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Wednesday, 5 September 2007


Sunday July 7th, 1974: World Cup final - Holland 1 (Neeskins [pen.]), West Germany 2 (Breitner [pen.], Muller)

It's Sunday, June 23rd and Poland are playing Italy in the 1974 World Cup. Or it might be the Saturday before that, when they beat Argentina 3-2. Or maybe it's the day before the Final itself, when they played and beat Brazil. One-nil. Lato scores to clinch third place for the England conquering Poles. But I'm pretty sure that Szarmak got a goal on the day I'm thinking of, and it was played in the afternoon, which would make it Italy. You see, on the day I'm trying to recall, there was a quite well known actor at the window behind me, giving me the two fingered salute and burping the word "bollocks" whilst I tried to watch the game. And you don't tend to forget stuff like that, do you? Even if the world cup games played long ago begin to bleed into one, you don't forget Rufus Sewell, burping bollocks, two grubby fingers raised, then mouthing "fuck off" while you try to watch the game - especially when the team who took your place at the World Cup are playing.

Rufus, it was really nothing: the audition was a close-run thing, but Billy MacKenzie would go on to get the Associates gig in the end...

He was only six at the time, of course, and taking a break from playing kiss chase with my sister. Not yet famous, no starring roles beyond his turn as Rumplestiltskin at Trafalgar Infants School. Maybe that was a little later, the following year, perhaps? But there is no doubting that he was already a prodigious talent. I couldn't even burp to order, let alone form a coarse vocabulary in that beguiling foreign tongue, yet here he was, already swearing in it fluently. In fact, the infants' production of Rumpelstiltskin would enjoy such a dazzlingly brilliant run, be so acclaimed that they'd eventually transfer it to the main school, with its larger assembly hall for a special one-off performance. So we juniors all got to enjoy Rufus stomping around, shouting a lot and generally stealing the show in the title role, being excellent as that funny little goblin child-man in a performance all of our own and absolutely free.

I've not seen Rufus for a while now. I think he's had some tough times - the usual life stuff - as well as some wonderful successes - most recently in Tom Stoppard's play set in the Prague of 1968, called Rock 'n' Roll. I didn't get to see it - should be more assertive about using contacts, going through the door when it's being held open for you, I suppose - but it's never felt quite right. I've heard that he was very good and still oozes power and charisma on the stage. I'd be lying if I said I didn't envy him a little his having met some of my own personal heroes; Bowie, Lieber & Stoller, Peter Cook and Jack Lemmon are the ones that spring most readily to mind. But I don't envy him his success, because that's precisely what it is; his. I still feel a gentle glow of pride, every now and then, that he was one of us and now holds his own with all of 'them'. I guess the fact is, to invite total ridicule by pursuing a football analogy, that he's been West Germany to my Holland. For all the fine approach play, all the clever-clever stuff I might have come up with that should have blown the opposition apart if only I'd been a slightly better finisher, he's the one who's done the business on the pitch, won the trophies, has his medals and all I've done's fuck all.

Bob Dylan sang, "there's no success like failure and failure's no success at all", and if that's the case, I suppose the Dutch and I can't really claim any kind of moral high ground, as if not winning were some badge of honour to show we were too worthy for the game. What's an actor without an audience? What's the point of writing if you're not prepared to be read? And in Holland's case, why turn up to a final, to prove a point instead of to win? The records will bear out the facts of life: Sewell 1, Swipe 0, Holland 1, West Germany 2. And one day that is all that history will know. And then that too will be forgotten, as the universe yawns and savage winds torment the dust.

But then life as it is lived isn't about statistics, is it? I know I've been relying on them to fill the void of my memory, but they're only a loose guide to what really happened. Just as two figures separated by a dash are all that remain of the all the blood-pumping endeavours of the 22 who played, so the write ups and awards cannot reproduce the play. In much the same way, the words lose the story and the story cannot hold the life.

In his book Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper charts the footballing enmity between Holland and Germany as dating back to their meeting in the semi final in the European Championship on 21st June 1988. Holland won that game, Marco van Basten scoring a late goal that sent 9 million Dutchmen on to the streets of Holland in a wild frenzy of celebration, as Kuper describes the scene:

In the Leidseplein square, Amsterdammers threw bicycles (their own?) into the air and shouted "Hurray! We've got our bikes back !" The Germans, in the biggest bicycle theft in history, had confiscated all Dutch bicycles during the Occupation.

But there would be no bicycle throwing in 1974. In fact, I'm surprised that Kuper is so sanguine about the earlier game - it caused a rumpus back in Holland almost as traumatic as the war. To read the quotes of the astonished onlookers in David Winner's Brilliant Orange, you'd think they were talking about different games, those cycle-wielding Dutchman avenging not the war but a later, footballing defeat. "There is still deep, unresolved trauma about 1974. It's a very living pain, like an unpunished crime", says Anna Enquist. And she should know how deep that trauma goes; she's a psycho-analyst. "The defeat of 1974 is the biggest trauma that has happened to Holland in the twentieth century, apart from the floods of 1953 and World War II", concurs playwright Johann Timmers. We English think we have an unsophisticated, occasionally neanderthal view towards the descendants of the Third Reich, but even we don't feel quite like this, do we?:

We have to admit that one of our weak points is that we always have to start talking about the war and revenge when we play against the Germans, no matter what sport it is.

Sure, we love to beat them, but is there anything off the pitch to avenge? There is for the Dutch, or so Kees Jansma, a sports presenter on Dutch channel, Canal+ says. He was nine when he went with his father to see Holland play the then World Champions West Germany in Dusseldorf in 1956:

When we won, 2-1, I saw my father jumping and crying because we'd beaten the World Champions. There must have been between six and eight thousand Dutchmen there and they invaded the pitch and carried the players on their shoulders. In the train going back, everybody was celebrating wildly. I'd never seen my father like that - he'd gone mad, singing, dancing. Later I realised it was because of the war, because of the strong feeling about the Germans. It was a very strong feeling for all the people there, that we had some kind of revenge for everything they had done to us.

And what better revenge than to completely humiliate your opponent, on their own turf, in a World Cup final? That's precisely what the Dutch set out to do. Winner describes it so beautifully, I can see it happening before me again:

Holland kicked off and immediately began an extraordinary passage of play, insolently moving the ball backwards, forwards and sideways with the Germans unable to make a single effective challenge. Van Hanegem to Cruyff...Van Hanegem to Neeskens to Krol...Rijsbergen to Haan to Suurbier...Haan to Rijsbergen to Haan (by now the incensed German crowd is whistling their fury)...Cruyff to Rijsbergen to Krol...Neeskens to Rijsbergen to Cruyff. Cruyff finally darts forward and is tripped by Uli Hoeness.

English referee Jack Taylor (James Garner) points to the spot (how could he not?) Neeskens steps up to take the penalty and finally, two minutes in to the World Cup final, the hosts at last get to touch the ball, Sepp Maier having picked it out from the back of his net.

That should have been that. But the Dutch were so intent on rubbing it in to the Germans just how much better they were than them that they forgot to win the game. Paul Breitner (Anthony Sher in The History Man) scores from the penalty spot and then Gerd Muller, "Der Bomber", scores a second for the Germans. The Dutch attack, but the game is lost when it never seemed that they could lose. And there it was, an early, object lesson in how not to win a game.

But there is another universe out there, somewhere deep in some collective mindset where the team in orange not white went on to win that game. In that parallel realm you don't get points for scoring, it's how you played that counts. "I want to win it better", says the fictional Brian Clough in The Damned United. He wants Leeds United to win the league playing football, not fouling and cheating as he feels they did under his successor, Don Revie. He lasts forty-four days at the club. "How shall we live, Brian?" is a question oft asked of him throughout the novel by an unspecified voice in the crowd. And we could ask the same ourselves. How shall we live, Brian? Do we want to be cynical, or cling to an ideal? To be Individuals or a community? The game plays out these dramas for us, as we wrestle with them in life.

I saw van Basten and Johann Cruyff at the Emirates in the first ever match played there. Cruyff was in his fifties and van Basten hadn't played competitively for well over a decade. There were some fabulous players on display that day. They'd turned out for Dennis Bergkamp's testimonial; Cruyff, van Basten, Davids, Vieira are just a few who spring to mind. It was a very emotional day; Dennis Bergkamp's father, Wim, who'd recently been battling with cancer, kicked the game off by passing the ball to his son, who duly passed it on to his in a pretty triangle; the miraculous cycle of life played out in that virginal centre circle. Then at half time the names of the returning Arsenal heroes were announced by Bob Wilson: Seaman, Keown, Bould, Dixon, Winterburn, Vieira, Wright, Kanu... It was rousing stuff for the Arsenal faithful but the guy sat next to me and I both turned to one another in surprise and joy when we heard the name of Cruyff. He was tubby, could hardly breathe (probably all those fags - he used to be an eighty a day merchant) and several passes went astray. But you could still feel the class, the suspicion that there was magic coming whenever the ball touched his boot. There was still that whiff of genius and he carried himself as if he still was what he had been; the man who lent the kicking game the grace of a ballet.

Van Basten and Bergkamp ran him close for grace, poise and skill, but Cruyff was always out on his own for me. It wasn't just the football; here was a man, you felt. Imagine any player nowadays tearing off an adidas stripe; running 'round with two-lined arms when your team mates all have three. Winner's right about the "brilliant orange", the kit was dazzlingly cool. And that huge, black silhouette of lion placed exactly above the heart. All that and the talent too; the turns, the jinks, the power and the pace. And the goals. The one that sticks in my mind is the goal he scored against Brazil. It was, in effect, a semi final and the Brazil side that year was atypically hard. As a sign of how the game was played then, one defender rugby tackles Cruyff and gets away with staying on the pitch. For this bruising, physical encounter the Dutch were in white, the Brazilians wore blue as if to spare their traditional colours the shame of such an uncharacteristic display. The Dutch prove too strong, too athletic, have too much skill. Neeskens clips the ball over the 'keeper in a sublime arc just after the break and fifteen minutes later, Johann bullets through the air to karate kick the ball home off a deep cross from the left. The Dutch players' huddle bubbles like champagne, bobbing and and bouncing, fizzing with relief.

"You've been here two and a half years, Dennis," I said, half in sarcasm half in motivation. "Isn't it about time you won something? It would be a shame not to with your ability."

Only a professional with the dedication and honours of Tony Adams could get away with saying something like that to Dennis Bergkamp. As in football, so in life; is it what you win, or how? This isn't meant to be an answer, but if you went 'round any playground at the time they both played, I'm sure only a handful might have swapped you all those Adams medals for a touch of what the Iceman had. Perhaps it takes a child to see it, as I did then, when I saw Johann Cruyff and gaped in awe.

L.U.V. on y'all,


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  1. Billy there was a prodigious talent. Met him once you know, back in the 80's, in a nightclub in kirkcaldy. Asked me if I would go and ask the DJ to play Sparks - Number One Song In Heaven, his favourite song of all time. Pity he hung himself

  2. Thanks for popping by greenfields.

    Yes, he was tremendous, wasn't he? 'Logan Time', 'The Affectionate Punch', 'Skipping' - things of impeccable beauty. You'd have thought he'd have been upfront enough to ask the DJ himself, Wouldn't you?

    It was a pity. Stuart Adamson took his own life too, I believe. Strange to do so much and then end it all.



  3. Really sad about Billy Mackenzie and Stuart Adamson. In the Duryesque moment I find myself thinking 'what a waste'.