Sometime in the early 90s, a friend of mine was on holiday at one of those Eurocamp sites in France. At the time he was playing football semi-professionally in the Alliance Premier League. As often happens on these forced-fun weeks, a dads-and-lads football match was arranged and my friend’s son roped him in to play in his favoured position as central striker. He was marked by a tall, slim guy in his early forties. Being in his mid-twenties, he fancied a quiet afternoon, banging in a few goals followed by celebratory beers with his new team mates. Within a few minutes, it rapidly became apparent that this would not be as easy as hoped for. His opposite number beat him to every tackle, 50-50 ball and aerial battle – even when he slightly got an edge, he was fouled or barged to the ground. After the game, the centre half said in a northern European accent “good game, you have obviously played before”. My friend replied “yes, I play for Altrincham in England, you may have heard of us. I think you have played a bit too.” “Yes,” came the reply “my name is Ruud Krol and I captained Ajax and Holland.” “I was sure I recognised him”, thought my friend suddenly feeling a bit better about his own performance.
Ruud Krol is possibly the finest defender I have ever seen. I’ve been witness to many fantastic players in that position – Moore, Buchan, Todd from the United Kingdom alone, not to mention Beckenbauer, Barsei, Maldini and Passarella but Ruud had it all and was more versatile than most, able to operate as full-back, centre-half and sweeper with equal effectiveness. Whilst a simple Wikipedia search can tell us that he played for 12 years for Ajax, winning three league titles and featuring in two of the club’s three 1970s European Cup wins making 83 appearances for his country, the purpose of this piece is not to overload the reader with statistics but offer an insight into the personality of the man and Dutch football of the era in general, with a personalised insight for good measure.
As well as being an Ajax fan for over forty five years, my “other” team is Manchester United, having lived a couple of miles from the ground all my life. In 1976, United having been promoted from Division two the previous season, finished third, thereby qualifying for the UEFA cup for the first time. In what would be now known as a perfect storm, United drew Ajax in the first round so there was no way I was going to miss this one. The first leg was played in Amsterdam, Ruud scoring the only goal but for the return in Manchester, with him at centre half/sweeper, United won 2-0 but my abiding memory of the match was Stewart Houston desperately trying to get within five metres of flying winger Tscheu La Ling and spending most of the night staring at him, spellbound by the Dutchman, who beat him in the manner your dad beats you in the back garden when you are aged five. Sadly, the great Ajax had mostly moved on so they were a shadow of the super-Ajax team but a defensive master class was provided by Ruud, who was never out of position, always covering team-mates and, unusually for what we saw week-in week-out in England, possessing an uncanny ability to play the ball out of defence and find a team mate with a long range pass. Yes, total football was still alive and kicking (not Altrincham players just yet).
Fast forward two years and the chance for Holland to atone for forgetting to score the second goal in 1974 against West Germany arose. The 1978 World Cup was seen as quite an open affair – Brazil being almost as bad as the hacking clowns of 1974, hosts Argentina a little too reliant on strikers Kempes and Luque (plus the not-inconsiderable backing of the ruling military junta currently throwing dissidents out of helicopters in an effort to supress the population and quell any thought of rebellion) and England not even qualifying (again).
Notwithstanding the unavailability of the blessed Saint Johan, the core of Neeskens, Rep, Krol, Rensenbrink and Rijsbergen were still on the plane with exciting newcomers such as Ernie Brandts, Piet Wildschut and Jan Poortvliet to bolster the experienced veterans with their youthful enthusiasm.
Despite almost not getting through the initial group stage (Johnny Rep’s goal against unlucky Scotland doing the trick), wins against Austria (5-1), Italy (2-1) and a 2-2 draw against Germany saw Holland safely through to their second successive World Cup Final against hosts Argentina. Much has been written about the dubious tactics employed by the organisers on Final day, assuring maximum disruption for the Dutch squad – crowds outside the hotel, hostile mobs throughout the journey to the stadium but the intimidation was to continue as the teams lined up immediately prior to kick-off.
Rene van de Kerkhof had been wearing a lightweight plaster cast during the tournament after injuring his arm in the group game against Iran and no objections had been raised in any subsequent ties. Argentine skipper Daniel Passarella brought this heinous crime to the attention of referee Sergio Gonella who seemed to take the side of the hosts. Cue our man Ruud gesturing to his team mates that they should come off the pitch – it’s pretty difficult to intimidate a Dutchman, particularly one imbued with Amsterdamse swagger. A swift compromise was rapidly reached, with a further bandage being placed over the cast. As many thought at the time and has subsequently been confirmed, the chances of a Dutch victory on that day were very slim indeed and poor Rob Rensenbrink must still have nightmares about that missed chance, and although the late Dick Nanninga gave Dutch hearts hope, it was not to be.
Between those two World Cup finals appearances, Ruud played in Euro 76 and then the finals of 1980 (having been transferred to Vancouver Whitecaps earlier that year) but unfortunately Holland did not qualify for a major tournament until the victorious Euro 1988 campaign by which time Ruud has been retired from international football for five years. After finishing his playing days, a lengthy coaching career beckoned, taking in, with varying degrees of success, spells in Belgium, Switzerland, Egypt and Tunisia.
I consider myself very fortunate indeed to have witnessed this Ajax legend at his absolute peak. We could do with him now!