West Germany 1974. Summer time. The FIFA World Cup. It was a time of change, of things being stood on their heads.

Firstly, the supposedly mighty England didn’t even make it to the party; the Wembley heroics of Poland’s Jan Tomaszewski ramming Brian Clough’s crudely expressed opinions of his goalkeeping skills firmly back down his throat. Then there was Brazil – the undoubted, undisputed kings of the game; everyone’s favourites. But their Seleção on this occasion was different, not the expressive, intricate, bewitching team of yore. Pele had finally said his goodbyes to the canary yellow jersey after the glorious triumph of 1970, and with him went the philosophy of jogo bonita.

With the world’s blessing, Brazil had waltzed off with the old Jules Rimet trophy for all time. However, they returned to Europe with a very different group of players to defend the title of World Champions – and collect Silvio Gazzaniga’s golden replacement – with a decidedly ‘un-Brazilian’ attitude of cynicism and rigidity.

The West Germans, well, they were the Germans; strong, athletic, supremely confident to the point of arrogance and, let’s not forget, furnished with a superb squad built around the powerhouses of Bayern Munich and Borussia Mönchengladbach. The reigning European champions also had the significant advantage of playing the tournament on home soil. Any suitors to the crown knew they would have to clear the sizeable obstacle the West Germans would pose at some point on the path to ultimate victory, but there was one nation who had both the players and the supreme, unwavering belief in its own ability to vanquish not only the hosts but perhaps even the Gods themselves – Holland.

There were some gatecrashers to this gathering of football’s ‘usual suspects’ – Haiti, Zaire and Australia – yet the most anomalous participants in many ways were the Dutch. This was just their third appearance at the FIFA World Cup and their first since 1938 when the competition was still very much in its infancy. International pedigree? Not a bit of it. The Netherlands were the brash but exciting new kids on the block. So where had they come from? Who were these outlandish revolutionaries playing by their own rules of ‘totaal voetbal’?

The 1974 World Cup was the culmination of a decade-long cycle, one conceived on the training grounds of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. It spawned two great sides, both of whom were the cream of the continent’s clubs in the early 1970s; Feyenoord (1970) and Ajax (1971, 1972 and 1973) squirrelled the European Cup away in Holland having spent the preceding years perfecting the light-year leap ahead of everyone else. Total football’s most celebrated architect was the Dutch national manager Rinus Michels; a general, a professor and an innovator. Having been indoctrinated to this fluid concept of play by Englishman Jack Reynolds during his own playing days, he imparted that wisdom – refined with the threads of his own personality – to his Ajax players in the mid to late 60s. By the time he vacated that role to the Hungarian Stefan Kovacs, everybody knew about Ajax, Holland and this group of shaggy-haired artisans from the culturally liberal capital of Europe.

If Michels was the brains behind the movement then the players were the living embodiment. They were football’s Beatles, and no one represented totaal voetbal better than Johan Cruyff. Blessed with incredible skill, speed, technique, vision, an eye for goal and cast iron will to win, Cruyff appeared more wispy and wafe-like than he actually he was. Seamlessly, he assumed the superstar mantle wantonly discarded by George Best; he had the same popstar haircut, the medallion and the commercial appeal, yet despite his singular brilliance he was the perfect paradox – the ultimate individual with supreme commitment to the collective goal. But to talk about the Dutch side of 1974 and make mention only of Cruyff would, of course, be remiss; the supporting cast had become household names themselves thanks to the impact of the Dutch clubs during the previous few years. Most notably there were the Ajax contingent – former club mates of Cruyff who had moved on to Barcelona – Arie Haan, Ruud Krol, Johnny Rep and Johan Neeskens and from Feyenoord Willem van Hanegem, Wim Jansen and Wim Rijsbergen. Throw Rob Rensenbrink in there and you have quite the line-up. Unusually, Holland were assigned squad numbers according to alphabetical order of surname (apart from captain Cruyff who wore his favoured number 14) but the numbers – and their allotted positions in the team – were purely nominal. This interchangeability of roles and responsibilities formed the very foundation of total football and what was so alien to almost anything that came before it. For all it may have been the thing that defined them, any system is nothing without the necessary calibre of player to be assimilated into it, and it is that combination of great foresight, meticulous planning and development, and sheer luck that brought that revered Oranje generation to pass.

They progressed serenely through the competition, peaking nicely in the second group phase; the last match in Dortmund against (and also unbeaten) Brazil was effectively the semi-final. Grunt-for-grunt, shove-for-shove, the Dutch matched their South American opposition for grit and determination until, eventually, their inherent flair trumped the regressive title holders.

The finale in Munich was meant to be the day of their coronation; the official confirmation of Holland’s, Michels’ and Cruyff’s status as the leaders in their respective fields. Indeed, it was at the ’74 finals that the talismanic number 14 treated the world to his now-eponymous party piece – the turn which so befuddled Jan Olsson that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Swede wandering confused around the Westfalenstadion still searching for the perpetrator. Perhaps that overconfidence crept into the approach in their preparations for the game with West Germany. These Dutch demi-deities, from a nation of people rarely short of self-belief, had swaggered around the country throughout the competition and were now wrapped up in their own sense of destiny; they were there to educate the world on how the game should be played and perhaps, to some extent, right the wrongs of the German occupation of the Netherlands during the war – something the parents of the entire squad would have endured, the majority of whom gave birth to their footballing offspring in the immediate post-war years.

Within just a minute of the kick-off, and without the Germans having had the merest sniff of the ball, Holland had woven their intricate pass-and-move patterns allowing Cruyff to dash into the penalty area where he was felled by Uli Hoeness; the penalty awarded by referee Jack Taylor of Wolverhampton, the first to be given in a World Cup final. The impressively-sideburned Neeskens strode forward and, amidst a dense cloud of whitewash, hammered the ball into the centre of the goal to give the Dutch an early advantage. Interestingly, as the ball rebounded out of the net, the Ajax striker proceeded to drill it home again, as if to emphasise the cocksure attitude that they were not only going to beat West Germany, but humiliate them in front of their own adoring public. This would be revenge exacted with ice cold sentiment. Except, it didn’t transpire quite like that.

Holland began to showboat, well before the fat lady had even begun to go through her vocal warm-up exercises, and in turn, West Germany found their feet. Bernd Hölzenbein flung himself over the carelessly dangled leg of Jansen to earn a spot kick which Paul Breitner expertly dispatched and then, confounding the Dutch and the neutrals alike, goal-poacher extraordinaire Gerd Müller did what he did best to give the hosts a 2-1 half time lead. The second half saw Michels’ side continue to press in desperate search for the equaliser; chances came and went and as Total Football turned into all-out-attack, they left themselves vulnerable to the counter. It remained 2-1.

The Germans have never really been cast as the bad guys in this story for good reason; they were a bloody good team packed full of excellent players. Perhaps the real villains of the piece were Cruyff, Rep, Neeskens and the rest. Their own individual and collective ability fooled them into a false sense of security, and when push came to shove, they were outmanoeuvred by a side of equal quality but with far more reserves of pragmatism.

Despite their falling at the final hurdle when greatness beckoned, the Dutch were welcomed home with great relish by their adoring public. This brush with immortality should have been a springboard to better things; it turned out to be as good as it got for this group.

Michels relinquished his post to return to his day job with Barcelona. In European club competition, the Dutch clubs were surpassed by first the Germans and then the English, while on the international stage the gradual decline had already started.

Setting a recurring theme for future generations of Holland’s national team, rumours of egos running amok and disruptive factionalism were rife. At the 1976 European Championships – after a tricky qualifying campaign had seen them squeeze past Italy and the impressive Poles – they faced Czechoslovakia in the semi-finals. This would be the great Cruyff’s last tournament hurrah for Holland who were now coached by George Knobel. In an exciting, if controversial encounter in Zagreb on a gluey, rain-sodden pitch, the Czechs overcame Holland after extra time, robbing Cruyff and chums of the opportunity of another tussle with the Germans in a major final. The Dutch method of self-sabotage this time came in the form of their ill-discipline; Neeskens (and a Czech opponent) was sent off for a vicious hack on Zdenek Nehoda and then, when the perceived injustice of referee Clive Thomas failing to give a free kick for an apparent foul on Cruyff six minutes before the end of extra time resulted in the Czechs breaking up the other end and pinching a lead, Wim van Hanegem saw the red mist descend and the red card brandished for dissent.

By the time the 1978 World Cup in Argentina came around, Cruyff had retired from international football; his family had been the subject of a failed kidnap attempt in Barcelona a year earlier leaving the great man fearful of a repeat. They soon packed off and headed to the New World for a spell in the NASL leaving an open wound in Holland’s chances of redemption for 1974. Many of the remainder – barring Rep, Rijsbergen, the van de Kerkhof twins and Neeskens (all 26) – were nearing or had passed their 30th birthdays with their best days likely behind them. They qualified with ease, yet somehow, that bewitching orange lustre was missing, especially once they got down to Argentina.

Despite that famous defeat to Archie Gemmill and Scotland in the group stage, ironically it was the Scots’ failure to live up to their own hype by losing to Peru and drawing with Iran that enabled the Dutch to lurch unimpressively into the second phase where Rensenbrink’s goals helped fill the obvious Cruyff-shaped void. Eliminating the Germans at that juncture proved somewhat of a pyrrhic victory; the squad were unable to go to the well one last time for the final in Buenos Aires – once again they found the competition’s hosts stood squarely in their way.

It was a bad tempered, controversial match in River Plate’s El Monumental Stadium with savage, cynical, scything tackles the order of the day; the Dutch were riled by what they saw as delaying tactics and excessive gamesmanship by Argentina, and this time, plenty more neutrals were rooting for Holland’s opponents than did in 1974, possibly due to the exuberance and colour of the rivers of ticker tape that decorated stadia during the championships.

Dick Nanninga’s late equaliser took the game into extra time where, as the ultimate prize was within their grasp once more, Holland’s faults were ruthlessly exposed as Argentina scored twice – Mario Kempes’ double in the final not only robbing Rensenbrink of the title of top scorer, but possibly the Player of the Tournament award too. The acrimony of the previous 120 minutes extended beyond the final shrill of referee Sergio Ganella’s whistle – the petulant Dutch declined to take part in the post-match presentation ceremonies. As the festivities began for Argentina, 1978 was the death of the party for Holland’s fluid trendsetters of that carefree disco decade.

Italy played host to the Euros of 1980 and, for the fourth major tournament in a row, the Dutch would be in attendance; once again they qualified at the expense of a very competent Polish side, but by the time the finals came around, the squad had already evolved. Cruyff, Michels and their influence had long since dissipated and several members of the old guard were also left at home, time called on their international service. Rep, the van de Kerkhofs, Haan and Krol were still there but Jansen, Jongbloed, Rijsbergen, Neeskens and Suurbier had been supplanted by new faces – Johnny Metgod, Hans van Breukelen, Frans Thijssen and Huub Stevens to name just a few. Jan Zwartkruis took charge for the second time, having also led them between the two previous World Cups.

A narrow win over Greece opened the group stage fixtures but it would be meetings with old ‘friends’ that illustrated all-too-well the frailty of Holland’s big game mentality and the failings of the squad’s newcomers. West Germany – and more specifically hat-trick man Klaus Allofs – did for them in a 3-2 defeat and then, needing a win against holders Czechoslovakia to have any chance of making it directly to the final, could only manage a draw, meaning they were eliminated in third place. In reality, they weren’t the fancies of previous years given the apparent thinning of the talent pool they had to choose from and the strength of opposition they were drawn to face. Even considering these alterations to the established norm of the 70s, surely nobody could have predicted that it would be another eight years until the Oranje were sighted at a major tournament again but that’s exactly what transpired. Such was the turnover of players in the interim, just one member of that squad would survive that eight-year hiatus.

In the immediate aftermath of that 1980 disappointment, Zwartkruis (and latterly Kees Rijvers from 1981-84) set about the rebuilding process. In 1980-81 Holland used a mammoth 37 players and then 32 the following season as they tried – and failed – to qualify for Spain’s 1982 World Cup where Brazil took back the reputation as the game’s great entertainers (and the unwanted tag as the best team never to have won the thing). But if that scattergun selection policy smacked of desperation, then the likelihood was that eventually some long term prospects would be identified as having the necessary faculties to elevate the Netherlands back towards the pinnacle of international football.

It wasn’t just the national team that were experiencing a relative slump; after the glories of Ajax and Feyenoord in the early 70s, these clubs’ successes in the European arena also dried up (except for PSV Eindhoven’s UEFA Cup win under Rijvers in 1978). However, during this lull the Dutch giants began nurturing worthy candidates.

1981-82 in particular was a year of discovery; Hans van Breukelen – who had already tasted life with Holland at the Euros in 1980 and had plenty of appearances under his belt with Utrecht (he moved to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in 1982) – made the goalkeeping spot his own. Stylish English-based midfielder Arnold Muhren, the Ajax trio of Wim Kieft, Gerald Vanenburg and Frank Rijkaard, and a strapping maverick by the name of Ruud Gullit all made either their international debuts or breakthroughs during this transitional period, yet it would still take several years before this wheat was successfully separated from the surplus chaff. For every Rijkaard there was a Peter Boeve, for every Vanenburg there was a Michel Valke, for every Gullit there was a Jurrie Koolhof – worthy inclusions without the extra ability to propel Holland to a major championship.

Euro ‘84 in France also passed them by; despite a qualifying record of 6 wins, 1 draw and 1 defeat, and exactly the same goal difference as group winners Spain (eventual runners-up), they were given the summer off courtesy of two fewer goals scored. Yet again it was the big occasion that proved to be Holland’s Achilles heel – the 1-0 loss to Spain in Seville the difference between the two in the final reckoning.

Although the Dutch would have been sitting at home in the summer of 1984 with their feet up watching the elegant French side and Michel Platini illuminating the competition in a similar manner to Holland ’74 and Johan Cruyff (except, ultimately, with something to show for it), the future was looking bright. Even more young talent emerged from the Eredivisie to proliferate the national team; Jan Wouters, Ronald and Erwin Koeman, Danny Blind and a tall, elegant goal machine from Ajax by the name of Marco van Basten.

Cruyff’s return to Dutch football – after a short spell in Spain with Levante had given him a way out of the USA – coincided with this blossoming. Firstly at Ajax and then at Feyenoord, his influence seemed to give both clubs, and Dutch football as a whole, the shot in the arm it needed. The big three in Holland waged something of an arms race during the rest of the decade, thus spurring each other on to greater standards.

Two things happened in 1985-86 that would prove pivotal. Cruyff took on his maiden coaching role back at his spiritual home in Amsterdam, succeeding Aad de Mos. His hero status and obvious charisma was an inspiration to the Ajax squad and van Basten in particular. But perhaps more tellingly, Rinus Michels was coaxed back by the KNVB to manage the national team for a third (of four) spell in the wake of non-qualification for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. He continued the development, adding Sonny Silooy, Adrie van Tiggelen, Johnny van’t Schip, Aron Winter and Rob Witschge to the ranks as Holland continually shuffled their pack with the European Championships of 1988 in mind.

The sheer number of players used during the early-to-mid 80s was a double-edged sword; it gave successive national managers the opportunity to find the right candidates and the right blend for the team to achieve the goals they undoubtedly thought themselves capable of, yet prevented a smaller, tight-knit unit to become cohesive. Michels had to narrow that field down before the Euros and settle on a philosophy. Total football was an experiment that, ultimately, failed – however gloriously and however narrowly. But Michels had learned from that slap in the face from the Germans in 1974; there would be more pragmatism and responsibility shown by his defensive unit, and he had great trust that his creative players were of high enough calibre to win games without having to rely on something so intricate – and flawed – as total football.

The resurgence in fortunes for club and country was simultaneous; no doubt the two were inextricably linked. In the Euro ’88 qualifiers Holland were sublime, romping away with their group – scoring 15 and conceding just once in their eight games as the final selection picture became less foggy. This is when van Basten, Gullit, Ronald Koeman, Vanenburg, Wouters and Johnny Bosman came to the fore; their stock in the game on a sharp incline. However, one incident almost jeopardised their participation in West Germany – the scene of their jarring defeat 14 years earlier.

In Rotterdam’s De Kuip on October 28th 1987, crowd violence marred the game with Cyprus; a bomb hurled by a Dutch fan hit the Cypriot keeper in only the third minute of the game. He went off injured and Holland subsequently won 8-0. UEFA overturned the result, awarding Cyprus a 3-0 victory but the Dutch successfully appealed and in the replayed game – behind closed doors at the De Meer Stadium in Amsterdam – they ran out easy winners, not only securing a place at the summer’s gathering of European football heavyweights, but announcing themselves as genuine contenders for the Henri Delaunay trophy.

By now their reputation was spreading like wild fire – and this was in the days before the internet and global media saturation. This was highlighted in a friendly with supposed fellow contenders England at Wembley in March 1988. Almost 75,000 showed up that night on the strength of the rumour about the qualities of these new Dutch masters. They weren’t to be let down. Holland, marshalled by the imperious force of European Footballer of the Year Gullit, somehow contrived to let England ‘escape’ with a 2-2 draw after having probed, passed and pulled them into virtual submission with a performance that left the often-scathingly xenophobic English media salivating.

Gullit, to be frank, was a freak. Just as dangerous to the opposition when playing at sweeper as he was in either a midfield or attacking role, combined facets we take for granted in the present day obsession with the complete, all-around footballer; as strong as a plough ox, searing pace, aerially dominant and with a touch, balance and vision very few have been blessed with either before or since. His and his country’s performance that night struck a chord with the English public who were jolted out of their cosy sense of superiority.

On the club scene, PSV Eindhoven were excelling – European Cup winners in 1988 – furnishing Holland with a large portion of its most key elements while Ajax – the other main contributor – had won the European Cup Winners’ Cup the year before with a team largely forged in its famed academy. As ever, the brightest stars of the Eredivisie were ripe for the picking; money talks and both of those clubs began cashing in. AC Milan spirited van Basten and Gullit away to join Rijkaard (who had walked out of Ajax after a spat with Cruyff), while Ronald Koeman later joined Cruyff at Barcelona.

Holland wouldn’t be Holland without a little hiccup or two on the journey and that’s exactly what happened. They surprisingly lost a warm-up friendly with Bulgaria just weeks before the tournament and arrived in West Germany with their spearhead at sub-optimal fitness; van Basten’s first year in Italy had been plagued by a recurrent ankle injury (the one that would tragically cut his golden career short aged just 29 in 1993) forcing him to be benched for the opener with the USSR.

The Soviets pricked the Dutch balloon, winning 1-0 by way of Vasili Rats’ stunning low shot, but not enough to completely deflate them. Next up were the English, the side they had run rings around but let off the hook a few months earlier. It was a must-win game for both, as England had also surprisingly been turned over by Jack Charlton’s Ireland in their first match. Michels rolled the dice and started with the half-fit van Basten up front – it was a gamble that paid off handsomely as the explosive front man weaved and floated around England’s static back line, puncturing their defences thrice fold. It was a total football, total annihilation of Bobby Robson’s side with Gullit assuming the role of puppet master, conducting the tempo of the game to suit himself, besting England’s equivalent – Bryan Robson – in the process.

Granted, Holland did require some luck on their way to the final; Kieft’s winning goal required Shane Warne-like side spin to help it squirt past Irish custodian Packie Bonner while in an intensely spikey, hateful semi-final in Hamburg with the Germans (again…the two seemingly occupy similar paths of fate), the Dutch were fortunate to retain all eleven players on the pitch as they repeatedly ran the gauntlet to harass, shove, pinch, nip and kick their opponents into submission. They were also handed a reprieve with a soft penalty decision, allowing Ronald Koeman to cancel out Lothar Matthaus’ earlier spot-kick. It was fitting, however, that van Basten was the man to rise above the blatant cynicism with his beautifully taken goal on the stroke of full time. Publically, the Dutch made little of scuppering of the hosts chances of winning the European crown in front of their own fans, but the spiteful nature of the game and the history between the two – both in and away from sporting theatres – showed that it meant an awful lot to bury the knife into their hearts.

That win alone didn’t exorcise the ghosts of the 1970s; the Soviets, who upset them just a couple of weeks before, awaited in the final in Munich’s iconic Olympic Stadium – where Michels, Cruyff and total football had their pants pulled down in 1974. This was a stronger, more resolute Holland, though, battle-hardened with a rigid spine to complement their flexible artistic tendencies.

On that day, June 25th 1988, there would be no let down, no sign of previous insecurities manifesting themselves. The final, while not quite one-sided, was won by the Dutch, the rightful victors, and to top it off was garnished by one of the greatest goals of that, or any other era – Muhren’s long, looping cross was met by man-of-the-moment van Basten on the right hand side of the Soviet penalty area and, as if choreographed by the protagonists themselves to underline the striker’s sublimity, his impossible-to-recreate volley whizzed over the head of the stunned Rinat Dasayev and into the far corner of the net like a howitzer shell; the Russian keeper barely attempting to repel the effort through his sheer incredulity at van Basten’s gall and ability.

The joy – and considerable relief – was evident. The pictures of a beaming Michels at the final whistle and of Gullit at the presentation of the trophy remain forever linked to that achievement. The demons were banished, the monkey wrenched from their back; more than two decades of work had led Michels and the Dutch to this point – it just took a bit longer to fulfil their own destiny than they had expected.

With a squad (and development policy) of such depth and quality, kings of all they surveyed, the world should have been theirs for years to come. They were all in their prime after all. But this is Holland – the nation of cyclical highs and lows, the bickering and the backbiting, promise and regret. Old habits die hard, and before long they reverted to type, wrecking themselves before checking themselves.

1988 ended a long, often tortuously frustrating chapter for the Dutch national team, one that knocked on the doors of divinity, wandered aimlessly into the wilderness and then gloriously redeemed themselves making a country proud. Eventually.