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Van Hanegem a reminder of better days

As 2007 comes to an end it is a tough job to do a retrospective on Dutch football and not tumble into a story of doom and gloom.

Apart from victory in the European Championships for the U-21's there are few positive comments to be made.

As the national team stumbled into a 'Group of Death' at Euro 2008, club football returned to the level of the early eighties when only one or two teams would survive the early rounds of European football. I could mutter, whinge and whine for several paragraphs about the sorry state of our game and the incompetence of the players, coaches and officials, but I won't as last week the biography of Willem van Hanegem was published.

A monumental tome of no less than 530 pages, describing the glorious era of Feyenoord's scheming, short-sighted and chainsmoking midfielder. I'd much rather concentrate on this enigmatic maverick.

According to legendary English soccer hack Brian Glanville, Van Hanegem performed better than Johan Cruyff at the World Cup in 1974. Glanville was taken in by the mixture of power and subtlety that Van Hanegem possessed. He could win the ball with a murderous tackle, still allowed in seventies' football, then continue with a pass as delicate as any Dennis Bergkamp could produce years later.

Although his nickname 'De Kromme' was a referance to the curved posture of his youth, it would stick with him during his career as a tribute to his passes and crosses; just look at the delicate chip to Rob Rensenbrink before the second goal in the game against Uruguay at the World Cup 1974. He was also a great header of the ball and could perfectly read a game. He had to, as his running was below par, so he learned to already be on the right spot rather than have to get there.

How times have changed. When Van Hanegem joined his first football club he was as old as Cesc Fabregas when the Spaniard made his professional debut for Arsenal.

At 16, he was still playing football in the streets of his hometown Utrecht and had never featured in an official match. In the summer of 1960 Van Hanegem was working as labourer while watching the semi-professionals of Velox prepare for the new season in his spare time.

Head coach Daan van Beek spotted Van Hanegem's delicate shooting when he returned the misdirected balls from the parking lot during the training of a keeper.

'Hey, lad, do you play for any club?', the trainer asked and, within two years, De Kromme had made his Dutch first division debut in a draw against Roda JC.

For the next four years experts wondered whether such a slow player could make it at a higher level, before promoted Xerxes of Rotterdam made an offer.

In 1966 Van Hanegem made his debut in the Eredivisie. The next season saw Van Hanegem came second in the top scorers list and make his international debut for the national team against Scotland as a striker. Several clubs were now interested, even Ajax, but eventually they backed down as coach Rinus Michels did not think enough of Van Hanegem, believing him to be too slow.

Van Hanegem had been keen to go to Amsterdam, but was happy to settle for Feyenoord. In his first year they won the double and in the second, 1969/70, Van Hanegem would make his name in Europe with superb performances against European Cup holders AC Milan and consequently in the final, where Celtic were beaten in Milan.

He became a master in taking the tempo out of the game while in possession, and then turning the heat on again with an incisive pass. His lack of pace barely mattered as he was always available to receive the ball and would never do anything without purpose.

His extreme determination to win had a dark side as well. He may well have been the inventor of the professional foul and, in 1972, was the first Dutch player to receive a yellow card. This came as a surprise to no-one. In qualifying for the World Cup in 1974, Holland played a crucial game in Antwerp against Belgium.

While creative primadonnas Piet Keizer and Johan Cruyff performed below par and chickened out of the battle, Van Hanegem and fellow midfielder Johan Neeskens understood that a fine dribble or a delicate pass would not win them the match that night. They turned the game into a midfield dogfight full of fouls, showing that winning could also be ugly. Although the result was a draw, it was enough for the visitors.

The Dutch press afterwards condemned both 'thugs' for their hard play, instead of thanking them for the necessary point. While Neeskens felt stabbed in the back and refused to talk to the media for some years, Van Hanegem just shrugged his shoulders, understanding that it can be difficult for outsiders to grasp what it takes to get the desired result from big games.

That famous 1974 semi-final against Brazil in Dortmund at the World Cup was another showcase of the brutal side of the Dutch team. While they could play spectacular attacking football, they were well versed in ruthless fouls too.

The central defence of Feyenoord's heyday, Rinus Israel and Theo Laseroms, were notorious for intimidating strikers. And with Van Hanegem just a few paces in front of them, this must have been a Bermuda Triangle for nippy forwards in the early Seventies.

After 789 official games and 208 goals, Van Hanegem quit as a player in 1983. Except for a single season at Chicago Sting he never played for a club abroad. He is an old-fashioned family man who has no need for adventure. Nor is he very keen on flying, which might have been one of the reasons to skip the World Cup in Argentina. Another was his fear of spending time on the bench at the national team there.

As a coach he had mixed success. At Feyenoord he won the Dutch title, but within a season the team exploded from internal quarrels which he could not contain. At present he coaches FC Utrecht, but their results and game are unspectacular.

Off the pitch he is a friendly, straight-forward and sometimes naïve person, who can be somewhat stubborn too. He remains refreshingly authentic amid the slick new world of football. One snapshot from a television show was very typical for him. He was coaching a group of seven year olds who faced a team that had Louis van Gaal as their trainer.

While Van Gaal was giving instructions about positioning, running and passing, Van Hanegem was telling one small boy that he should run around more. Then he would not feel the cold so much and De Kromme continued by wiping the boy's nose with his sleeve in a fatherly manner.

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