It was like a scene out of a Robert Redford movie, five co-conspirators gathered in a smoke-filled Córdoba hotel lobby under a blanket of secrecy. Their objective, to save the Netherlands faltering World Cup campaign, a coup against their coach Ernst Happel was set in motion.
History is often said to be written by winners. In this instance if Rob Rensenbrink shot snuck in – seconds remaining on that ill-fated night in Buenos Aires – it would have been written by someone falsely seen to be in power. Happel today would then be known for guiding Oranje to footballs Holy Grail. He shouldn’t. On the official documents, his was listed down as coach, in reality it couldn’t have been further from the truth. When it was all said and done, the most dejected soul in El Monumental was the man greatly responsible for Oranje’s resurgence, their manager in all but name, forgotten in time, like his story: the man who nearly became King.
Jan Zwartkruis woke up on June 25, 1978, mind clear of the previous few weeks. Today he was ninety minutes away from immortality. If everything goes to plan, he would be the architect of the Netherlands first world title, a position he couldn’t have envisaged after being relieved of his duties – despite getting them to Argentina – months before the tournament. For him this wasn’t about redemption but national duty.
To the outside world he was the ‘supervisor’ or assistant coach. Only those within the camp knew of his true role. The decision to appoint Happel, one of the preeminent coaches, is still seen today as a blunder. At the time it made every sense for the Dutch FA (KNVB). His reputation in the Netherlands was immortalised after guiding the first Dutch side, Feyenoord, to the European Cup in 1970. It was seen as an ideological shift. He couldn’t be any more opposite.
A man of few words, Happel was famed for his delicate and thoughtful psychological analysis, hard-headed but a natural born winner. “Kein keloel, Fußbal spielen” (loosely translated as: ‘forget the crap, just play’) was the mantra he coached by.
Zwartkruis and Happel from a tactical point of view were polar opposites, but when it came to man-management, both possessed an innate ability of getting the best out of their players. Even though Happel’s model leaned towards a greater emphasis on defending it wasn’t overly reactive. His approach never coming at the expense of attacking football, in fact to him under no circumstances should the opposition be allowed to settle into their usual rhythm this was done by playing a high defensive line – pressing further up the pitch – which allowed his famed offside trap to come into play. A keen admirer of possession-based football his sides often dictated every game they played.
His appointment was a contrast to Zwartkruis’, at the time a relative unknown outside Dutch footballs inner circle, but there was reason behind this incredible promotion. Namely his military background, the governing body were determined to restore order to a national team that was starting to eat itself: cliques’ rife and infighting commonplace which started to affect morale and performances on the pitch. So, they hired the Netherlands military XI coach. As you do.
George Knobel, his predecessor, wasn’t the most authoritative and often guilty of letting misdemeanours slide by. He previously was sacked at Ajax, taking over from Ștefan Kovács, before the season (1973-74) was out. They would be relegated by “booze and women” was his parting shot. The Amsterdammers would finish five points behind champions Feyenoord.
His close relationship with Johan Cruyff when managing the national team, who more or less been running the ship, didn’t help.
No better example than the Jan van Beveren and Willy van der Kuijlen affair. In the early 1970s they were the undisputed premier Dutch goalkeeper and striker however their PSV connection would lead to a falling out with Cruyff and his Ajax cohorts who dominated the national team scene.
Van Beveren had previously played under Zwartkruis, when he undertook military service, as well as Van der Kuijlen. Other players under Zwartkruis’ watch included Rensenbrink, Jan Mulder and Barry Hulshoff.
Van Beveren’s troubles started after refusing Cruyff’s invitation to have his father-in-law act as his financial manager like with many others in the squad. This snub would spark a period of antagonisation, bullying if you will, in the guise of childish pranks. A few other Eindhoven players, including the Van de Kerkhof brothers, contemplated quitting Oranje due to his mistreatment, only for the goalkeeper to talk them out of it.
Injury would cost Van Beveren a place at the 1974 World Cup, but with Cruyff calling the shots, it was unlikely he would have gone. The man between the sticks instead was Jan Jongbloed nowhere near Van Beveren’s quality. This feud, which began from the most trivial of circumstances, would effectively curtail a once promising international career.
He was back in the picture in time for Euro 1976 but a joke by PSV teammate Van der Kuijlen sealed his fate. One training session Van der Kuijlen muttered ‘here come the Kings of Spain’, when Cruyff and Johan Neeskens arrived, both notably the former were known to take a few days off (Cruyff once famously took his wife Danny to Milan to shop for shoes). This comment made headline news angering the Barça skipper, paranoia was never far away from the legendary number 14 who subsequently issued Knobel an ultimatum: them or me. There was only going to be one winner.
When the 1978 World Cup rolled around Van Beveren was at the peak of his powers, he should have been on the plane to Argentina, instead was used as a pundit despite the spectre that haunted him no longer ruled Oranje. The bad blood between the two would subside many years later, but for many Van Beveren robbed off an international career is still considered a great shame, easily the finest goalkeeper the Dutch have ever produced.
Once assuming power – initially for two games but extended – Zwartkruis gradually restored discipline, at times treating his players like they were in the Special Forces. This as you would expect didn’t go down well so he toned down his approach, allowing more freedom for the players to express themselves within tactical boundaries, in the process earning their trust and respect. The Dutch smoothly qualified for their second World Cup of the post-war era, but behind the scenes, steps were already in place for his removal.
His demotion, partly due to conflict with his other bosses the ministry of defence, was reminiscent of four years earlier, when František Fadrhonc who guided the Dutch through qualification, was relieved of his duties in preference of Rinus Michels. This was smooth transition as majority of the players knew Michels and most importantly were in fear of him. Fadrhonc in comparison was seen as too ‘soft’. However, a set of unusual circumstances made his job a little bit more challenging, not that it wasn’t difficult to begin notably arriving on the eve of the tournament without a game plan.
A manager of his ilk with boundless intellect it was a shortcoming quickly fixed. In no time, along with his other trusty lieutenant Cruyff, a clear approach – adhering to his ‘total football’ principles was implemented. Michels’ biggest concern was with his other team, like Zwartkruis was acting in a duel capacity, however his other team was Barcelona not the army.
The problem was in the summer of 1974 – overlapping the World Cup – the Catalans too had competitive fixtures. This unique set of circumstances, unheard of today, came as the result of Spain not qualifying. So, the Spanish FA, in their infinite wisdom decided to extend the 1973/74 edition of Copa del Generalísimo (later renamed Copa del Rey) past May. The quarter-final onwards began five days before Brazil faced Yugoslavia, the opening World Cup fixture. Barcelona would reach the final against Real Madrid, played on June 29, a day before the Netherlands faced East Germany in their second round group match.
Michels left in a quandary only solution was highly unorthodox, but the only one available to him, he was to shuttle between Spain and Germany, knowing full well in his absence at either end his coaching staff will hold the fort. For Oranje this was a new level of madness though nothing compared to four years later.
Fortunately there was nothing of this sort in 1978 but other issues, of similar importance, however continued to linger. If the relationship between Michels and Fadrhonc was the cornerstone and symbol of the previous regime it was the opposite between Happel and Zwartkruis. Theirs could be best described as fractious. All this did was create a negative atmosphere within the camp. Their relationship echoed the one shared by Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy, both forced to coexist, but couldn’t stand the sight of each other.
The first signs of what would sow the seeds of their psychological rivalry came when Happel broke all existing protocols: such as days before Oranje’s first game revealed to the world their game plan and tactics. He would also use his press interviews to painstakingly reiterate his desire to remove any existing ‘Cruyff complex’ among his players. Why he felt the need or believed such a thing existed was anyone’s guess.
Zwartkruis though saw this as a thinly veiled message to him as his friendship with Cruyff didn’t sit well with Happel, who felt the shadow of the former captain, a notable absentee, lived through Zwartkruis and would undermine his reconstruction.
Some of the players from 1974 were still around, but unlike with Michels, there were limits to how they approached the coach. Zwartkruis from the onset admitted he was in awe of Happel – who he described as a “genius” – but would list his faults such as losing touch with the players. “I always talked with the boys,” Zwartkruis said. “When Happel was around he looked angry. He thought I had to stay away and talk less, unbelievable.”
After an eventful start to the summer, included a near fatal plane crash in West Africa, followed by the greeting of soldiers armed with machine guns. The tournament began, Oranje were lucky to progress past the first round, an opening 3-0 win over Iran should have been signs of things to come but instead a goalless draw with Peru and 3-2 defeat to Scotland followed. Oranje qualified by a solitary goal. Zwartkruis was fuming and made his feelings known to the KNVB.
“Now it’s over, I take it upon myself,” he declared. “If you’re in, you must also do the same and not run away from what is a difficult moment.” The coup against Happel was underway. Many, including KNVB President Wim Meuleman, were starting to regret Happel’s appointment. In fact the instigator was Meuleman himself. According to Zwartkruis the president could no longer live with the mentality of the group.
On the back of a cigarette packet – and in the presence of Zwartkruis as well as KNVB Chairman Jacques Hogewoning, chef d’équipe Herman Chouffoer and assistant coach Arie de Vroet – Meuleman signed an agreement to transfer power. It came as a blow to Happel as the Dutch were set to face his native Austria. The following day in training Happel and Zwartkruis stood side by side, the former Feyenoord coach in his own way gave the Dutchman his blessing. “Happel saw the storm coming,” Zwartkruis reminisced. “In retrospect I understand why. I was much freer with the boys.”
At their training camp in Mendoza the revolution was orchestrated. Zwartkruis, as well as skipper Ruud Krol, maintained serenity. He was heavily responsible for the integration of youngsters Piet Wildschut and Ernie Brandts.
What followed was a series of impressive results and performances: 5-1 victory over Austria; 2-2 draw against reigning champions West Germany and 2-1 win over Italy.
The Austrian wasn’t removed completely. He remained on as a figurehead – effectively a puppet leader – last thing the Dutch authorities needed was a full blown scandal played out in front of the international press. He was there for the cameras, tactics as well as preparation taken out of his hands. Ironically this only enhanced his image: to the outside world he still takes credit for them reaching the final. Nothing more upsets Zwartkruis. “This story should be told,” he said when releasing his memoir ‘Kapitein van Oranje’ in 2008. “Everyone is always talking about the Oranje of ’74 and ’88, but skip 1978.”
Internally he was rewarded by resuming his official role before Happel’s intervention prior to the tournament. A helter-skelter qualifying campaign for Euro 1980 – which Oranje did miserably in – was highlighted by the incredible ‘miracle of Leipzig’ where the Dutch would come from two goals down to beat a formidable East Germany 3-2 in 1979. Though it was events a year prior his name should be synonymous with. Zwartkruis, when it looked like Oranje were dead and buried, turned their fortunes around and came close to the Promised Land.
Zwartkruis passed away last year, aged 87, before the Netherlands home World Cup qualifier against Estonia there was a moment’s silence in remembrance. It was commemoration of a man who embodied what it meant to manage Oranje and is without doubt one of the most inspirational coaches the Netherlands have had.
His name and role played in Argentina is oft-forgotten something those who played under him want changed. “I think I speak on behalf of all the internationals,” Wildschut said. “When I say that we had a coach [at the 1978 World Cup] and his name was Jan Zwartkruis.”
By Mohamed Moallim
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona