 2-1 victory over West Germany in the semi-finals.
The Germans subsequently finished FIFA World Cup runners-up on three occasions, in 1982, 1986 and 2002, and won the trophy in 1990 following a 2-1 victory over the Dutch in the Round of 16. The Germans also claimed the 1980 and 1996 European Championship titles.