World champions just eight years earlier, England’s decline as a footballing power was dramatic. For the first time England failed to qualify for the World Cup. A casual loss to Poland in Katowice and an unnecessary draw against Wales meant that England had to beat Poland at Wembley. There was still much home belief, epitomised by Derby manager Brian Clough who before the match began described Poland’s goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski as a “clown”.

None of the home spectators could conceive of any result other than a home win. The first half of the match was totally dominated by England; yet the “clown” gave a master class in goal keeping, aided by the woodwork, which seemed to catch every strike missed by Tomaszewski. Apprehension began to creep into both the crowd and the team at the start of the second half, but surely Tomaszewski would crack? Concern gave way to alarm when Domarski scored for Poland after fifty-seven minutes. Six minutes later a dubious penalty was awarded to England which Allan Clarke converted. A frantic England launched attack after attack, Kevin Hector was brought on as a substitute, his debut for England, not that anyone noticed. But it was not be to, a header by Hector missing by inches. Later on Poland showed in the World Cup itself that they were far from a weak side, but it hardly lessened the pain for the serried ranks of England fans, England were out. This time Britain was to be represented by England’s gleeful neighbour and rival Scotland.

The absence of the Soviet Union was a consequence of international politics. A savage coup in 1973 saw General Pinochet seize power from Salvatore Allende, who was murdered. In protest the Soviets refused to play a qualifying match against Chile and withdrew from the competition.

The massacre of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics two years earlier ensured that security would be far tighter than at any previous World Cup; the age of the international terrorist, a phenomenon of television, had sadly arrived. And the West German hosts did not want a repeat.

Regrettably, planet Earth was no nearer achieving inner peace than it had been; not only was the Yom Kippur War, with it attendant explosion in the price of oil, of recent vintage (1973); but the 1973 Paris agreement between the United States and North Vietnam still had not resulted in peace in Indochina (Saigon, modern day Ho Chi Minh City, did not fall until 1975); one could add that there was strife in other parts of Asia; while the colonial wars in Africa, often fought between proxies of the two superpowers, trod their bloody path (some light appeared on the horizon when revolution broke out in Portugal in 1974, for Portugal had colonies in Africa and Asia).

Along with Poland, another rising footballing power was that of the Netherlands; the Dutch espoused a new concept, that of “Total Football” by which was meant the ability for any outfield player to play in virtually any outfield position, the specialist was to be replaced by the generalist. Such a concept of the game required many world class players, this the Dutch, uniquely, had. The fact that thirteen players were drawn from only two club sides; six from Ajax, and seven from Feijennoord; gave the Dutch team considerable cohesiveness, a great advantage when national sides would only meet up a few times in a season. In view of the great strength of the Dutch side it is almost surprising to note that they nearly didn’t make it. Their last qualifying game against Belgium was heading for a draw when the ball was put in the back of the Dutch net; had this been allowed to stand, a view endorsed by the television cameras, then the Dutch would not have qualified.

Of the old footballing powers, West Germany had added to her luminaries; whereas the retirement of Pelé was symptomatic of a steep decline in Brazil; not just in footballing skills, but disappointingly also in attitude. Italy still was in thrall to the very negative doctrine espoused by the catenaccio system.

This time there was one team from Australasia and one from Africa, with the balance from Europe and the Americas. Yet the tournament was to show, yet again, that there was a gulf in playing abilities between the Europe’s and Latin America’s finest, and the rest of the world.

There were changes, the Jules Rimet Trophy had been claimed permanently by Brazil as a result of her three triumphs, so it was replaced. Of more significance was the decision to retain the divisional system for the first round, but for the second round to also be played in divisional format, the winners of these two groups would then meet in the final. This meant that there would be an extra six games, which given the massive popularity of the games would be highly remunerative for the organisers and gratifying for the television companies with filming rights who could attract big audiences for longer. One big improvement was that the actual composition of the first round divisions was much more balanced; there was no repeat of the ludicrous situation of 1970 when the two strongest sides were in the same division.

The countries who played in this, the tenth World Cup, were:

East Germany, West Germany, Yugoslavia, Scotland, Netherlands, Sweden, Bulgaria, Poland and Italy from Europe; Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina from South America; Haiti from Central and North America; Australia from Australasia; and Zaire from Africa. A total of sixteen nations, of whom nine were European, five American, one Australasian and one African.

Before the tournament began a neutral might have concluded that the strongest group was group two, if only because it contained the reigning, and three times, world champions Brazil; additionally Yugoslavia had an excellent footballing pedigree. During the seventies the Scots were to establish a footballing ascendency over their southern neighbour England, but at the time few outside the British Isles would have appreciated a team who had only narrowly qualified at the expense of Czechoslovakia. However, in truth, there was not much difference in playing strength between the divisions.

The West German team of 1974 was far stronger than its predecessor of 1970. Not only was Beckenbauer still at the peek of his game; but Gerd Müller, who had been the top scorer in 1970, had, if anything, developed into an even more complete striker. Nicknamed “Der Bomber” (also “Der Dicker” - “the fat one” because of his suspicious weight), Müller’s talent was that of a scavenger, any defensive lapse, or loose ball, in or near the penalty area would see the diminutive striker, who had superb reflexes and a talent for anticipating opposing howlers, pounce; it would almost invariably lead to a goal. Müller had great body strength and superb jumping ability; he was difficult to dispossess and a constant menace when near the opposing goal. Born in 1945 in Zinzen in Bavaria, Müller made his debut in 1960 at the age of fifteen for TSV Nordlingen. Three years later he was to join Bayern Europe, the most successful of all German clubs in European competition. He made his debut for West Germany in 1966, and soon established himself as an essential regular. Brave and fearless, by 1974 he had a well deserved reputation as the most dangerous striker in the world.

In group two much of the responsibility for sustaining Scotland’s challenge at the expense of Brazil and Yugoslavia rested on the young shoulders of Kenny Dalglish. Born on 4 March 1951 in Glasgow, Dalglish was very much a product of the fierce sectarian rivalry that scarred that city and which was reflected in the extreme hostility and rivalry between its two leading football clubs, Celtic and Rangers. At five foot eight, Dalglish was of average height for someone from “Glesgae” of that time; his skill with the ball, tackling and passing abilities made it inevitable that he would join Celtic, which he did at the age of eighteen. Two years later he was playing for Scotland. Dalglish added a solidity to any team he played for from his most natural position in midfield, while not neglecting the black arts of the consummate goal scorer. At club level he was to win virtually everything on offer, including the European Cup on three separate occasions, after he transferred to Liverpool from Celtic in 1977. Dalglish is the third player to have scored more than one hundred goals in professional club football in both England and Scotland. At the time of Dalglish’s retirement from international football in 1986 he had amassed some one and two caps, a record, and thirty goals, which made him joint top scorer with Dennis Law.

The greatest player of the 1974 World Cup was very much a known quantity by that summer. Johan Cruyff came from a humble background from which his mother was very much determined to save him. Working as a cleaner for Ajax of Amsterdam, she constantly badgered the coaching staff of Holland’s leading club to take on the twelve year old Johan; an endeavour in which she was successful. A slight figure, particularly as a teenager, the Ajax trainers worked hard to strengthen his physique and his relatively weak left foot, this was achieved by attaching weights to his legs. Born on 25 April 1947, Cruyff made his professional debut in 1964 for Ajax; whilst Cruyff remained a player Ajax won the Dutch league several times, but what made a bigger impression overseas were the wins of the European Cup in the successive years 1971, 1972 and 1973. By 1974, Cruyff had been an international for eight years. The possessor of a ferocious shot, Cruyff seemed to score effortlessly from almost any position. Willowy and fast, Cruyff moved around the pitch in a manner designed to pull opponents out of position thereby opening up opportunities for his colleagues.

To describe Johan Neeskens as Johan Cruyff’s water-carrier would be less than just. Nonetheless, Neeskens did win an inordinate number of tackles after which he instantly passed the ball to his Ajax team-mate Cruyff. Neeskens possessed the deceptive toughness that one often associates with the wiry; brave in the tackle, he was also a lethal penalty taker and the fashioner of many a cutting pass. Neeskens’s buzzing presence meant that opponents could rarely settle into a comfortable possession. Capable of playing in any position, he was never happier than in the hurly-burly of midfield in which he proved a constant handful, forever threatening to participate in a dangerous attack, or dissolve one from the opposing team. Twenty-three years of age at the time of this World Cup, Neeskens already had two years experience as an international and the requisite seasoning that four years with Ajax brought.

If England supporters had been surprised at their country’s elimination by Poland in the qualifiers, part of the explanation was the maturing of a crop of young, highly talented, players. No-one was more talented in that squad than twenty year old Wladyslaw Zmuda, who combined the height that was essential for a world class central defender with immense stamina, colossal physical strength and a well-oiled footballing brain. Usually playing in the sweeper’s position, Zmuda’s sense of anticipation was such that it was frequently he who intercepted an opponent’s high ball or long pass before it could do any damage. Unfortunately, the last stage of his career was dogged by injury and ill-luck, as, for instance, his year long knee injury in 1983 at the start of an potentially lucrative career with Verona of Italy.

Group one had two teams who were clearly better than their rivals, the two Germanys, even though the eastern version conceded a draw to Chile. The encounter between East and West Germany was a grim defensive affair, in which West Germany enjoyed the lion’s share of possession without really looking capable of scoring. A break by Sparwasser was sufficient to settle this affair in favour of East Germany, who therefore topped this group and ensured that their compatriots, were they to win the competition, would not do so undefeated.

The mismatch in playing strengths in Group two between the stronger European and Latin American sides on the one hand, and the representatives of Africa on the other; made it easy for the managers of the three former teams to adopt a simple and safe approach to qualification; smash Zaire and avoid losing any other games. Unfortunately for Scotland, the urgency required in crushing Zaire was wholly absent, for it was their opening game; and their first since the World Cup of 1958. The two-nil win, though it may have appeared adequate to the players on the pitch at the time; was exposed as woeful when the Yugoslavs, who met Zaire for their second game, promptly equalled the record set by Hungary twenty years earlier. This nine-nil demolition meant that Scotland had a mountain to climb, for Brazil had drawn both their games against Yugoslavia and Scotland. The Brazil that turned up in 1974 was a completely different animal from their 1970 and earlier forbears; it was not just that the cast of players was different, but the whole ethos, which was now highly negative and defensive, was the polar opposite of what everyone expected from the Latin American giants. In the event Brazil fairly easily disposed of Zaire three-nil. Whereas Scotland had to come from behind to scrape a draw against a well drilled Yugoslavia.

A determined and organised Sweden prevented a whitewash by the Netherlands in Group three. Yet it could not hide the reality of an easy victory for the Dutch, who only conceded one goal as the result of carelessness.

Superficially Group four resembled Group two in that one of the sides, Haiti, was far weaker than the other three. However, any notion of a similar result was sent packing by Poland in their opening encounter when they surprised some pundits by beating Argentina. It looked as if both American sides in this group would be packing their bags. By game two Poland, who destroyed Haiti, had already qualified for the next phase. This meant that Poland would have some control over who went through with them by varying the strength of their team against Italy; yet losing to Italy would mean a game against the Netherlands in round two. Poland beat Italy, whilst Argentina comfortably disposed of Haiti. The previous World Cup’s finalists, Italy, were on their way home.

By now it looked to most commentators that the best teams were the Netherlands and West Germany. Thus it was a good thing that they were kept apart. The biggest disappointment so far was Brazil, and the most promising dark horses appeared to be Poland.

The Dutch signalled their intent in Group A with an emphatic four-nil exposure of Argentina’s shortcomings, Cruyff, in particular, who scored two of the goals, underlined his credentials as a world class player. Brazil hardly impressed with their narrow one-nil win over the German Democratic Republic. Brazil showed some spark in their next encounter with neighbours Argentina, whilst the Dutch comfortably disposed of East Germany. This beautifully set up the last games of the round, for Brazil, who had been so negative throughout the tournament, would have to beat the Netherlands. One would have thought that Brazil would remember the shameful way that they, and Pelé in particular, had been kicked out of the 1966 tournament. If they did, it was to draw the wrong lesson; as for virtually the entire match it was not clear whether the Brazilians wished to kick the ball, or Johan Cruyff; although when they did chose to play the ball, they did display some of the skills for which they were famed. In the circumstances, Brazil could be said to have been lucky that only one player, Pereira, was sent off, for a vicious foul on Neeskens, who had to be substituted. As for the result, the two-nil Dutch win showed the folly of the attitude of the Brazilian players; although in truth, had they played with greater respect for the laws of football, they would probably still have been beaten. Notwithstanding the kicking that he was subjected to, Johan Cruyff still managed to score one golden goal, that perfectly illustrated the innate timing and team work of the Dutch. Already leading one-nil, the Dutch player Krol, who was on the half way line on the left hand side looked up and saw the chance to lob the ball over the heads of some of the Brazilian players to Rensenbrink, who was further up on the left. While Rensenbrink trapped the ball with his chest and sought to control it, Krol sprinted upfield leaving the Brazilians trailing in his wake, Rensenbrink now returned the ball to Krol who immediately passed it to Cruyff who had raced into the penalty area supported by Rep; Cruyff stretched his right leg forward to volley home, spectacularly leaving the Brazilian goalkeeper Leao stranded in the centre of his goal. The game was effectively over.

Despite the superficial similarity in the wins amassed by the top two teams in Group B when compared to Group A, the reality was that Group B was a far more open contest that could easily have gone the other way. The opening game between the less fancied sides, was a cagey affair with the Swedes missing an excellent chance after just over quarter of an hour had passed. As in the qualifiers against England Poland’s goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski’s form was inspired, and what he missed, invariably found the woodwork. Then with three minutes to go to half time Lato of Poland picked up the ball just outside the penalty area, he quickly passed the ball diagonally up to his left to Gadocha who had sprinted forward, Gadocha’s first touch was a flighted ball into the area, which was met by a late charge from Szarmach near the far side of the goal, Szarmach headed the ball down into the path of the onrushing Lato, who smashed the ball home. Come what may, for the remainder of the match Sweden proved unable to equalise, as Tomaszewski made save after save. Poland had a degree of luck when, twenty-five minutes into the second half, a penalty appeal from Sweden was turned down. But the day was Poland’s and the recorded result was one-nil to Poland.

That the narrowness of Poland’s win over Sweden was no accident was shown when the hosts West Germany took on Sweden themselves in the second game of the round for both sides. There had been rumours of differences between the West German manager Helmut Schön and team captain Franz Beckenbauer. One change the West Germans did make was to restore Rainer Bonhof to the side, which added defensive solidity to the team and helped the hosts retain possession better overall. However, there are two teams in a match and it was the Scandinavians, smarting from their defeat at the hands of Poland, who came off the starting blocks with an attempt to overwhelm their opponents. For ten minutes the Germans hardly touched the ball and were pressed back; Sandberg, the fastest man in the competition, made life a living hell for the German defenders; which helped create the opening goal for his colleague Edström at the end of this period. West Germany started to fight back, but hardly made much progress. The half ended with Scandinavia’s biggest country holding on to an amply merited lead. Whatever Schön said to his players during the half time interval had the desired effect as a different more grimly determined West Germany took to the field at the start of the second half. The ground soon started to roar as after five minutes play West Germany were level, courtesy of a goal from Overath rapidly followed by a second from Bonhof. Sweden, rather undeservedly, were now two-one down. Nonetheless, they were able to shake off whatever disappointment they felt and started to press again. With two minutes Roland Sandberg scored, which was nothing less than he deserved given his sterling contribution throughout the game and the nightmare threat, to West Germany, that his speedy legs presented for pretty well the entire game. The score stood at two-two, with anything, apparently possible; for just over ten minutes Schön let the battle continue, but he had discerned a weakness in Sweden, the Swedes had been performing like Trojans; however, all this hard work and perseverance had come at a price, they were tired. This was the psychological moment for the decisive strike, and Schön was not found lacking; with twenty-five minutes left, he brought on Jürgen Grabowski, who would play on the right wing. For more than ten minutes Grabowski’s running stretched the Swedes until, eventually, they cracked, Grabowski himself scoring in the seventy-ninth minute. This was the end, Sweden not being able to find a response. A view that found expression in a last minute penalty, awarded for a foul on Müller. West Germany had triumphed because of superior stamina and tactical awareness on the part of their manager. Yet it must be recorded that the margin of victory was a flattering one.

Thus the last match of Group B between West Germany and Poland was effectively a semi-final, except that Poland had to win. In some ways it was a counter climax as the rain converted the football pitch into a sodden morass. This almost certainly favoured West Germany, as they were most definitely a team of never-say-die battlers, albeit a highly skilful one. It would, however, be speculative to guess what would have happened had it not rained, and rather churlish to deny that the hosts were worthy finalists. Poland would gain a measure of consolation by winning the third place play-off against Brazil. But for the Germans there would be the challenge of taking on the best team of the competition: the Netherlands.

The two teams that took the field on 7 July 1974 in front of a crowd of over seventy thousand were perhaps the best ambassadors for total football in the world at that time. Bonhof retained his position in the West German team, a decision of Schön’s that was to be fully vindicated. Initially it looked as if the home crowd were going to witness the humiliation of their favourites, for the Dutch toyed with their opponents in the opening minute, not allowing them a touch. This opening minute was brought to an end by Johan Cruyff who swept forward from the halfway line straight for the West German goal; he looked destined to score which was why he was brought down by Uli Hoeness in the penalty area. Neeskens easily converted the penalty that was awarded by the referee, Jack Taylor of England. It appeared that the West German plan of assigning Bertie Vogts to mark Cruyff out of the game had failed catastrophically. Yet the Dutch forgot that the only way to deal with a wounded animal is to put it down; instead of pressing forward and attacking; they used their great skills in passing the ball to retain possession. This lack of threat to the West German goal enabled Vogts to recover his poise and start shadowing Cruyff much more effectively, the Dutch dominance, which had been pronounced in the opening twenty minutes, began to lesson. Arrogance and overconfidence would cost the Dutch dear, for a clumsy challenge by Gerd Müller sent Rijsbergen crashing to the ground; which caused the Dutch to instantly protest, Van Hanagem being sufficiently vociferous that it was he who found his name being booked. While the Dutch quarrelled, the Germans played, Hölzenbein stormed down the left wing with the ball and started to home in on the Dutch goal. He was brought down by Jansen. Thus the second penalty of the match was awarded, and Paul Breitner made no mistake. The Dutch had needlessly thrown away the lead. Disaster then followed for the Netherlanders, Neeskens who so often had tackled decisively to turn the tide in the past, mistimed a tackle on Hölzenbein with two minutes to go to half-time. Bonhof quickly took the free kick, his pass to Müller was a fraction out, but this did not stop this classic poacher from controlling the ball and then sending it past Jongbloed, who had seen the danger too late. The Dutch were behind.

It is often fatal to be a goal down to a team who are, by common consent, weaker than their opponents. And the 1974 World Cup final remained true to this tradition. Sepp Maier was stupendous in goal for West Germany as the Dutch launched wave after wave of attacks in the second half. Luck deserted the Dutch too, as every time the goal appeared to be at their mercy, and nothing looked easier than scoring, they contrived to miss, this happened to Rep twice. All the while Vogts shadowed Cruyff and prevented the danger man from scoring. Thus just like their forbears in 1954, the West Germans on the World Cup at the expense of a more technically proficient and potent footballing side.

© 2006 World Cup Years Ltd.