Cruyff was only the top of the iceberg of Holland's problems and scandals. 1978 was a carbon-copy of 1974: four years earlier the coach who qualified the national team to the World Cup was replaced by another for the finals. Exactly the same happened in 1978. Ernst Happel was contracted for the finals. Like Rinus Michels in 1974, Happel was heavy-handed disciplinarian, excellent tactician, and was under club contract at the beginning of his appointment, which made him an absent coach for awhile. Like Michel, he was big name at his coaching prime. Like Michels he was hired only for the World Cup finals – a short and particular contract. And just like Frantisek Fadrhonc was 'thanked' for qualifying Holland to the finals with demoting him to assistant of Michels, Jan Zwartkruis was rewarded in 1978. An absurd situation, nothing but trouble. Relations between Michels and Fadrhonc were non-existent. Michels did not even talk to his 'assistant', who really was a simple tourist at the finals. Relations between Happel and Zwartkruis were slightly better – they talked to each other and Zwartkruis had some functions. Precisely the functions of assistant coach – helping with the process, running training, following orders. There was no doubt who was in charge, just like in 1974. Naturally, it was great time for the press... Happel wanted to lead Holland for their last qualification match against Belgium and nice juicy scandal burst: the Belgian Federation sent a letter to their Dutch counter-parts, accusing Happel of unethical behavior. He was coaching FC Brugge, yes – Beligian club, at the time and suddenly appeared to be coaching two entirely different teams, with not just a hint of conflict of interests. The Ditch agreed that the Belgians were may be right, which immediately brought the other and entirely Dutch side of the same problem: Zwartkuis, also found the case of his replacement unethical and resigned. In fact, it was his second resignation, but the Federation had to act quickly, for out of the blue the national team was without a coach for the most important match. Zwartkruis was persuaded to come back – and stay under ridiculous title, which changed with time too. At first it looked like Happel and Zwartkruis were equal and were to lead the team together. But equality did not last even superficially and Zwartkruis's title eventually evolved. There was never any doubt about who was to going to run the show, no matter what the official title of Zwratkruis was.
Of course, replacing Cruyff was the central problem – for quite some time Rob Rensenbrink was seen as successor of Cruyff. After 1974 Rensenbrink developed into the leader of Anderelecht and his playing position somewhat evolved, becoming similar to Cruyff's. On top of everything Rensenbrink was physically similar to Cruyff. Zwartkruis saw him replacing Cruyff, taking his role - and therefore, a team and tactics should be organized around Rensenbrink. Happel accepted Zwarkruis's idea with caution. Rensenbrink was not game – he spoke against comparing him to Cruyff for at least an year. He emphasized that Cruyff is one thing, but Rensenbrink – another, and it was ridiculous to think of him as Cruyff's double. Rensenbrink was right – he was rather typical left winger. When he moved a bit back to midfield and took playmaking role, it was still limited and partial – mostly concentrated on the left side of the pitch, and shared with Arie Haan. Cruyff operated on the whole field and conducted everything – he was real playmaker, which Rensenbrink was not. But by 1978 he felt he may be able to take the playmaking position. May be. 'May be I can do it now.', said Rensenbrink, immediately cautioning: 'If the others help me, I may be able to replace Cruyff. The team is conditioned to pass every ball to Cruyff, he was he centre of everything. I am not sure the others will agree to pass me the ball the way they passed it Cruyff. It is not just a matter of willing – let's not forget that the national team was centered on Cruyff for so many years. Habits die hard.'
Rensenbrink was right to hesitate – and
Happel to be cautious about placing Rensenbrink into Cruyff's shoes. There was powerful opposition to Rensenbrink – those 'others' clearly did not see him as new Cruyff. Arie Haan, when asked about it, said that Cruyff was most important psychologically – his presence affected both teammates and opposition. Johan Neeskens: 'The Dutch style requires Cruyff. We start slowly and need Cruyff to change the tempo with his passes. With just a pass he is able to force the speed of our attack to such level, that the opposition is unable to keep up, and then it is easy to score.' Johnny Rep: 'Cruyff creates dangerous situations out of nothing. With him everybody shines; without him – unfortunately, not everybody.' The big stars emphasized the importance of Cruyff and evidently thought him irreplaceable. Rensenbrink was not mentioned at all – apparently, not worth considering, and the words contain not so veiled criticism of real and possible teammates. Haan, Neeskens, and Rep clearly were not even thinking of giving the ball to Rensenbrink and accepting him as new leader. Why should they, after all? They were world-famous stars even before him and when came to passing it was not all that sure that he was more creative than Neeskens or Haan. At least to hem, Rensenbrink was not. Van Hanegem was perhaps the better option – unfortunately, nobody was blind: the guy was getting old and slow. Rensenbrink was realistic – he was right to be careful, for he knew the boys well. Happel was also right in not pushing Zwarkruis's idea far – to really use it, a new team around Rensenbrink had to be created. There was no time for that – the best was low key tactical option with Rensenbrink in the centre, but one option among other weapons, an useful variety, not too heavily imposed on the team. No matter what, the situation was tense and explosive – difficult to deal with coach, having difficult to deal with players. It was a circus.
An early camp was scheduled, starting at May 8, 1978. 26 players were called. Only 16 arrived and presented themselves to... Zwartkruis, because Happel was absent too. The excuses were mostly plausible – some of the absentees, including Happel, had important club games. The players of PSV Eindhoven and Rep, playing for the French Bastia, were meeting each other at the final of the UEFA Cup. Happel had to play the the European ChampionsCup final – he was still the coach of FC Brugge after all. Neeskens called to say he cannot leave Barcelona, because of scheduled medical examinations by the club. Anderelecht's players were unavailable for stupidly early camp – Anderlecht had scheduled friendlies to play. And the home based players from AZ'67 Alkmaar just won the Dutch Cup and needed rest and/or relaxation after the final. Zwartkruis thought of canceling the camp and sending everybody home, but Ruud Krol strongly opposed that and insisted the camp was needed. Better having 16 players than nothing. The camp started... at first, Krol's insistence appeared to be responsible call. An early camp perhaps was most important psychologically – the turbulent personalities to get used to each other, the biggest troublemakers to leave on their own or be get rid of, and some modus operendi, some workable truce to be achieved between the rest and Happel. End even worse comes to worst, some time to be still at hand for calling somebody else and fitting him in. And along with that the post-Cruyff style of Holland to be developed, tried, and, with luck, even polished. Krol's example of responsibility made perfect sense, until the real reason was discovered: the President of Ajax demanded compensation from the Federation for his 6 players called to the camp, including Krol. His argument was 'fairness' – Ajax had to cancel friendlies because the players were not at hand. If Anderlecht and FC Brugge can keep their players and get away with it, it was only right Ajax to be compensated. At this point public opinion reached the lowest point – angry journalist pinpointed the guilty: 'If Holland play mediocre World Cup, it will be only because of the incompetence of the coaching stuff.' There was no organization at all, it was concluded. Thus, it became clear well in advance who will be blamed – and the sentence was prepared already. Curiously, pig-headed players and clubs were not blamed for anything. The time was running, however, and solutions were increasingly unlikely to be found. Happel finally appeared; players disappeared; some friendlies were played... last minute friendlies are generally light and not against serious opponents – fear of injuries is the main reason, and generally such games have only one point: refining of the main tactical scheme. But Holland had no serious team-building friendly played under Happel, so the last minute friendlies appeared almost a joke: two matches against FC Brugge. Both teams coached by him – what kind of work was that? Then the final selection was submitted to FIFA. Van Hanagem was out. No Cruyff, no van Hanegem... no playmaker? Rensenbrink? The national team was a hornet nest to the end – Hovenkamp left. Holland had to go to Argentina with only 21 players. May be less, for who knows what horror may come next? Purely football problems were coming into focus – they existed for a long time, but other scandals constantly obscured them. There was no time left and Holand was approaching peril. Weakenesse were pointed out from every side, a feast for critics. Happel continued to repeat 'reasonable' statements, adding nothing new to whatever he said before, and sounding increasingly rediculous – what getting better? When? The finals arrived, training was over. What he meant by 'we achieved something in the last friendlies'? 'Something'?! What does it mean 'We have to get rid of Cruyff's complex as soon as possible'? When? After the World Cup? What about during World Cup then? Happel was coming to the point of having no friends left. Finally, Happel was blamed for announcing his tactical scheme – the journalists omitted the 'little' fact that they pestered him with the question – which was with 5 men in midfield. How stupid to tell the world your tactics in advance! And forget about attacking football then...
1 GK Piet Schrijvers 15 December 1946 (aged 31) 16 Ajax
2 DF Jan Poortvliet 21 September 1955 (aged 22) 1 PSV Eindhoven
3 MF Dick Schoenaker 30 November 1952 (aged 25) 0 Ajax
4 DF Adrie van Kraay 1 August 1953 (aged 24) 13 PSV Eindhoven
5 DF Ruud Krol 24 March 1949 (aged 29) 52 Ajax
6 MF Wim Jansen 28 October 1946 (aged 31) 50 Feyenoord
7 DF Piet Wildschut 25 October 1957 (aged 20) 1 Twente
8 GK Jan Jongbloed 25 November 1940 (aged 37) 19 Roda JC
9 MF Arie Haan 16 November 1948 (aged 29) 24 Anderlecht
10 MF René van de Kerkhof 16 September 1951 (aged 26) 20 PSV Eindhoven
11 MF Willy van de Kerkhof 16 September 1951 (aged 26) 18 PSV Eindhoven
12 FW Rob Rensenbrink 3 July 1947 (aged 30) 34 Anderlecht
13 MF Johan Neeskens 15 September 1951 (aged 26) 38 Barcelona
14 MF Johan Boskamp 21 October 1948 (aged 29) 1 Molenbeek
15 DF Hugo Hovenkamp 5 October 1950 (aged 27) 7 AZ'67
16 FW Johnny Rep 25 November 1951 (aged 26) 23 SEC Bastia
17 DF Wim Rijsbergen 18 January 1952 (aged 26) 25 Feyenoord
18 FW Dick Nanninga 17 January 1949 (aged 29) 1 Roda JC
19 GK Pim Doesburg 28 October 1943 (aged 34) 2 Sparta Rotterdam
20 DF Wim Suurbier 16 January 1945 (aged 33) 56 Schalke 04
21 FW Harry Lubse 23 September 1951 (aged 26) 1 PSV Eindhoven
22 DF Ernie Brandts 3 February 1956 (aged 22) 1 PSV Eindhoven
Middle row:Wim van Hanegem, Ruud krol, Arie Haan, Hugo Hovenkamp, Jan Poortvliet, Harry Lubse, Wim Rijsbergen, Willy van de Kerkhof, Johan Neeskens, Ernst Happel coach, Jan Jongbloed
Sitting: Rob Rensenbrink, Johnny Rep, Jan Boskamp, Wim Suurbier, Wim Jansen, Adri van Kraay
Van Hanegem and Hovenkamp still around. Soon to be gone, but Hovenkamp remained on paper. Some grumpy looking creature popping between Nanninga and Schrijvers – probably an official of some kind. At a first glance, sober looking bunch with significantly shorter hairs – the wild look of the 1974 team was gone, immediately suggesting aging... Holland was the team with the most players remaining from the 1974 World Cup – 12. By now, Holland had one of the largest numbers of foreign-based players among the finalists: 6. Times changed, though – back in 19774 the team was based on Ajax and Feyenoord. Now PSV Eindhoven had the most players – 6. No wonder why – both Ajax and Feyenoord faded, and PSV Eindhoven was the top Dutch team in the recent years. With that, plus inevitable aging and those out of the squad, style was slowly changing, going from flamboyant attack to physical toughness. Which suited Happel's approach to football.
This squad had weaknesses, some objective and without remedy for years. Goalkeeping – the most obvious. Happel preferred Schrijvers. During the qualifications 5 keepers were used and it was nothing new – van Beveren was the best Dutch keeper during the 1970s and the gap between him and the rest was enormous. Without him, there was not much to choose from. Perhaps Ruiter of Anderlecht was good choice, but he was hardly ever called. The rest were rotated, none satisfying, which explains why nobody had many appearances for otherwise long, very long years of participating in the national team. So Schrijvers and Jongbloed, like in 1974, plus Doesburg, as a last ditch insurance. All over 30 years old, the newcomer Doesburg was 34, yet, practically a debutant with his measly 2 national team games. It was not the age as such – goalies last and the older they get, the better they are as a rule – but these three did not get any better, they were mediocre keepers, and the scary point was that there was nothing promising among the youngsters. There was no choice really and the goalkeeping problem almost automatically required strong defense, especially for Cruyff-less team, no longer able to keep opposition at bay afraid of deadly Dutch attacks. Midfield was a bit bland – without Cruyff and van Hanegem creativity was at stake, inevitably. Rensenbrink, if used as playmaker, was somewhat limited to the left side of the pitch, making Holland predictable and easier to neutralize. The attack was more or less based on Rep and unfortunately whatever Holland had were doubles of Rep, but of lesser quality, or incompatible players. The team lacked creative strength – with van de Kerkhof twins it was more predictable, German-style physical game of prevailing over opponents, not outplaying them. Even if those who refused to play for Holland were in the team it was not going to be better – they mostly duplicated the starters. For the really weak posts there were no solutions.
On the positive side was experience and versatility. The main core knew each other well, they were still mostly from the great Ajax team of the early 1970s. They were intelligent and more than merely skilful. The weaknesses were compensated by tactical variety – there was no other team in the world able of various tactical schemes. Ruud Krol moved to the centre of defense by 1978, becoming a libero. But he was equally good as stopper and there was problem to place him at his original position as left full-back. Thus, Holland had options – three-men defense, with Krol in the middle; or four-men again with him conducting the line, or four-men with him at the left. There was Rijsbergen, who was improvised stopper in 1974, but became permanent one after that to help Rep, but, if needed, he was able to move to his old position of right full-back. Jansen and Haan were able to move back to the centre of defense too. Haan was incredibly flexible – depending on momentary needs, he would easily play defender, defensive midfielder, playmaker, centre-forward. Rensenbrink would be either midfield playmaker or left winger. The van de Kerkhof twins were equally capable of playing central role in midfield, or become wingers. Rep was fine as either centre-forward English type, or mobile lighter version of centre-forward, opening space for attacking midfielders, or a classic right winger. Even unknown newcomers were versatile – Ernie Brandts was initially called as striker, but in the final squad is listed as defender.
It seems Happel selected the team largely on the base of versatility, recognizing the tactical potentials of such squad. Which explains the absence of some names, even some of the refusals – they were either doubles of somebody else, or with counter-productive skills. This squad provided easily at least tactical schemes – one based on Ajax players: Krol – Neeskens – Haan – Rep, a skeleton, commanding the game, and collectively compensating the absence of Cruyff. Another formation could be based on Rensenbrink as playmaker, with Rep as centre-forward and the Kerkhofs at the wings. Tough, determined, a bit English-styled attacking line, competently supplied with balls and crushing the opposite defense. And still there was the option based on van de Kerkhof twins in midfield, more German-like domination of the middle of the field. Other schemes were also possible, but even these three varieties had additional sting – they would have been easily interchanged during a single match. Very likely that was what Happel had in mind when speaking of 'a team' – using his many stars in different roles, changing tactics often, adjusting to particular needs. Ideally, Holland would have been tremendously difficult opponent and quite a pleasure to watch. In reality, it was not so great, but still not far from the ideal, although changes were made out of desperation. Going a bit ahead, Holland was the only team in 1978 which used different tactical schemes at different matches.
The rest is trivia: like 1974, Holland in 1978 had players with different kits. It was only Cruyff back then, but three players now – would have been five, if Geels and van Hanegem stayed. Holland, like in 1974, was supplied by Adidas. Personal contract prevented Cruyff from using the team's kit and he played with his own , with 2 stripes, in 1974. Well, the famous Adidas stripes were really the problem – they were too much part of the kit to be avoided. Cruyff was followed by others after 1974 and van de Kerkhof twins and Nanninga were unable to play with Adidas in 1978. It was pure money and nothing else: the van de Kerkhofs had no conflict of interest when playing for their club PSV Eindhoven, using Adidas. The three stripes were fine there, but not when the twins played for Holland.
The Dutch still used 'strange' numbers – back in 1974 players were given numbers in alphabetical order. Except Cruyff, of course. Some decided to keep their 1974 number, others took new ones – Suurbier, Neeskens, Rene and Willy van de Kerkhof, Rep, Rijsbergen, Jansen, and Jongbloed kept their old numbers. Krol, Haan, Rensenbrink, and Schrijvers choose new numbers. At the end, Holland and Argentina had the most exotic numbers - their goalkeepers played with 5 – Fillol, and 8 – Jongbloed.
At the end of all trials and tribulations, Holland went to Argentina as one of the big favourites.