Neeskens - a name for neat skills

Neeskens, the hero of many a battle and with two World Cup silver medals in his bag, had a place in every Dutch heart.

Johan Neeskens scores the opening goal on a penalty kick in 1974 World Cup final against West Germany.   -  AFP

Like the 4-2-4 of 1958 successfully adopted by Brazil, Total Football was the exciting new concept that was on the anvil on the eve of the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. The Ajax Club of Amsterdam, with celebrated players like Johan Cruyff and Neeskens at the van, had exploited it to the hilt, which brought the team the third European Cup in succession.

On the other side, the Germans, under the inspiration of Franz Beckenbauer. with that bombardier Gerd Muller in support, had also fully utilised the new system with fluency. So it was, that the fortunes of both the teams, the Avant Garde of the football of the future, which called for totally versatile players, and totally interchangeable manoeuvres, were followed with special attention by the football pundits assembled in Germany for the great event.

Read: Johan Cruyff, the 'Pythagoras in boots'

The Dutch with some brilliant individuals, but an erratic international record, had started as 'dark horses', but gradually established themselves as the most colourful and entertaining side. With the deadly trio of Cruyff, Neeskens and Rudi Krol giving the attack all the thrust, the Germans were pushed to the wall. It was Total Football in all its ramifications and grandeur.

Glorious in defeat:

The Dutch were inflamed and subtle in their swift attacking movements with Neeskens and his colleagues, making all the time and space for themselves, and Cruyff making the polka-dot ball almost lose its spots. This was the sort of stuff that wins the big prizes. But in the end, it was Germany that won the tie and the trophy, proving the point that the better side does not always win. Even the Germans rose to applaud the team which was glorious in defeat. There was a special cheer for Neeskens, whose versatality and guts were of the highest class. It was a real wonder, as to how he took the field for the final at all. For in the crucial group match against Brazil earlier, he was a marked man, a prize that fame has to pay. He was hacked and clobbered by the Brazilian defenders and at least twice, he got up after being knocked cold, to carry on.

Gallery of Greats: Sportstar series on World Cup heroes

Came Argentina 1978 and the Dutch were there again bidding even more strongly for the prize they lost so narrowly last time. But this time, with Cruyff being not on hand, the burden on Neeksens was all the greater. No doubt, he was four years older, but his skills and ardour for the game remained undiminished.... and his judgment and anticipation were mellower too. The home team and the challenger duly kept their rendezvous in the final, which proved a thriller. Neeskens, found new allies in Rensenbrink and Aarie Haan and they repeatedly cut into the Argentine territory.

 

Again the Dutch failed to become the bride, but had to be content with the role of bridesmaid... of course, that fickle jade chose a delicately beautiful young man called Mario Kempes, who became the toast of all Argentina. Who could blame her if she lost her heart to him?

Household name:

It is however, undeniable that at least in his home country, Neeskens, the hero of many a battle and with two World Cup silver medals in his bag, had a place in every Dutch heart. He became part of the national setting as much as Cruyff, their undying hero. Did he not, time after time, assume the burden of creating attacks, which became light and subtle under the inspiration of his superb passing! Neekens carried a first name Johan, common in Central Europe like the Smith of England. But he had the uncommon virtues a rare courage, tenacity and national spirit, backed by tremendous competence, a near technical perfection. Cruyff was also a Johan as were the musical celebrities, Bach (Johan Sebastian) and Strauss, the king of the Waltz. Neeskens' football was as great as that of his celebrated contemporary and as lyrical as the music duo.