Holland 1978
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Holland 1978

  The passing of a great football team into history is as inevitable as autumn following summer, yet still it's saddening. The Golden Age of Dutch football, the story begun by Feyenoord in 1970, continued by Ajax in 1971-3, and climaxed by the 1974 and 1978 World Cup teams, was now drawing swiftly to a close. There was to be one final moment of magic from this bunch of players, an eventful 3-2 win away to East Germany to clinch qualification for the 1980 European Championships, but the competition itself, in Italy, ended in disappointment.
Line-up v W.Germany 1980

Dutch line-up for 1980 game against West Germany in Naples.
Back: Haan, Schrijvers, Hovenkamp, Bennie Wijnstekers, Huub Stevens, Krol, Zwartkruis (coach).
Front: Rep, Willy van de Kerkhof, Michel van de Korput, Kees Kist, René van de Kerkhof.

  Though Rensenbrink, Jansen, Suurbier, Rijsbergen and Jongbloed were gone, a Holland team which still included Schrijvers, Krol, Haan, the Van de Kerkhofs, Rep and Nanninga narrowly defeated Greece, lost to West Germany, and needed to beat Czechoslovakia to progress. The 1-1 draw in this game perhaps brought down the curtain on a decade in which the Dutch had been one of the dominant forces in international football.

  The early 1980s were to be barren years. Unable to replace the players of the 1970s with youngsters of quite the same talent, Holland failed to qualify for the 1982 World Cup, finishing fourth behind Belgium, France and the Republic of Ireland, in a very tight group from which two teams would go through. Krol, Poortvliet, Neeskens and Rep all played in the crucial game in Paris, which France won 2-0, thanks largely to a memorable goal from the young Michel Platini, then a St Etienne team-mate of Johnny Rep.

  Ruud Krol played his 83rd and last game for Holland in September 1983, a 1-0 defeat against Spain in Seville in qualification for the European Championships. This record number of Dutch caps was only broken, by Aron Winter, during Euro 2000. Piet Schrijvers didn't give up the argument with Hans van Breukelen over the goalkeeping spot until March 1984, bowing out with a 6-0 win against Denmark in Amsterdam.

  The 1984 European Championships would take place without the Oranje, Spain finishing above a Dutch team now markedly in decline, even though Rijkaard, Van Basten and Gullit were now internationals. And, in 1986, Hungary qualified for the World Cup as Group winners, leaving runners-up Holland to play off against (inevitably) Belgium for a place in Mexico. Dick Schoenaker, Ernie Brandts and Willy van de Kerkhof all figured in that unsuccessful campaign, Van de Kerkhof becoming the last of the 1978 (and 1974) vintage to play in an international, his final game being the 1-0 first-leg defeat in Belgium in October 1985. The Belgians won the two-legged decider on away goals, and went on to reach the Semi-Final that year.

  Of course, our story does have a happy ending, if indeed anything in football ever "ends". The Cup Winners' Cup success of Ajax in 1987 was the dawn of this new age, with Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten in their team, plus a young substitute called Bergkamp, and a coach called Cruyff. Guus Hiddink's PSV Eindhoven won the 1988 European Cup again for Holland, evoking memories of the early 1970s. But the European Championships of that same glorious year were the moment the nation had been waiting for, as, with 1974 coach Rinus Michels back at the helm, and dressed in just about the worst shirts ever worn by an international team, the Dutch wrote a page in football's record books, to add to the chapters in the book of football mythology which they had written in 1974 and 1978. That of course is another story...

  In the 1990s, Dutch players have taken their place among the elite of Europe, in the increasingly cosmopolitan club framework, and the national team have been contenders at every major competition. Dutch clubs, however, have had relatively limited, transient success, as money has continued to lure their stars abroad, and at an increasingly early age. Maybe one day they'll find another set of players who will set the world on fire as did the great sides of 1974 and 1978, but probably they won't. Possibly nobody will.

  Ernst Happel coached the German champions SV Hamburg to European Cup victory in 1983, during the period of Holland's eclipse. When he died, in 1992, the Austrians renamed the Prater Stadium in Vienna in his honour: the European Champions League win by Ajax in 1995 took place in that very stadium. His name may not be as well-known in international football as that of Rinus Michels, but his achievement in taking Holland to a World Cup Final was certainly comparable with that of his predecessor.

  And that concludes my recounting of the tale of the class of 1978. History will, I trust, be generous to them. Hope you enjoyed it, and hope the time was well spent.

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