Holland last. It was perhaps the most discussed team before the 1978 finals. Favourites are always in the news, but the Dutch case is complicated, enigmatic, and still controversial after all the years. The team, the personalities, the approach, the politics, objective and subjective reasons – everything was enmeshed. It is even difficult to find a starting point for the mess. The Argentinian political situation created so much outrage, it was doubted that the country would be able to organize the World Cup. One side was concern about security of foreign teams and fans. The other side was doubt of Argentina's ability to organize agreeable structure: stadiums, transportation, and so on. And yet a third side was political – many countries founded the regime undesirable, to put it mildly. Of course, there was never clear distinction between the three sides of objections – the same people concerned for the security of their own objected 'strongly' the Argentinian military version of order. In short, foreign countries founded the daily presence of guns revolting, yet, wanted guns to guarantee the security of their players and tourists. A last minute replacement was looked for and Holland was the likelier option: peaceful country, developed, competent police, with enough stadiums and money to host the World Cup at short notice. Argentina was not replaced and Holland leaped to the opposite: from possibly hosting the finals to not participating in them at all. Holland was the only country, which, however briefly, seriously considered to withdraw from the finals for political reasons. Political objections were strong enough and a group of players refused to go to Argentina – refused to play for the Dutch national team at the finals. From this point is no longer possible to separate truth from fiction, real reasons from convenient excuses, and just causes from selfish interests. Scandals were nothing new inside the Dutch national team anyway. But the national team still was on the brink of not going to the World Cup – the last straw had nothing to do with the politics of the hosts, but with FIFA politics.
Football politics... Holland was moved from pool 1 – the top favourites, which were not to play against each other in the first stage, that is – and Italy was placed there. The reason of FIFA was business: Italy was most likely to get large attendance since large percentage of the Argentinians is of Italian descent. Paying customers, no less. The commercial wisdom went against the written and unwritten rules of same FIFA – Holland was the reigning vice-champion and ranked higher than Italy. Naturally, the Dutch protested and found support for their cause in the Federation of Peru. Whatever the real motivation of the Peruvians was – considering the murky South American football politics – it was noble and just reaction, to which at the end fate played a cruel joke on: Holland won the case and was returned to pool 1. The draw placed Holland and Peru in Group 4. As for Italy... FIFA still broke its own rules, ruling that Italy was to chose its own first stage group. With this the international problems of Holland ended and the domestic circus unfolded in full. The principal figures involved were especially gifted in enigmatic, unclear, double, and triple talk, spoke in riddles, changed their stories at later time, and the press actively contributed in making the events entirely mysterious controversies. Some problems existed for years, some were new, some repeated 1974. Back then the coach, who qualified Holland was replaced before the finals with Rinus Michels. Same thing in the spring of 1978 – Ernst Happel was appointed to lead the team, with Jan Zwartkruis, the man who qualified the team, 'promoted' to assistant of Happel, just like Frantisek Fadrhonc was made assistant of Michels. And once again the Dutch Federation chose heavy-handed disciplinarian and difficult to deal with coach to lead a team of mouthy, individualistic, and difficult to deal with players. On top of it Happel was eternally 'lost in translation' – nobody ever knew what language the coach speaks, for it was not a known language, but some private creation. Happel, however, spoke a lot and in length to journalists – the trouble was discovering what he meant. This elusive, not entirely human speech Happel shared with another main protagonist – Cruyff. To this very day anyone is guessing what was really on the minds of Happel and Cruyff – with little chance of establishing the truth, for the protagonist changed their own versions as time went, and often dismissed previous claims and statements as misunderstood and misrepresented. Zwartkruis contributed to the linguistic puzzle: to him belongs the gem describing Happel as treating his players "like footballers, not like people". You are free to find the meaning of this – an ironic joke? A praise? What does it mean at all?
Under the circumstances, tensions were only to grow. A group of players refused to play for Holland in Argentina. Then and now, it is always plural, suggesting big number, and motives go under the rubric 'political reasons'. When it comes to names 'the group' is hard to find – Johan Cruyff, of course. His absence dwarfed everything else, for it was most important and most debated, but he is not 'a group'. Under pressure, more names emerge... four more. However... there is evasive confusion about timing, stories at real time and at later 'clarifications'. As for reasons... still commonly they are asserted as political. Perhaps the key is entirely Dutch – this is a country proudly describing itself as outspoken, critical, debating, and... not respecting anybody else. 'Speaking one's mind even if unpleasant and critical of others' was a personal right, inevitably leading to constant frictions and confrontations in the national team. Most of the conflicts were personal or about money – even without convenient political excuse, everything was easily hidden under the labels 'democracy' and 'individualism', both looking plausible together. So... it is easier to name the 'refuseniks' than to unveil why they decided to stay home. Cruyff – he will be analyzed separately later – Jan van Beveren, Ruud Geels, Hugo Hovenkamp, and Wim van Hanegem. Hm... even simple naming is not simple, for van Hanegem's absence was and is as controversial and mysterious as Cruyff's. Hovenkamp left the team last – after Holland had to submit her final list of 22 players for the finals. There was no way to replace him after the squad was made official, his name stayed, but Holland went to Argentina with 21 players. Clearly, Hovenkamp was not politically motivated, for it would be absurd to discover nasty Argentinian reality so late. No wonder 'a group' sounds better than concrete names in terms of this famous 'political objections'. Hovenkamp was not exactly a regular national team player. With Krol playing at the same position, Hovenkamp was to keep the reserve's bench warm during the whole World Cup. Most likely he was offended by that and left.
And similar is the case of Ruud Geels – he never played a minute during the 1974 World Cup. In general, he played rarely for Holland and was facing another finals permanently at the bench. Speaking of the top scorer of the Ducth league... three years in a row. Objectively, he was duplicating Johnny Rep and there was no place for him among the starters. Sure... political objections to Argentinian Junta motivated him...
Jan van Beveren? Officially, he was injured in 1974. Officially, he missed the 1976 European Finals and 1978 World Cup because of his feud with Cruyff. Which is true – Cruyff did not like van Beveren. It was and is suspected van Beveren used his injury for an excuse in 1974 – just to avoid quarrels with Cruyff. Missed 1976 for the same reason – but may be not even called? He played for Holland after 1974 and after 1976... yet never regularly, only now and then – but almost every other Dutch player of that time, Cruyff included, was like that. Depending on personal convenience, depending on likes and dislikes of coach and teammates. You may call it 'political convictions', may call it 'mood', may call it whatever you like – and will be neither right, nor wrong.
Van Hanegem presents even bigger mystery: usually when 'the group of refuseniks' is unpacked, he is not named. Van Hanegem was part of the national team up to the moment of submitting to FIFA the final squad. On one hand, he and the goalkeeper Jongbloed are most fitting the political label: the Communist Party member Jongbloed and life-long antifascist, automatically placing him in the political left, van Hanegem. But apolitical Cruyff is usually named as protesting Argentina and van Hanegem and Jongbloed – not at all. Funny that, but this is only at the surface – dig deeper and you will never know... One version is that van Hanegem left the national team because the Dutch Federation did not satisfied his financial demands. So, money was at the bottom... or may be not. Another version is that Happel dismissed the player. This version is intriguing and even tragic: Happel coached Feyenoord to their European Champions Cup victory in 1970. Van Hanagem was the star of the team, a favourite of Happel. In turn, van Hanegem liked and praised Happel honestly. He was glad to have Happel coaching the national team. Two other members of Happel's Feyenoord were still chosen by Happel – Wim Jansen and Wim Rijsbergen. Both went to Argentina, but not van Hanegem. Since Cruyff was no longer in the team, van Hanegem seemed the obvious choice filling the gap and taking the vital role of playmaker, his playing position anyway. And another option was in the centre of defense, as a libero – just before the finals this was the role of van Hanegem, he was expected to be a regular, organizing the defense, Ruud Krol moved back to his initial left full-back position. Van Hanegem seemed essential player. Yet, Happel – so the story goes – told him he is no longer needed. Which hurt van Hanegem enormously – his favourite coach dismissed him, yet, maintaining van Hanegem was his favourite player. Yes, Happel liked him, but the star was too old and too slow...sorry. True, van Hanegem was no longer at his prime, he was not even playing for Feyenoord, but for smaller and unfancied AZ'67, he was 34 years old... but Jansen was also at the wrong side of 30 by now and Rijsbergen was not exactly shining in 1978. They were in, van Hanegem – out. Strange, but whatever the real story was, it was not political.
Of course, the biggest missing name was Cruyff, completing the 'group of political protesters', often the only named 'member', yet, even more separate a case than van Hanegem. Earlier absentee than any other, discussed for months, begged to come back, questioned constantly, ridiculed, excused, and accused by all and sundry. His case dwarfed everything else, shielding the rest of the 'refuseniks' – bulked together just because they refused, not because hey acted together and had common cause – from scrutiny, and entirely obscuring few others who were absent from the team at the end. The missing 'non-political' stars are practically never mentioned and in my opinion is interesting to contrast them to the 'political' absentees: Kees Kist (AZ'67), Johnny Dousbaba (Anderlecht, Belgium), Tscheu La Ling, Pim van Dord (Ajax), Frans Thijssen and Arnold Muhren (Twente), and Rene Noten (Feyenoord). The current Dutch stars, that is. All of them already played for the national team. All represented the 'next' generation, destined to replace the big stars of the early 1970s. Yet, the weight of the famous older stars was so great the above players were practically not mentioned: some too young for big tournaments, some not in great form, some not really better than even fading elders... but Kees Kist, Johnny Dousbaba, Tscheu La Ling, and Jan Peters (AZ'67) were in the 'large' national team as late as early May, 1978. None made the final 22 and may be none was really needed, save Kist – already top goalscorer, constant rival of Ruud Geels in the Dutch league, and considering the final selection of strikers and Geels' decision to leave the national team – may be a necessary player. Yet, he was out. To a point, those simply not selected were bigger loss than the so-called 'political refuseniks'. But making a working team is never simple compilation of names. A team made of the absentees looks impressive on paper – here is a version:
van Dord Dousbaba Hovenkamp ?
Thijssen van Hanegem A. Muhren
La Ling Cruyff Geels (Kist)
There are players for the bench as well, yet it is short team, made of not really compatible players. And Happel's selection would easily beat such concoction, for Happel's will be superior and well-oiled in every line, except goalkeeping. Which at the end is even impossible in reality, because of Cruyff's presence. And still a 'but' remains – in view of the above names, who on Earth were Dick Nanninga, Harry Lubse, Dick Schoenaker, Piet Wildschut, Jan Poortvliet, Ernie Brandts, and Pim Doesburg? And even better known at the time Johan Boskamp? Pros and cons may never end, obscuring the vital point: the absentees, with few exceptions, were destined to be reserves. The unknown among the selected were precisely the bench of reserves, some so deep, only a cataclysm of some kind would move them to the grass. At the end, the players really needed were van Beveren and Cruyff – and since they were mutually exclusive, only Cruyff was the big loss.