Monday, October 10, 2011

The steelier among the iron groups was Group 5: Holland, Poland, and Italy. Finland completed the group, her sole purpose was to donate points and provide comfortable goal differences to the aces. The most exciting teams at the World Cup in 1974, correspondingly finishing with silver and bronze medals. The Italian fiasco at the World Cup did not diminish the aura of the national team – Italians were thought determined to wipe clean the tarnish, but even without the sting from 1974 they were always a predatory team and a favourite. As it turned out, Italy suffered more than a sting – a massive change of mentality was needed, on every level of Italian football. Unfortunately, defensive football proved very difficult to shake – Italian mind was so conditioned by defensive schemes by now, that it was instinctive. And this instinct was never sufficiently erased – Italy plays primarily defensive football to this very day. But it was painfully clear in 1974 that catenaccio was outdated and the brand of losers. Naturally, the first to go was the old coach Feruccio Valcareggi. He was at the helm since 1966, therefore, incapable of atuning his views to the 70s. He was replaced by Fulvio Bernardini and it was under his guidance Italy hit rock bottom. In retrospect it looks like Bernardini was chosen not to rebuilt the national team into modern squad, but rather appointed as the person most suitable to swallow all possible blame: Bernardini was good 15 years older than Valcareggi. Born in 1905, he was 70 years old when accepting to coach the national team. His record was even more alarming than his age – he made both Fiorentina and Bologna champions of Italy, but long ago – Fiorentina in 1956 and Bologna in 1964. The years were telling… those were exactly the times when catenaccio was taking shape and was ‘the modern way to play’. Bernardini was hardly the coach to change anything and he also had plenty of players with mega-reputations and deeply embedded old habits, who were difficult to replace even if the coach wanted to. Unlike West Germans stars, the Italian ones were not eager to quit the national team. The coach himself was reluctant to ignore them - it was not easy to retire Mazzola, Rivera, Fascetti, Riva, even for a coach willing to do so, but Bernardini was not very willing to begin with. Yet, there were constant attempts to refresh the squad, to introduce new players, in the hope that some less known and younger players would be naturally inclined to play more open game, if not genuine total football. New players were constant failure – everybody in Italy was conditioned to defensive game and the new boys were just paler copies of the big old stars. Experiments led to nothing and Italy finished measly 3rd in the group, scoring astonishing number of goals – a whole lot of three in six games! They were tough to beat as ever, but proved to be only that. Italy was not even able to win over Finland at home – the 0-0 tie provided the outsiders their only point.
This left only Holland and Poland as real contenders, providing they were able to break the Italian walls, and the Dutch had the edge, despite the fact they had new coach. Like Holland, Poland depended on limited number of great players. Similarly, both countries essentially preserved the same squads and same tactics after the World Cup. And at that similarities ended – unlike Holland, Polish stars were not concentrated in 3 clubs, but scattered in many. Unlike the Dutch, who were playing together weak after weak and thus were able to maintain strong form, Polish stars were most often surrounded with weaker teammates and lacking collective boost, they had difficulty to stay in top condition. Dutch coaches had it easier, for the main starters hardly needed a lot of training – the concern was rather tactical: which combination of players was best for a specific opponent. Everybody was familiar with everybody else and there was hardly any problem with execution. In Poland the national team had to be trained and shaped, especially when new players were included. But Kazimierz Gorski was working with the national team for a long time and made it more like a club squad already – the trouble was aging on one hand and players allowed to play abroad. So far, Polish football was officially ‘amateur’ and on top of that export was done in almost clandestine manner, so foreign based professionals were automatically out of the national team. In 1975 this became a bit of a problem, for Lubanski was permitted to play in Belgium and Gadocha nd Marks – in France. Given the limited pool, this was severe loss – three strikers were difficult to replace. On the brighter side Polish players were more than willing for the national team, if only to get a chance to go abroad, and under Communist conditions scandals and open rebellions were impossible. The Dutch had no problem calling foreign-based stars like Cruyff, Neeskens, Rensenbrink, but there was problem with stubbornly opinionated and pig-headed players. Frequently Dutch stars refused to play because of disagreements, or boycotting the coach, or teammates. Frequently there was no reason at all – a player just did not think important certain match or preferred to stay home instead of going to a national team camp. Private matters played a large role – Cruyff disliked van Beveren and for this reason alone Holland had no decent goalkeeper for years. Coaching itself was becoming laughable: Rinus Michels returned to Barcelona after the World Cup ended and new coach was hired. It was amusing choice – George Knobel. George, or Georges Knobel was freshly fired from Ajax, where he effectively managed to destroy a great team in less than an year. This dubious achievement was awarded with appointment to coach the national team – where the largest bulk was Ajax players, not to mention Cruyff and his long memory. It was Knobel, who asked Ajax players to vote for a captain of the team – and they voted for Keiser, not for Cruyff (he was still there at the time). And what kinf of coach was Knobel anyway? He came to Ajax from nowhere and sunk it. Leaping a bit ahead, Knobel’s career was practically one year in Ajax and two years with the national team. After 1976 he disappeared, coaching in Hong Kong and Malaysia. Hardly a gifted specialist, judging by his career… and his contribution to Holland was more than suspect. He inherited an improvised by Michels squad and changed absolutely nothing. For instance, Hulshof and Gerrit Muhren, who missed the World Cup because of injuries, were healthy now, but neither was ever called back. Van Beveren was not recalled either, although Knobel got rid of pathetic goalie Youngbloed and Schrijvers, reduced to substitute by Michels, was first choice again.
It was goalkeeping and central defense in need of shaping, but Knobel simply kept whatever Muchels concocted out of sheer lack of players. A good deal of players was aging too and here the small pool of talent made the final decisions: youngsters were constantly tried, but old legs were better at the end. Apart from bigger number of PSV Eindhoven players, no changes were made by Knobel neither tactical, nor in selection. And it was the familiar names from Ajax and Feyenoord at the end, for apart from the van der Kerkhof twins no PSV players really gained regular spot in the team. The brothers were rather ominous addition, though – they were not artistic, but rather German kind of players, and they were eventually to shape Holland into a lesser copy of West Germany circa 1978: physical fighters with lots of strength and very short of improvisation, invention, and beauty.
At the end of the day, Holland had slightly larger and better core of stars than Poland and also the real edge – Cruyff. He was often ‘unavailable’ – meaning, he decided which games to play and which to skip, but having even the possibility of Cruyff playing was an advantage – guessing was a trouble for the opposition.
1.NETHERLANDS 6 4 0 2 14- 8 8
2.Poland 6 3 2 1 9- 5 8
3.Italy 6 2 3 1 3- 3 7
4.Finland 6 0 1 5 3-13 1
At the end Holland advance on better goal difference, which was not much to say for the team, given the mediocrity of Italy and relatively weaker than 1974 Poland.
George Knobel destroyed burly looking Ajax before joining the same players in the national team. Perhaps the luckiest mediocrity he was – and double lucky, for Holland managed to qualify. What was his contribution, though?
Johann Cruyff against Finland in Helsinki. Holland won 3-1 and probably more than ever Cruyff was the real maker and shaker of the Dutch. Still using number 14 and surely having the last word.