The 1978 World Cup involve my earliest televised football memories. (I was seven years old.) My favorite player in the tournament was Daniel Passarella (because of his exotic name). The Dutch side was not expected to do well because its best player, Johan Cruyff, withdrew from the squad. (I had long thought he had boycotted the tournament to protest the military dictatorship, but a few years ago he revealed the real story; I now wonder if I have also been wrong all along about Paul Breitner's absence--Breitner is one of the classiest German players ever.)
The Dutch had one of the most underrated coaches of all time (Ernst Happel) and he took a scrappy team to Argentina. There they played badly, at first, but they grew in the tournament, and reached the final with convincing games against Austria, Germany, and Italy. Meanwhile, on the other side of the draw, Argentina won a suspicious game (6-0) against Peru to keep Brazil out of the finals.
Now, many melancholic types come to believe they were born too late. And as boy from Amsterdam I was encouraged to believe I was born too late, because I would spend most of my teenage years hearing the same old stories about Amsterdam in the 1960s and 70s, flower power, Provos, pre-Aids sex, and, of course, tales of one of the greatest club-sides (Ajax 1971-3), ever.* Eventually all these stories got overshadowed by 1974; the year of the lost final. But as a seven year old I knew nothing of national traumas or lost finals; I lived from day to day.
Looking back at that 1978 world cup, I wouldn't be surprised if was a time of escapism for me. My parents were separated or separating (perhaps already divorced--I don't recall the exact chronology), and I don't think I was an especially happy child. I was an avid collector of Panini stickers (with the players of all the teams) trading them with my friends at school. (I was reminded of this just recently because my son has been trading animal stickers that were part of a supermarket promotion.)
The 1978 final became associated with a single moment in the dying seconds of regular time with the score tied at 1-1; Rensenbrink hit the post. If you look at the replay, it's not an easy shot. But Rensenbrink was a supremely gifted player, and on most days it would have gone in.
But that Holland was in a position to win the world cup was due to a fantastic header by Dick Nanninga a few minutes before. If you look at the clip, you'll notice at once that goal has all the hall-marks of Dutch football at its best: a quick transition, a precise, long diagonal pass to the speeding wing (cf. years later: De Boer-Bergkamp against another Argentina squad) sailing over the opposing defenders, an instant, one-touch cross by René van de Kerkhof, and Nanninga (a late substitute) does the rest.
Now unlike all the other players associated with that 1978 Dutch squad, Nanninga was not a star and never became one, despite averaging a goal every second game in the Dutch highest league (when it was still world class). In fact, in looking at Dutch wikipedia, I learned today that his transfer to Ajax fell through because he owned a flower shop in Kerkrade (then a Dutch mining town in Limburg).
Holland has fielded far more gifted squads than that 1978 one with far more gifted players than Nanninga. (I have seen several of them up close.) But Nanninga's header is the finest moment in all of Holland's great world cup campaigns -- yes, greater than the first ninety seconds of the 1974 final -- because he stepped up when his team needed him and put the cup within achingly close reach.