My obsession with the 1978 Dutch national side cannot be overstated. I don’t know why it began, but I can at least carbon date it to early May that year. I was 7-years-old when the fever took hold and from that moment forth my entry-level brain had room for only two absolutes: that the one with the husky voice from Charlie’s Angels made my snail go hard and that come June 25th, Holland (the Netherlands hadn’t been invented yet) would lift the World Cup.
There was absolutely no doubt in my mind. I mean, why wouldn’t they? They were the best team on the planet, and the best team always won. Not only that, they were an indefatigable force for truth and beauty; they played football from outer space (next to the extra-terrestrial imagination of Rinus Michels, totaalvoetbal’s one-man mission control, even NASA looked thumbless); they wore hair with the tousled abandon of a Dave Lee Roth gang-bang; and despite de facto frontman Johan Cruyff quitting international football for what many perceived as political reasons (in reality, he was reluctant to leave his family’s side after a botched kidnap attempt at his Barcelona home), the 22-man squad Michels eventually took to Argentina (wherever that was) was so over-subscribed with world-class talent the folks back home merely absorbed Cruyff’s absence with a nonchalant shrug and a hit on the bong.
Neeskens, Rep, Haan, Rensenbrink, the van de Kerkhof twins – to label the array of flair at Michels’ disposal ‘pornographic’ is to greatly flatter the bongo industry. Lion’s hair, love beads and lollipops; football so sexy I’ve actually got two boners just thinking about it. If I’d had the reference points as a boy I’d have sworn the tournament was merely foreplay to the mother of all tantric sex sessions. Christ knows how they didn’t cum all over the pitch. Sting would’ve. The lute-tweaking prick.
Anyway, despite the admirable but predictably doomed hubris of Scotland’s gobshite-in-chief Ally McCleod, as far as I was concerned, the Oranje were nailed-on dead certs. As if further evidence of their destiny were needed, the week before the tournament kicked off, in amongst the back copies of Which? and TV Times my dad kept for company, I unearthed a full-page photo of Johan Neeskens, heir to Cruyff’s vacant playmaker throne, prancing around imperiously like Thor in his PE kit. There was no way the God of Thunder could be anything other than triumphant – it was so on.
The only fond memory I have of my Granddad is the look of incredulity on his face as I, his buck-toothed Sassenach twat of a grandson, danced around the front room laughing at his nation’s dying dreams
This is normally the part where I’d scour Wikipedia and YouTube to fill in the blanks, make my powers of recollection appear more impressive than they actually are. But I owe you the truth, and the truth is I really don’t remember much about their group games at all. Initially pitched in with Peru, Scotland and Iran, the only match I clearly recall is one they didn’t even play in: Scotland’s legendary capitulation to a bunch of scrofulous Peruvian farm hands. An experience I’ll never forget for the simple reason I was fortunate enough to be visiting my grandparents north of the border at the time. The only fond memory I have of my Granddad is the look of incredulity on his face as I, his buck-toothed Sassenach twat of a grandson, danced around the front room laughing at his nation’s dying dreams. He actually punched me in the back, an act of bitter retribution I can’t help but respect him for.
Luckily, I was trundling back home to Newark in a secondary smoke-infused Ford Cortina when Ally’s Army restored some pyrrhic pride by turning my beloved lowland deities over 3-2 a week later (Holland still progressed to the second group stage on goal difference…at Scotland’s expense), so the old fart never got the chance to return the compliment – an admin error on Karma’s part that only served to fuel his already raging contempt for me.
So, those two games aside, the first round/second round preamble remains to this day a bit of a mystery to me. But the long and the short of it is Holland made it through to the final; all other details are as irrelevant to the advancement of civilisation as Flat Earth theory or the music of Gay Dad.
Miraculously, hosts Argentina made it to the final, too. And without so much as a whiff of foul play, bribery, corruption, castration, kidnapping, murder, performance enhancing amphetamine binges, doctored urine samples, cannibalism, rape, bestiality (bloody rude not to) or Herod-scale infanticide, I might add.
At the time, I had absolutely no grasp of the politics of Argentina – the subject never really cropped up much during your average game of headers and volleys. Similarly, I remained completely oblivious to the tournament-fixing bastardry of psychotic Argentine dictator General Videla. I was still perceptive enough to cast his countrymen as the baddies, though. There was just something I didn’t trust about them. And the instant it became apparent they were the last remaining obstacle between my heroes and immortality, the World Cup final was no longer a game of football. It had become a parable, good vs. evil on a biblical scale, and I was gripped by an all-consuming concern that the story play out like every great morality tale should.
After an eternity of pointless hours and days, the 25th finally rolled around. I’d never invested so much of myself in a game of football before. Nor since, in fact. According to a woman who still claims to be my mother, I was behaving oddly from the moment I woke up, pacing around the house in contorted agony like I’d been holding a wee in since birth.
My parents were so mortified by my spiritual pink-socking they came within a whisker of calling the doctor out.
Although there’d been a steady whimper leaking from my mouth all day, the crying didn’t officially start ‘til Mario Kempes, Argentina’s pharmaceutically-augmented totem, opened the scoring about 5 minutes before half-time. A wonderful goal in truth but that didn’t stop snot spuming from my nose throughout the interval. Relentless in grief, my face became such an alarming shade of blotched red it looked like a bullock’s liver had exploded inches from my chin. By the time the second half kicked off I’d cried most of the fluid from my body and was now sobbing on empty. Neat piss was all I had left in me and that would’ve come out of my tear ducts too had the flying forehead of super-sub Dick Nanninga not brought a late equaliser and a glimmer of hope.
It wasn’t to last though. Extra time was apocalyptically distressing. As loping dream-rapist Kempes stuck out a cloven hoof to scuff his Sith brotherhood into the lead once more, the crying became a morbid wail. I genuinely don’t think I’d be so demonstrably upset if I came home to find my wife and child had been spatchcocked by an escaped lunatic.
Inevitably, the additional 30 minutes took its toll on the team that wasn’t ripped to the tits on speed. Total Football had run out of puff, replaced instead by Panoramic Desperation, all long balls and defeated wheezing. Meanwhile, the Arge were busy turning the villainy up to eleven: diving, time-wasting, punching Rene van de Kerkhof in his plastercasted forearm – brazen acts of knavery that, naturally, went completely unpunished.
When Daniel Bertoni bundled through Holland’s knackered rear guard to slam in Argentina’s third I fucking lost it. Apparently I started begging my mum to intervene. I’m still not entirely sure what I was expecting her to do – hop on the next flight to Buenos Aires, make a nuisance of herself in the final third and use her legendary can opener to curl a spectacular hat-trick past Argie shot-stopper Fillol, possibly. Realistically though, with only 4 minutes left, a brace was the best I could hope for. But the bitch never even tried.
As the final whistle blew so did my last remaining gasket, a spontaneous and irreparable existential prolapse from which I’ve never truly recovered. My parents were so mortified by my spiritual pink-socking they came within a whisker of calling the doctor out. I wish they had. It was gone midnight before my soul had shoehorned enough of its arse back in for us both to get some sleep.
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