When asked to share their dreams of a career in the beautiful game, budding young footballers are likely to profess admiration for the role of prolific goalscorer, midfield maestro, or even unbeatable goalkeeper, but it would be relatively unusual to hear a child aspire to become a professional fullback.

It is said that a player becomes a left-back by circumstance more often than by choice: a winger who is asked to drop back, or a centre-back who fills in on the flank to help out his team. This is true of most countries, except in the Netherlands. Since the 1970s, the position of left-back is not one that players simply occupy by default. It has become, by contrast, a veritable vocation. The reason for this? The brilliance of Ruud Krol.

It is only fair to point out at this juncture that, as well as being the greatest left-back of his era, the Dutchman was also one of the period’s best wingers, defensive midfielders and sweepers. The ideal representative of the ground-breaking ‘total football’ concept, Krol boasted an impressive athleticism that was matched by a sharp intellect.

“Our system provided a solution to the old stamina problem,” Krol said of the style established by the legendary Rinus Michels. “How do you go about playing for 90 minutes and conserving your energy at the same time? As a left-back, if I have to run 70 metres up the wing, it’s hardly ideal if I have to immediately cover the same distance to regain my position. So if the left-sided midfielder can slot in where I was, and if the winger drops back into midfield, that cuts down on the distances. That was our approach."

It was an approach that was simple to follow on the international stage when it was also the way things were already done domestically, as was the case for Krol, who made his debut for Ajax in 1968. He would reign supreme on the left side of the Amsterdam club’s defence at Dutch, European and world level, as Eredivisie titles (1970, 1972, 1973, 1977, 1979 and 1980), European Cups (1972 and 1973) and an Intercontinental Cup (1972) were all captured in style.

From party animal to football addict
While it is true that everything is easier when playing in a ‘dream team’, the struggle to initially become part of said group is sometimes overlooked by observers. Brought in for next to nothing from the youth team of Rood Wit, a modest outfit operating in the lower divisions, Krol had to show patience in order to make the breakthrough from the reserves to the first team.

As a right-footed player, the first hurdle he faced came in the imposing shape of Wim Suurbier, Ajax’s starting right-back and at the time generally accepted to be one of the best in the world in that role. Undeterred, the Amsterdam native worked on improving his left foot for months, and in 1969, he eventually became the successor to Theo van Duivenbode, on the other side of the defence.

The second obstacle was a less than flattering reputation for enjoying the good things in life a little too much. As Michels recounted: “The greatest danger to Ruud’s career was not Feyenoord’s right winger, or PSV’s Rene van de Kerkhof, but rather the beautiful women in the bars and nightclubs of Amsterdam’s old town.”

Thankfully for Krol, during his initial pre-season with the first-team squad, he struck up a friendship with new recruit Nico Reynders, who would become a crucial influence on the then youngster’s career, persuading him to go to bed early and train harder.

The message was received and understood, so much so that Krol would become a model professional. “I’d still go to the cinema or to a nightclub from time to time, but football was what I thought about most of the time,” he recalled when asked about a generation of footballers reputed to be as committed on the pitch as they were hedonistic off it.

“Some players were more attracted by the nightlife, but I only cared about the football. Sometimes, Michels thought that I seemed too stressed. At those times, he’d come to see me and say, ‘Go on, Ruud, go out and have some fun!’ And that’s what I did, but never before an important match."

Final heartbreak in Munich and Buenos Aires
Consequently, when German newpaper Bild Zeitung splashed a titillating story across its front page the day before the Final of the 1974 FIFA World Cup Germany™, one in which some of the Dutch squad were alleged to have spent a night partying with members of the opposite sex in the hotel swimming pool, Johan Cruyff’s reaction of gathering his team-mates to announce, "We’ve got a big problem”, was somewhat understandable.

Some denied it had ever happened, while others viewed it as a conspiracy. But did it really have a destabilising effect on the Netherlands within hours of their decisive clash with West Germany? As far as Krol is concerned, it was not an issue.

He said: “It’s the same everywhere – the press do everything in their power to enable the host nation to win. We’d read the article, of course, but we were completely focused on the match."

In fact, their concentration was such that in the first minute, the Germans did not touch the ball once before Uli Hoeness brought down Cruyff for a penalty, which Johan Neeskens duly converted. Krol and Co were unable to take advantage of this incredible start, however, and would eventually find themselves on the end of a 2-1 defeat.

The winning goal was scored by Gerd Muller, who emerged victorious from his duel with Krol, who recalled:. “I’d blocked his first effort, but as he went for it a second time, he mishit it a little. Otherwise I would have had it. In the end, the ball finished up in the back of the net."

It’s very sad not to have been world champions with a team that played so well. I’ve got two silver medals, but I’d swap them both for a single gold one.
Ruud Krol

Franz Beckenbauer and his team-mates may well have lifted the Trophy, but it was the Dutch who received the plaudits from the watching world, following their sensational run at FIFA’s flagship tournament, one which saw them defeat Uruguay (2-0), Argentina (4-0) and defending world champions Brazil (2-0), all the while practising a delightful, flowing brand of football.

It seemed to many who had witnessed their dominating displays that the competition runners-up would get another shot at glory in the not too distant future.And so they did, four years later in Argentina, where, even without talisman Cruyff, and with Krol now captain and deployed in a sweeper role, the Oranje continued to create many magic moments on the pitch, reaching a second successive Final in the process. But the fates had decided that they would once again face a host nation backed by a fervent home support.

And like Muller four years previously, the Dutch came up against a striker at the peak of his powers in the form of Mario Kempes, whose goal in extra time – his second of the afternoon – sealed a 3-1 win for La Albiceleste. The Netherlands had earlier come back from 1-0 down to equalise with eight minutes to go, and when Rob Rensenbrink was wonderfully set up by Krol in the final seconds of normal time, the post denied the Dutch what surely would have been a title-winning goal.

Debates about the best player to have never lifted the FIFA World Cup are always heated, with Michel Platini, Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Zico and Eusebio among the names that are regularly put forward. But when the question is extended to the best team, a consensus is usually reached quite quickly. Even the great Hungary team of 1954 are pipped to the post by the Netherlands in this category.

“It was a profoundly painful experience," said Krol over 30 years on from the second disappointment. "I haven’t really moved on from it. It’s very sad not to have been world champions with a team that played so well. I’ve got two silver medals, but I’d swap them both for a single gold one. We’ll always be the country that played well and won nothing. Of course, the 1988 side won the European Championship, but not the World Cup. The World Cup is something else altogether.”

Winding down an artist's career
Dutch football missed its opportunity to rule the world, at roughly the same time that Ajax’s reign over Europe was brought to an end by the emergence of English and German clubs, who between them would win every European Cup between 1974 and '84.

In 1980, Krol turned 31 and decided that his best years were behind him. He opted to sign for Vancouver Whitecaps, but after just 14 matches for the Canadian outfit, came to the realisation that he was still capable of playing top-flight football in Europe, and promptly joined Napoli.

Once again, the versatile Dutchman’s timing was lacking – in four seasons in Naples, he won nothing, with the exception of the hearts of the Stadio San Paolo faithful and the award of Serie A’s Best Foreign Player in 1981.

He left the club in 1984, just a few days before the arrival of a certain Diego Maradona. While the Italian side were entering the greatest era of their history, Krol was drawing the curtain on his career at Cannes, in the French second division. 

In a town better known for its world-famous film festival, Krol summed up his career in an appropriate manner: “Football is not an art, but it is an art to play it well.”