Van Gaal against Messi, and the Cruyff Way
The sixth instalment of one of the great World Cup rivalries will pit a legendary coach who didn’t see eye to eye with Johan Cruyff, against Lionel Messi, who remains the best example of how the late Dutch titan wanted football to be played.
When Netherlands take on Argentina in front of nearly 89,000 at the Lusail Stadium on Friday night, it will mark the latest chapter in one of the World Cup’s most intense rivalries. Both have had moments to savour, but this is also a contest characterised by so many what-ifs. The Netherlands have never won football’s biggest prize, while Argentina’s wait to lay their hands on it for a third time has now stretched to 36 years.
If you’re a Netherlands fan over the age of 60, you’ll wonder what might have happened if Johan Cruyff’s side had played the 1974 final against West Germany with the same tactical discipline and panache that overcame Argentina 4-0 earlier in the competition. That loss was a particular low point for an Argentina team that hadn’t even qualified in 1970, but it showcased the thrilling quality of the Netherlands’ total football, with Cruyff very much the conductor on the pitch.
And what if Cruyff had decided to make the journey to Argentina in 1978, when the Netherlands fell in the final again? Would he have been able to influence the result, even with his best years behind him? Or would the home team, energised by the tinder-box atmosphere at River Plate’s Monumental Stadium, have prevailed anyway?
What if Rob Rensenbrink’s shot, in the final moments of normal time, had gone in off the post instead of deflecting out with Ubaldo Fillol beaten? And what of the lucky ricochets in the penalty box in extra time, that allowed both Mario Kempes and Daniel Bertoni to set the seal on Argentina’s first World Cup triumph?
For Argentina, the sense of what-might-have-been is most profound when it comes to the 1998 World Cup. That was a magnificent team, with Gabriel Batistuta in his prime. Would Dennis Bergkamp have scored that wonder goal in the final minute if Argentina hadn’t been so frazzled by the senseless sending off of Ariel Ortega?
Having had a man advantage since the 76th minute, when Arthur Numan got his second yellow card, Argentina then saw Ortega try to head-butt Edwin van der Sar after first having dived shamelessly to try and win a penalty. If they had managed to keep 11 on the pitch, would the match have swung their way in extra time?
More importantly, how much was that team damaged by the stubbornness of Daniel Passarella? Captain in 1978, and then a disciplinarian coach, Passarella allegedly fell out with Fernando Redondo over his refusal to cut his long, blonde hair. The same Redondo who was the heartbeat of a Real Madrid team that won the European Champions League in 1998 and 2000.
Passarella played Matias Almeyda against the Netherlands. Almeyda was a fine defensive midfielder, who enjoyed a successful career in Italy with Lazio, Parma and Internazionale, but he wasn’t capable of the moments of genius that were the hallmark of Redondo at his best. Remember the trickery on the touchline that made Manchester United’s Henning Berg look like he’d seen a ghost?
The Netherlands’ joy over that victory wouldn’t last, with Brazil edging them out in another classic match in the semifinal, and the Argentina-Netherlands clash at the 2006 World Cup was a strangely bloodless affair with both teams already assured of a place in the last 16.
Eight years later, in a semifinal at the Corinthians Arena in Sao Paulo, there was little trace of the Netherlands side that had begun the tournament so thrillingly with a 5-1 demolition of Spain, the defending champions. A dour affair decided on penalties – Wesley Sneijder and Ron Vlaar missed for the Dutch – saw the Netherlands dominate possession but manage just a single shot on target in the 120 minutes. Argentina, with Lionel Messi well shackled, were scarcely better.
Louis van Gaal was on the touchline that day, and though his battle with prostate cancer has been one of the feel-good stories of this competition, there haven’t been too many glimpses of the Naranja Mecánica (Clockwork Orange) that so bemused Argentina when they first met in 1974. Van Gaal’s tiffs with Cruyff are part of Dutch football lore, but his pragmatism has been central to the success of this team, which isn’t blessed with anything like the same talent as the teams of the 1970s or ’90s.
Virgil van Dijk has been the world’s best centre-back for nearly half a decade, while Cody Gakpo promises to be the next big attacking star from the Netherlands. But for the most part, this is a team of players who haven’t quite cut it at the highest level, who failed to make their mark at the biggest clubs.
You could say the same for Argentina, who would frankly kill for a centre forward like Batistuta to finish off the chances that Messi’s quickness of thought invariably creates. In 2014, the lack of cutting edge in the final cost them the trophy. After Lautaro Martinez’s misses against Australia, more than a few fans would have wondered if Messi will once again be let down by his forwards.
For both van Gaal and Messi, this is the last hurrah. In so many ways, Messi is the true inheritor of the Cruyff legacy, a product of the academy structure and style of play that he oversaw during his glory years as a coach with Barcelona. You sense that Van Gaal, four years Cruyff’s junior, and whose path to glory at Ajax was blocked by Dutch football’s shining light, would take immense pleasure in beating a player who best represents the Cruyff Way.
Sequals usually never live up to the original. But Argentina-Netherlands, Part 6, promises 90 minutes or more of skill, intensity and drama. Two great footballing traditions, and the weight of history. Don’t take your eyes off it.