The third-place playoff at the World Cup is often seen as an afterthought, a meaningless game before the much-awaited final. The 2014 edition, however, was different, especially for the Brazilians. After being utterly humiliated on their home turf by Germany 7-1 in the semi-final (which overtook the Brazil v Uruguay match at the 1950 finals as the biggest shock in the history of Brazilian football) Brazil had a point to prove. The Dutch, on the other hand, had been unlucky to be defeated by Argentina on penalties in the other semi-final and wanted to end the World Cup on a high. What followed was a relatively straightforward 3-0 win for the Netherlands, the Brazilians seemed to give up after the second goal was scored and it was an easy game for the Dutch to see out. This was a World Cup full of contrasting records for the two teams, Brazil had conceded the most goals by any team since the 1986 finals, whereas the Dutch had secured a consecutive top-three finish at the tournament and were unlucky not to reach the final.
The two nation’s respective World Cup records could not be more different. The Netherlands have never been victorious, having recorded the unwanted stat of reaching the most finals without triumphing. Brazil, on the other hand, have won the tournament five times, runner up twice and had, arguably, the best team to never win it in 1982. The matches between these two nations have surprisingly favoured the Netherlands; three wins (‘74, 2010 and 2014) compared to the just the one by Brazil in (‘94). They did win on penalties in the 1998 semi-final. Aside from the previously mentioned 2014 third-place playoff, the other four ties have been classics and have gone down in history as a battle between footballs two most revered styles of play.
The first meeting in a World Cup match between the Netherlands and Brazil came at the 1974 finals in West Germany. The format of the tournament included a second group stage instead of a straight knock out competition for the first time. After the two nations had won their first two matches in the group, the meeting was effectively billed as a semi-final clash; whoever won was through to the final.
Dutch football was on a high in 1974. The European Cup had been won by a team from the Netherlands in four out of the past five seasons. Feyenoord under the great Ernst Happel had beaten Celtic in the 1970 final and Ajax led by the marvellous Rinus Michel (followed by Stefan Kovacs) and his star pupil Johan Cruyff had triumphed for three consecutive seasons (‘71-‘73). Ajax used a style of play termed total football, a system which is extremely fluid and allows any outfield player to take over the role of any other player on the team. Michel slightly reworked this style that allowed for the genius of Cruyff to use his creative ability to exploit the opposition team.
The Netherlands World Cup record had been, at a glance, abysmal up until 1974. They had only qualified twice, in 1934 and 1938, exiting at the first round both times. Compare this to Brazil’s record of having been present at all tournaments up until 1974 and having won three out of the last four editions, showed that they were one of the favourites to win the competition. The Selecao had to deal with the retirements of several key players since their victory in Mexico, most notably Pele.
The Dutch qualified fairly easily for the second group stage by topping their section with two wins against Bulgaria and Uruguay whilst rounding off with a draw against Sweden. This match was to be remembered fondly by the introduction of the “Cruyff turn”. Cruyff had control of the ball facing his own goal; he feigned a pass and dragged the ball behind his standing leg and he accelerated away in the other direction, leaving the Swedish defender Olsson bewildered. Brazil didn’t have it all their own way in qualifying for the second group stage. They won against Zaire (making their debut) however they could only draw against Yugoslavia and Scotland, securing qualification by the tightest of margins as they had scored one more goal against Zaire than Scotland.
After two wins each in the second group stage, Netherlands would play Brazil to decide who qualified for the final. This game almost signalled the passing of the torch, from the beautiful game to total football. The first half was marked my some rough challenges and scrappy football, with chances relatively even for both teams. The Dutch got off to the perfect start in the second half, with Neeskens scoring his fourth goal of the tournament. This gave the Netherlands confidence and a second goal followed; Cruyff scoring a lunging volley past the Brazilian keeper Leao. This effectively killed the game and with the Netherlands defending well, Brazil suffered from Luis Pereira being sent off for a bad foul on Neeskens.
The Netherlands had won with their swashbuckling style of total football, outplaying the Brazilians. The Dutch lost the final to the hosts West Germany, while Brazil finished in fourth place. The next meeting at the World Cup between these two nations wouldn’t be for another 20 years where the Brazilians would gain their revenge.
The fortunes of both nations at the World Cup had varied since their first meeting in 1974. The Dutch reached another final in ‘78 and ran Argentina close before ultimately losing in extra time. Then they didn’t qualify until 1990, marking a generation of Dutch players who would never play at a World Cup. Although under Michels, they did win the European Championship in 1988 with one of the finest Dutch teams. The Brazilians had finished fourth in 1978, but then with arguably the greatest team never to win the competition, failed to even reach the semi-finals for the next three tournaments, making it 24 years since the Selecao had last won the World Cup.
Both teams moved towards an eventual quarter-final showdown in Dallas relatively easily. The Dutch were beaten by Belgium in the second group game but won against Morocco to qualify for the last 16. Brazil topped the group and defeated the hosts USA to go through to the quarters. The match between the two nations was held in Dallas in scorching temperatures which slightly favoured the Brazilians.
Both nations were playing in their away shirts, Brazil in their changed blue kit and the Dutch in white. The match was to be a classic, after a slightly underwhelming first half with no goals; the game sparked into life after the break. Romario and Bebeto leading the line for Brazil combined well for the first goal, then Bebeto rounding the keeper and scoring the second, and introduced the cradling baby celebration that has since become famous. The Dutch seemingly out of the match and the tournament struck back immediately with a goal by Bergkamp – a stunning solo effort, and they were level shortly after with a goal by Aron Winter. Extra time loomed, and with the temperature in Dallas draining, the Brazilians found their just reward with a winner by Branco, whose 25-yard free-kick nestled in the corner, allowing Brazil to qualify for the semi-final.
Brazil went on to win the tournament, while the Netherlands could count themselves unlucky to go out. After two competitive matches, the score between them was even at one win each and both nations would not have to wait long to edge ahead in the rivalry. The semi-final between them in Marseille at France 1998 was to be a cracker.
The Dutch and the Brazilians arrived at France ‘98 with two of the finest national squads at the tournament and were both heavily fancied to go far. The Dutch squad featured a group of players who had excelled in the famous Ajax side of the mid-’90s which won the champions league in 1995 and should have won it the following year but lost to Juventus in a penalty shootout. Dennis Bergkamp was their focal point; an outstanding talent who had helped Arsenal win the double a month prior to the finals starting. Brazil was on a high as they were the holders and had also won the Copa America in 1997 and they had arguably the best striker in the world in their side – Ronaldo (who was part of the ‘94 winning team but didn’t see any game time).
The Dutch were unconvincing in the group stage, beating South Korea 5-0, but drawing in a fiery clash with Belgium and also against Mexico. This was followed by two last-minute winners against Yugoslavia and Argentina to see them through the semi-finals.
Brazil’s route was slightly easier, on paper at least, topping group A, they then beat Chile and Denmark to set up the semi-final clash with the Dutch in Marseille. Ronaldo was in fine form and they were desperate to retain their title.
The third meeting between these old foes at a World Cup started off tense; no goals were produced in the first half. Ronaldo saw his chance at the beginning of the second half scoring after receiving a fantastic pass from Rivaldo. The Dutch needed another late show like in their previous two matches if they were to salvage anything from this game, and they got it. De Boer pouncing on some slack Brazilian defending and sending a cross into Kluivert, who duly powered a header past Taffarel. Extra time ended without any further goals, so it was to be penalties that would determine who would face the hosts in the final. Brazil scored all four of their penalties, while Taffarel guessed the correct way four times, saving two spot-kicks, from Coco and Ronald De Boer.
Netherlands disappointment at the World Cup continued, they still hadn’t won the competition. Brazil failed to be the first team to defend their trophy twice by losing to a Zidane inspired French side in the final 3-0. The next time the Netherlands and Brazil would meet on the grandest stage of all, the world of football looked a lot different.
After losing in the ‘98 final, Brazil were the classiest team at the 2002 finals, in which was a World Cup of the underdog, with South Korea and Turkey providing big upsets to reach the Semi-finals. Ronaldo redeemed himself by being top scorer and resurrecting a career which was seemingly about to be cut short after several knee injuries. In what was almost like Deja Vue from ‘98, they went out after another uninspiring performance against a French team led by Zinedine Zidane in 2006.
The Netherlands hadn’t even qualified for the 2002 finals; semi-final appearances at Euro 2000 and 2004 were as good as it got for a Dutch team in transition before the 2010 finals.
This was also a Brazil team in the midst of change; this was the first World Cup since 1990 to not feature Cafu and first since ‘94 to not have Ronaldo in their squad. Therefore, the team had a relatively new feel to it compared to usual. They beat North Korea unconvincingly in their first match, followed by a 3-1 win against the Ivory Coast. They rounded off the group with a stalemate against Portugal. Their most impressive performance came against Chile in the last 16 where they won 3-0 in convincing fashion to set up a tie against the old foes the Netherlands.
The Dutch finished top of Group E after winning all three of their games. Efficient rather than their usual entertaining philosophy, this would lead them all the way to the final. A tight 2-1 victory over Slovakia set up a titanic quarter-final tie against Brazil.
This was the fourth meeting at a World Cup between these two old enemies. Robinho opened the scoring in the 10th minute, slotting away a splendid pass from Felipe Melo. Brazil had chances to double their advantage before halftime but couldn’t capitalise. The Dutch came out for the second half with a different attitude, and on the 53rd minute it paid dividends as Sneijder’s ball into the box was turned into the Brazilian goal by Melo (the first own goal at a World Cup by Brazil in 97 games). The Netherlands could smell blood, and on the 68th minute, Sneijder scored his second to put the Dutch into a deserved lead. Further misery was compounded on Brazil as Melo’s Jekyll and Hyde match was over when he was sent off. The Dutch avenged their penalty shootout defeat in ‘98 and moved to the semi-final. Brazil exited at the same stage as in 2006 and with them hosting the tournament in 2014, massive change was needed in order for them to win their sixth title and banish the demons of the Maracanã in 1950 once and for all.
At the time of writing, the qualifying campaigns for both nations for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar have not yet begun – if both nations qualify for the finals then we can only hope that they meet at some stage during the competition. The 18th of December 2022 is the final of the World Cup, and as a keen admirer of both the Dutch and Brazilian style of play, then it would be a fitting end to the tournament to see these two battle it out for the trophy for the first time.