Muller, Total Football and the ‘Lost Final’: The Story of the 1974 World Cup Final

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It was the show-piece for international football’s most intense rivalry; the 1974 World Cup Final between West Germany and Netherlands in Munich is still regarded as one of the most dramatic and shocking finals in the competition’s history. For the Dutch, it will always be remembered as the final that never was. Their unique vision of Total Football captured the imagination of millions but it ultimately ended in heartbreak as they failed to get Oranje hands on the Jules Rimmet trophy.

Suddenly, with a typically quick turn and finish in the box, Gerd Muller set West Germany on their way to their second World Cup triumph. One precise swing of his right boot was enough to shatter the Netherlands’ hopes of claiming their first Jules Rimmet trophy and with it, sent the revolutionary style of totaalvoetbal tumbling into the footballing abyss. It was a defeat Holland couldn’t quite stomach. They swept the 1974 World Cup with consummate style and swagger and their team are, to this day, regarded as one of the finest teams ever to grace the World Cup. But for all their brilliance, they had nothing to shoe for it at the end of a dizzylingly entertaining tournament. The Johan Cryuff-led Dutch insurgency crumbled in the face of German ruthlessness and efficiency, typified by Der Kaiser- Franz Beckenbauer. Muller, the captain’s trusted lieutenant on the front line, conducted the greatest last act as a German international footballer by quashing the Dutch charge and ensuring that the sea of orange would have to wait, at least another 4 years, before completing the job and conquering the world. 

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That Holland side are seen as the perhaps the greatest innovators in terms of footballing tactics. Carlos Alberto, who captained Brazil to their 1970 triumph, once said: “The only team I’ve seen that did things differently was Holland at the 1974 World Cup in Germany. Since then everything looks more or less the same to me…. Their ‘carousel’ style of play was amazing to watch and marvellous for the game.” Not for the first time, Calros Alberto seems to have got it absolutely right. The Dutch national side of 1974 were a team of immeasurable talent, virtuosity and artistry, who set the world’s greatest sporting competition alight 40 years ago by abandoning the stiff rigours of footballing tactics and affording unprecedented liberation to their players with the ultimate goal of leaving their opponents bereft in the ways of combating it.  

The man behind the brilliance was Rinus Michels- the creative director and commander-in-chief of a Dutch vision that shook the World Cup 40 years ago. Michels had a clear apotheosis of thought when he came to the realisation of how the game should be played. He started to encourage his players to interchange positions, with the view that a different player would always be available to cover the position left vacant. It was, as Alberto said, a very ‘carousel’ style of football. But it worked. Michels took advantage of an improved infrastructure of sports science and nutrition in the post-war era to enhance his team’s physical prowess, conditioning and all-round fitness. The goal was to enact a dramatic metamorphosis and turn the Dutch into a relentless pressing machine. Michels altered the way the Dutch trained, placing particular emphasis on fitness, ball-work and drills that increased technical proficiency. It was a team very much modelled in the mould of Michel’s Ajax side of the 60s. At the heart of both systems lay the one underlying core principle; control space on the pitch, make it big when you have the ball and small when you do not and it becomes far more difficult for the opposition to keep it.

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Drawing sharp contrast from the fortunes of the Dutch in the World Cup are their arch nemesis; Germany. West Germany, to be specific in that era. West Germany’s World Cup history makes for more jovial reading. They revelled in the Miracle of Berne in 1954 when an imperious West German side famously ended the 36-match unbeaten run of Ferenc Puskas’ Hungary and then there was 1974, for which the Germans will eternally be straddled with the reputation as the party poopers of the Dutch express. West Germany were the reigning European champions at the time and boasted a significantly impressive squad; Beckenbauer, Vogts, Bonhof, Heynckes and the immortal Muller.

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Under the managerial leadership of Helmut Schon- who holds the record for most World Cup matches won by a coach (16)- West Germany found it tough going on their own turf. They scraped past Chile 1-0 in a tentative opener in the Olympiastadion in West Berlin but found a team ripe for a hammering in Australia in the next match. They duly obliged and thumped them 3-0 without breaking a sweat. Their next match, however, went down as one of the most iconic moments in modern football. A match permanently etched into the German national consciousness for its importance and its politics; West Germany vs East Germany. Incredibly, it was their Eastern counterparts who came out on top with a 1-0 victory courtesy of a Jurgen Sparwasser strike in the 77th minute. It was a result that the crowd in Hamburg and rocked the tournament by allowing East Germany to progress to the next round as winners of Group 1. It was an historic moment considering the history and the context, but in the specific context of that World Cup’s landscape, East Germany’s charge was to be halted whilst the West marched on with machine-like fluency and aggression. 

West Germany’s passage through the second round group phase was slightly more serene. They amassed the maximum points following defeats of Poland, Yugolasvia and Sweden. It was the 4-2 spanking of Sweden that alerted the rest of the tournament to the scary realisation that the Germans were peaking at the right time. Arguably the most surprising aspect of that match was that Muller failed to register on the score-sheet but it was irrelevant as the most important thing for Germany was that they had the whole team working in tandem. Sweden came up against a team which had been harshly criticised for not exactly setting the tournament on fire thus far and they hit back vehemently, starting with a thunderous volley from Wolfgang Overath. Bonhof, Grabowski and Hoeness added three more to add gloss to the final scoreline and it became increasingly apparent that West Germany where a team with something to prove at home. Writing them off was a foolish mistake. 

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What West Germany inflicted on Sweden mirrored the demolition enacted by the Netherlands on Bulgaria in the first group phase. A 4-1 rout, with Johan Neeskens providing two penalties before Johnny Rep and Theo De Jong confirming the Oranje superiority. It all seemed to be perfectly in place for Holland in 1974. According to David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange: the neurotic genius of Dutch football, “Holland clicked immediately the 1974 tournament began.” The excitement as to what the Dutch could achieve caused a feverish atmosphere back in Amsterdam where passionate fans watched their teams electrifying performances in technicolour on TV (the first time the World Cup was televised in the Netherlands). Their dominance in the first phase of the group stages continued into the second as they blew Argentina away with a 4-0 smashing in Gelsenkirchen. Argentine defenders were reduced to quivering wrecks by an irresistible flow of Dutch attacks inspired by the inimitable Cryuff. Four days later, they ended East Germany’s run by dispatching them 2-0 and setting up a hotly anticipated collision with the reigning World Champions Brazil in Dortmund. 

Needing only a draw to reach the final, Holland went one better and comfortably outplayed Brazil in a 2-0 win, with goals coming from once again from Neeskens and Cryuff. A performance that once again entranced the footballing world, making the World Champions of 1970 look unrecognisable and forcing them to try and foul their way to victory. It was a plan that was swept aside with ease by the Dutch as they set up a mouth-watering finale with West Germany. 

And, almost like a cruel act from the footballing gods, the final was shroud in controversy following revelations on the eve of the match that there had been a ‘naked party’ in the Wald’s Hotel swimming pool prior to the Holland-Brazil match whereby unnamed Dutch players partied with German girls. The German tabloid Bild Zeitung published the story and claimed to have photographic proof of the incident (although the pictures never appeared) and it was slammed by Michels during his pre-match press conference as a vicious and cunning act of waging psychological warfare on his team in the build-up to the biggest match in Dutch footballing history. The pool story now has attached to it a legendary status and is offered as an explanation by many Dutch people for the main reason why Holland lost the 1974 World Cup Final. The story is believed to have triggered discord in the Dutch camp and unsettled several of their key players, including Cryuff. Legend has it that Cryuff received a phone call from Danny, his wife back home in Holland, which kept him up all night before the final. Versions of this tale attribute much of the blame to Danny for causing Johan to crucially lose focus at such a critical juncture in the World Cup campaign. In addition to this, it is said that she informed Cryuff’s decision to announce his retirement from international football, leaving Holland without their talisman for the Argentina World Cup in 78′.

With the tabloid storm slowly settling, people began to realise that there was a match to be played. The match, as previously touched upon, was the conclusion of two contrasting fates. Holland had captured the imagination of millions with totaalvoetbal whilst West Germany had, with the exception of one match against Sweden, rather stuttered their way to the final in a distinctly unspectacular fashion. However, they were armed with two pieces of the most formidable footballing weaponry; Der Kaiser and Der Bomber (Beckenbauer and Muller). Muller is still considered by many to be the most devastating striker in the history of football. He certainly stands proudly in the pantheon of truly great goalscorers. He was blessed with a low centre of gravity, enabling him to bob and weave into space with perfect balance and poise and also utilised his blistering acceleration to free himself from the shackles of man-marking centre-halves. But above all else, he could score goals. His record reads as 365 in 628 for Bayern and 68 in 62 for Germany including 14 in 2 World Cups (surpassed only by Brazil’s Ronaldo).

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“I have this instinct for knowing when a defence is going to relax, when a defender will make a mistake. I have a voice inside my head that says Gerd go that way or Gerd go this way. I don’t what it is.” – Muller’s explanation for scoring with such lethal profligacy.

The final started with Holland dictating the tempo, controlling their passing much to the frustration of the Germans. That frustration boiled over after only 2 minutes as Uli Hoeness trips Cryuff in the box and English referee, Jack Taylor points to the spot. As expected, Neeskens converts the penalty with due precision, putting the Oranje in the driving seat early on. No German player had managed to touch the ball before that moment, it was the start millions of people back in Holland where dreaming about. After the goal, West Germany struggled to muster an effective response as the Dutch arrogantly stroked the ball back and forward in a sustained spell of controlled possession. They showcased plenty of technical superiority but their arrogance with ball led to no second goal. For all their possession, the Dutch didn’t create many openings. Apart from one. An absolute golden opportunity that haunts them to this very day. 24 minutes in, Cryuff breaks clear and is bearing down on a hideously exposed German defence, he slips the ball selflessly to the left, which is picked up by Johnny Rep. Rep had been in a rich vein of form throughout the tournament and was unquestionably one of the Dutch’s finest and most consistent performers but he could only manage to stab the ball straight at German keeper Stefan Maier. 

What happened next vaulted Rep’s miss into the realm of a miss of epic proportions. Holzenbein, occupying the left side of a three-pronged German attack, cuts inside towards the Dutch penalty area and is brought tumbling down by Wim Jansen, desperately trying to stop the forwards run. Jack Taylor once again points to the spot. Paul Breitner steps up. 1-1. The tide is pivotally turned. The German attacks flood in and Netherlands don’t look as though they will withstand the pressure. Then, the moment Der Bomber strikes. Like an assassin waiting in the shadows, Muller had been teetering on the periphery of proceedings for most of the first-half. He was being watched diligently by Rijsbergen and Arie Haan at the heart of the Dutch defence. But not for long. Bonhof, in a moment of typically effective wing-play, screeches past Ruud Krol down the right and drills a low cross in towards Muller. He gets his foot to the ball but the pace of the ball causes it spring backwards once his boot makes contact. For a split second, maybe Dutch blushes are spared. But it was not to be, as Muller pounced on the loose ball inside the box to hit it on the turn low and beyond a frozen Jan Jongbloed. Muller sprints towards his team-mates and leaps into the air. Jon Champion for the BBC exclaims: “Gerd Muller makes history. He is the most prolific striker in World Cup history. That is his fourteenth goal.” It doesn’t matter to Muller, however, he only cared about the match.

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It was shattering for the Dutch. A cataclysmic conclusion to the first-half. The Dutch are irate with Jack Taylor for rewarding the German a ‘soft’ penalty which allowed them to equalise. Cryuff is booked for his protests as the players descend down the tunnel for half-time.

The Dutch looked somewhat regrouped in the second half as they generated a few opportunities following some solid play. Rep once again spurns a glorious opening, only this time he is guilty of not passing the ball back to Van Hanegem, who was in a better place to score, not to mention unmarked and screaming for the ball. Rep shoots and wide and throws his hands to his head in exasperation. Then, Neeskens unleashed a ferocious volley that is somehow turned away by Maier for a Hollan corner. The Germans are defending desperately. Last-ditch. They are bombarded by an endless flood of orange but somehow manage to hold on to that slender advantage. At the final whistle, German players sink to their knees and throw their arms up in jubilation. 

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The desolation and anguish which encapsulated Dutch hearts is perfectly summed up by Bastiaan Bommeljé: “It made an immense impression on me to see grown men cry because we had lost to Germany, but then no one spoke about this game for a decade.” 

The tournament ended in utter disarray for Netherlands but that 1974 team is still universally regarded as one of the greatest. They stunned the world playing a type of football that teams couldn’t comprehend. They fought valiantly and came out second best. Michels and his players were greeted as heroes upon their arrival back at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and were greeted in a banquet at the Royal Palace by the Queen Juliana. But the grief was insurmountable. It was a footballing rivalry that had its roots deep in the history of the Second World War. It was something that, for many people, went far deeper than football. It set up what has become one of the fiercest rivalries in football today but it always seems to go back to 1974 for the two nations. Germany tricked the Netherlands. It was and always will be the Lost Final for Oranje.

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About Matt Gault

Matt is a long-term These Football Times writer and co-author of A Tale of One City, Football's Fleeting Fraternity, The Academy Way and Masterminds. He supports Manchester United but also follows the fortunes of FK Qarabag in Azerbaijan. Based in Belfast, he is interested in the relationship between politics and football and rebellious footballers. Has been featured on The Guardian, FourFourTwo, WorldSoccer.com, BBC, Daily Mail and Huffington Post. He is also the Editor of SquareEyed.tv (http://www.squareeyed.tv/), covering the world of movies, TV and culture. Follow SquareEyed on Twitter @SquareEyed_tv and like us on Facebook! Follow Matt on Twitter @MattGault11
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