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Feb 28, 2012

Wembley wowed by Total Football

A visit to Wembley is still a massive occasion, even for the much-hyped football stars we all know and love. Indeed, the Netherlands squad is looking forward to Wednesday's friendly international against Stuart Pearce's England, despite the fact they have not graced the sacred pitch since the brutal 4-1 rout during Euro '96. Only a few of the current squad have played there - while on club duty - and none of them were alive when the Dutch celebrated their one and only victory at the famous ground, although AC Milan ace Mark van Bommel missed it by just a few months.

On February 9, 1977, Netherlands went to Wembley for a friendly with both teams already struggling after the opening salvos in their respective World Cup qualifying groups. England had lost 2-0 in Italy, while a rare George Best appearance, and quite a good one at that, held the Dutch to a home draw against Northern Ireland. The Oranje needed to beat Belgium in Brussels in March to stay in contention for a place in Argentina.

Friendlies were never popular with the stars in those days. Netherlands' previous non-competitive game in Belgrade in May 1975 saw only three Dutch internationals on the pitch who had gathered more than five caps. When FC Amsterdam midfielder Heini Otto drove Jan Jongbloed to Schiphol Airport for the team flight to Yugoslavia, coach George Knobel even asked him to collect his boots and join the squad as the cancellations were still coming in. However, the famous Wembley name kept the absences to a minimum that February with seven of the 1974 World Cup stars in the starting line-up.

It was the only friendly Johan Cruyff played with the Dutch team after September 1974. If he was not injured, he usually had some game to play with Barcelona. UEFA had not yet installed a decent international calendar, nor did any Football Association have the leverage to take international players from their clubs. Barcelona had been involved in a friendly against Paris Saint-Germain the same night as the England game Netherlands were told that if they wished to select Cruyff and Neeskens for Wembley they would have to compensate the bonus that their club missed out on by not fielding the two stars in Paris. Amazingly, the Dutch FA complied and paid 90,000 guilders (around £35,000) for the pair. The prospect of watching Cruyff helped Wembley Stadium to a capacity crowd, so they may have channelled some of the benefits to Netherlands. Those who came to see him were duly delighted.

England rushed forward from the kick-off but the Dutch took over within a minute and were never troubled during the first half. The good old running Oranje offside trap was still a mystery to the English, who fell for it six or seven times in the first half. The industrious Kevin Keegan found it difficult to get into his game, partly because he was consistently tracked down by Johan Neeskens.

Early on, Stan Bowles had some promising runs on the right, where Hugo Hovenkamp (AZ '67) made his debut, but the QPR winger was unable to get a shot on target when the moment asked for it. For his part, Hovenkamp had acres of space to come forward as Bowles never bothered him.

The pivotal figure, however, was Johan Cruyff. Reviewing the match, it almost seemed as if there were two or three Cruyffs on the pitch. A striker on paper, he was everywhere but up front during the game. At one point he took the ball out of the hands of his own goalkeeper to dribble to the halfway line, while gesticulating to his team-mates where to go. When Wim Rijsbergen clumsily ran into trouble on the edge of his own box, Cruyff again arrived within a second to clear the mess. Paul Madeley wanted to hack him down from behind, but the Dutchman dribbled away as if he had just got rid of a stray plastic bag.

With Cruyff all over the place, except in the box, he left room for the midfielders to run from deep. Little Jan Peters understood best. England coach Don Revie had been well aware of the NEC midfielder and pondered in an interview with Voetbal International a month before the game: "Last year I went to Italy Under-21s versus Netherlands Under-21s in which I was mightily impressed by Jan Peters. He made me think of the young Johan Cruyff. If he keeps playing like that, he will surely be in the Dutch team."

Sure enough, Peters shone for the Dutch, as he scored twice. The first had a sniff of offside, until you watch the replay from behind the goal. Jimmy Greenhoff was watching the whole scene unfold from the comfort of the right side of the penalty box, within spitting distance of his goalkeeper. The second was almost a replica of the first with a scattering of flailing England defenders garnishing the scene.

After the brea,k the Dutch were unlucky with several decisions as their breakthroughs were stopped by some ludicrous offside calls. Not only the English, but also the linesmen, apparently could not keep up with the pace of the Dutch, while commentator Herman Kuiphof wondered at some point whether the heyday of English football was well and truly over.

The formidable 2-0 victory at Wembley never received the appreciation it deserved at home. The Dutch nation was right in the middle of a printing strike which left papers and magazines off the shelves for almost two weeks. In those days television was too serious to preview a football game, so the build-up to the kick-off was almost absent; no columns on the line-ups or features on past visits to the sacred ground. The next morning there were no headlines to bring the triumph into the shared memory of the nation. Indeed few newspapers will have this game in the archives today, which is a pity as it may have been the last big explosion of Cruyff-induced Total Football in history.

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