František Fadrhonc is a name that fights hard against the tongue. Sadly, it’s a name that fights hard against history too.
There was football in the Netherlands before Johan Cruyff. A Netherlands without flared jeans, shaggy locks and a tempestuous disregard for authority. It belonged to Fadhronc, a Czech coach in his mid-50s who dragged the country to its first World Cup in nearly forty years.
Not that he got to see it. Rinus Michels, the grizzled auteur of Totaalvoetball’s Ajax and Barcelona, was appointed in his stead before the tournament got under way in Germany in 1974. Fadrhonc has been a footnote ever since, relegated to an afterthought as the Dutch burned through consecutive World Cups and into the sport’s collective memory.
They didn’t win at either attempt, but it doesn’t matter. Nobody remembers what Cruyff, Johan Neeskens or Ruud Krol did, but they remember how they made them feel. Rob Rensenbrink, for all of his merits, remains less celebrated. Why is that?
Maybe its because he eschewed the broiling rivalry between Ajax and Feyenoord. Discomfited by the quality of both sides as a youth player, he departed minnows DWS for Club Brugge in 1969.
These were halcyon days for Belgian football. Hitherto, the country had been the Lowlands’ biggest draw, the playground of Raymond Goethals and Paul van Himst. Rensenbrink joined a club that was building rapidly for an assault on gluttonous rivals Club Anderlecht.
They almost toppled them too, with Rensenbrink’s enterprising sashays from the left helping Brugge to a Belgian Cup. When administrator Constant vanden Stock decamped for the Brussels club in 1971, however, one of his earliest moves was to bring Rensenbrink with him.
The league title was an inevitability. Even as his new employers floundered, Rensenbrink soared, a miasma of elastic legs and extravagant dragbacks. He was comfortable receiving the ball in any position, as likely to leave a defender on his arse as he was to scythe a cutting ball to a teammate.
Largely forgotten under Fadrhonc, Michels recalled Rensenbrink to the national team almost immediately. The Anderlecht man repaid him with a surgical finish against East Germany in the second round clash in Gelsenkirchen, the winning goal of a vital 2-0 victory.
Rensenbrink was arguably the team’s stand-out performer, even as Brazil tried to elbow and stomp their way round him in the semi-final at the Westfalenstadion. Before limping off in the second half, he had time to release Ruud Krol on the left flank, whose low delivery was volleyed in gratefully by Cruyff at the near post. Hobbled by Brazil’s roughhouse style, Rensenbrink was ineffectual in the final as the Netherlands went down to bitter rivals Germany.
Four years later, the Dutch were without the autocratic brilliance of Cruyff and Michels. Ernst Happel deployed Rensenbrink on the left of a three-man forward line, hoping that his talented number twelve could fill the gaping void.
A hat-trick in the opening game against Iran had the Austrian purring. Ally MacLeod, who before the tournament had suggested that his Scotland side could win the trophy outright, was strangely withdrawn as he watched Rensenbrink dispatch a 35th minute penalty in the final group game. The Tartan Army fought back, triumphing in an historic match 3-2 courtesy of Archie Gemmill’s slaloming winner. The Netherlands were bruised, but they were through, courtesy of Rensenbrink’s four clinical strikes.
Happel watched through gritted teeth as Rensenbrink scored another penalty, this time against the coach’s native Austria in the second group stage. Top spot meant a place in the final against the hosts at El Monumentál, on a night in which the ruling military junta were doing everything to tip the scales.
Leopoldo Galtieri’s government were no strangers to brutal intervention. Even today, some of the victims they forcibly disappeared have yet to be discovered. But as the mothers of the Plazo de Mayo held their placards in vain, their countrymen were more concerned with sporting one-upmanship.
René van der Kerkhof’s bandage – a thoroughly uncontroversial item in the tournament thus far – was deemed illegal by referee Sergio Gonnella. César Menotti’s side had already kept their opponents waiting on the field for five minutes, as avalanches of ticker tape were thrust skyward by waves of invective from the crowd.
The vicious football reflected the surrounding atmosphere. Gonnella was a goner on the pitch, turning a blind eye to every stud and fist as the teams brawled through ninety violent minutes. With just seconds of regulation time remaining the scores were at 1-1, Dick Nanninga having cancelled out Mario Kempes’ opener. Ruud Krol, seeing Rensenbrink make a dash towards the far post, sent a hopeful ball over the Argentine backline.
At first, nobody moved. Rensenbrink reached the ball first, seconds before goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol crashed into him.
“It wasn’t even a shot, it was a touch” he told The Sunday Herald in 2014. A touch that seemed to bobble towards the goal for an eternity. A touch that, were it placed just centimetres to the right, would have granted the Netherlands the trophy that has forever eluded their grasp.
The whistle blew as the ball was hacked to safety, having bounced harmlessly off the post. Kempes, whose flailing mane had devastated every defence it came into contact with, would not be denied his sixth goal of the tournament, nudging the Argentines ahead in extra time.
As Daniel Bertoni added a derisory third, Rensenbrink’s twin nightmare came to fruition. Having come within a hair’s breadth of winning the World Cup and the Golden Boot, he was now being denied both. He departed South America as a postscript, when he had been the architect of a glorious production.
History is never kind to its losers and Rensenbrink has been no exception. For a man that came closer than anyone to conquering the world for his country, he enjoys remarkably little fanfare. The distance between adulation and anonymity? No more, it seems, than the width of a goalpost.
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Also published on Medium.