The Dutch 'total football' maestros of 1974 are popular choices as the most talented side not to emerge victorious at a FIFA World Cup™. And a vital cog in the famous Oranje machine, alongside Johan Neeskens, Johnny Rep and the inimitable Johan Cruyff, was the dashing left-back Ruud Krol. Now head coach at South African Premiership club Orlando Pirates, he has a special place in his heart for the FIFA World Cup, and has revealed what South Africans can look forward to.
"A World Cup is unique," said Krol, who gained 83 caps for the Netherlands and captained the side 45 times. "So imagine participating at a World Cup in your own country. That's the opportunity South African players will get in 2010. It should be every player's ambition to be there. To represent your country at a World Cup at home; that's the dream of every player!"
Krol spent his formative years at a club that was destined to become a European giant during his time there: Ajax Amsterdam. During his early days at Ajax, before he made his first team debut in 1969, a senior player told Krol: "I've lived a rough life, and I'm regretting that now. Ruud, for the next two to three years, do everything possible to reach the top. If you fail, you can go partying after."
Krol used the advice positively, living the life of a professional. "Of course, you can go to the movies or a disco now and then," he explained, "but your main goal must be football. Some players make a sport of partying, but my sport was soccer." Smiling, he added: "Sometimes our coach at Ajax, Rinus Michels, saw that I was getting stressed, so he would tell me: 'Ruud, please go out and relax a bit!' So I would do so, but obviously not the evening before an important match."
And Krol went on to win six national championships, five national cups, two European Cups and one Intercontinental Cup at Ajax. But he says he would happily exchange all of these trophies for one FIFA World Cup title. In 1974, everyone expected the brilliant Dutch to take home the trophy, but after going a goal ahead against hosts Germany FR in the Final, they lost their way and succumbed 2-1.
Krol captained the Dutch side at the next event, in 1978, and again the Netherlands reached the Final, after a shaky start. "The experience was richer after the 1974 World Cup," reflected Krol. "I learnt, for example, that preparation for the World Cup doesn't start ten days before the tournament. It should begin about 18 months before the tournament kicks off!" Despite the intense preparation, however, the Dutch again fell at the last hurdle, going down 3-1 in extra time to hosts Argentina.
After leaving Ajax in 1980, Krol had a short stint at North American side Vancouver Whitecaps, before settling at Napoli, where he became a legend in the years before Argentinian star Diego Maradona joined the side. Since retiring from football in 1986, he has coached in many different countries. His first contact with South Africa came when he led Egypt at the Africa Cup of Nations 1996, where host nation South Africa were crowned champions. Krol says he clearly remembers players like Lucas Radebe, Mark Fish, Phil Masinga, Doctor Khumalo and Mark Williams.
Even as well-travelled a coach as Krol has been impressed with the football culture in South Africa. "I love the atmosphere the South African supporters create in the stadium," he said. "The music, the singing and especially the long horn, the vuvuzela, create a very unique sound. And some good performances by the South African national team in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup could help the atmosphere to become truly electric."
Krol is convinced that the tournament in 2010 will be a success from a fan point of view. "South Africa offers football fans the possibility of watching a World Cup and enjoying a holiday at the same time. A soccer fan can bring his whole family to this country - what more do you want? It's like catching two flies at once! I am 100 per cent convinced that it will be an enormous success."
Facts and figures
Clubs (player): Ajax (1968-80), Vancouver Whitecaps (1980), Napoli (1980-84), Cannes (1984-86)
Clubs (coach): Mechelen (1989-90), Servette (1990-91), Zamalek (1994-99), Ajaccio (2006-07), Zamalek (2007-08), Orlando Pirates (since 2008)
National Team: 83 caps (4 goals)
Honours: Dutch League 1970, 1972, 1973, 1977, 1979, 1980, European Cup 1972, 1973, Intercontinental Cup 1972