The life and career of Willem van Hanegem was built on graft and pure determination. His early childhood towards the end of the Second World War shaped his life when, before he was a year old, he lost his father and three of his siblings in a bombing. The rest of his family moved east to a new home in the Dutch city of Utrecht. It was here that he would later discover the beautiful game.
One morning, a 16-year old van Hanegem was staring through the fence watching training at his local team, Velox and it was in this observer role that he showed the first glimpses of his natural technical ability. A self-appointed ball-boy, van Hanegem would go and collect the balls that had flown over the fence, steady himself, then pass them back onto the field. These passes were almost always inch-perfect in landing right at the feet of a Velox player. The players thought nothing of it, but the then Velox manager Daan van Beek was impressed. He invited the young boy to train with the team and this was the breakthrough for a youngster who would go on to become a Dutch legend.
“Too slow. Too fat. Can’t do anything with his right foot. Too reckless.”
Van Hanegem’s future teammates complained about the new and raw youngster in their midst. In a game that was becoming increasingly fast-paced, van Hanegem’s movement was glacial. He was very big for a 16-year old but not very mobile. He only had 70% of his sight and saw the pitch in a fuzzy haze at times. However, coach Van Beek was won over by his impeccable technique and handed him a first-team start at the age of 18 deployed wide on the left of midfield. At that young age he would earn the nickname, de kromme (the crooked) because of his often lugubrious running style and the otherworldly amount of curve he put on his passes.
Van Hanegem moved on to Xerxes in Rotterdam after four seasons at Velox. There he would meet German coach Kurt Linder, a pragmatist and strict disciplinarian who demanded hard work from the young midfielder. This brought out the bad side of the youngster leading to training ground bust-ups with Linder in the early part of his time at Xerxes. This attitude was soon to change as the Dutchman warmed to the challenge and saw the benefits to his game. He became fitter and more mobile which added an extra dimension to his play.
The most important change occurred on the tactical side when van Hanegem was moved from wide left to inside left in a 4-2-4 formation. It took a season for him to adjust to this new setup, but when he did his form attracted the interest of the Dutch national coach. De kromme lit up the Eerste Divisie, scoring 26 goals, his most in a single campaign. Riding on the wave of van Hanegem’s goals, Xerxes Rotterdam finished runners-up and earned a promotion to the top flight that season.
Not everyone was a fan of van Hanegem though. Having been offered the chance to sign the young midfielder, Ajax coach Rinus Michels wasn’t keen on his style and stature.
“Too slow and too one-dimensional. Not suited for modern football.” Rinus Michels
In hindsight, Van Hanegem’s lack of pace was his only real drawback. He countered those deficiencies somewhat by injecting raw aggression into his game, meaning that he was not just an elegant orchestrator but also a brutal destroyer when he needed to be. Feyenoord appreciated his qualities and in 1968, Van Hanegem moved across the city to join them.
In his debut season, van Hanegem won his first silverware as Feyenoord were successful in both Eredivisie and the KNVB Cup. A year later he shone in Ernst Happel’s team that became the first Dutch side to win a major European trophy, clinching the European Cup in 1970. Van Hanegem was instrumental in that success, including scoring the goal that knocked out reigning champions AC Milan in the second round of the competition. In front of a packed crowd at De Kuip, Van Hanegem headed home with just ten minutes remaining to send the stadium into utter pandemonium.
In the final Feyenoord faced the European Champions from three years earlier: Jock Stein’s Celtic. Showing great tactical aptitude, Feyenoord boss Ernst Happel deployed three midfielders in a 4-3-3 formation so that Celtic were outnumbered in the centre and van Hanegem could dictate play alongside Franz Hasil and Wim Jansen. Through guile, grit and a late winner by Ove Kindvall, Feyenoord were crowned champions of Europe.
Over the next four seasons, Wim van Hanegem would lift his second and third Eredivisie titles as well as a UEFA Cup (defeating Tottenham Hotspur 4-2 in the 1973-74 Final). That win would signal the end of Feyenoord’s short period of dominance – by this time Ajax had firmly established themselves as European top dogs and Feyenoord would also have to wait another ten years before they could lay claim to the Eredivisie title once again.
Some Feyenoord fans have continued to fight the erroneous perception that Ajax alone revolutionised Dutch football in the ’70s and ’80s. That feat was only achieved through a concerted determination to improve by many clubs in the Netherlands at the time. It was mainly Ajax and Feyenoord though, as the composition of the Dutch squad in 1974 would illustrate.
The Oranje had not been to a World Cup in 38 years, but now there was a renewed sense of belief in the virility of the Dutch game. The revolutionary ‘Totaalvoetbal‘ style that the Oranje were playing would have counted for nothing however if the usual club differences between Ajax and Feyenoord players had been allowed to take root and fester.
Willem van Hanegem ensured that did not happen. Tolerating subjugating himself to the leadership of the great Johan Cruyff (who played for Ajax), he set an example that the rest of the Feyenoord players followed. This made it easier for Rinus Michels to coach a very talented group of players who made it to the final of the World Cup.
It was at the final barrier that the Dutch machine juddered to a halt. It was an emotional match; Dutch players and fans had felt the full effect of the German occupation of Holland in the Second World War. Victory would be viewed in some quarters as a sort of consolation for the terrors that happened during the war. However, it was not to be.
Scoring within two minutes of kick-off, the Dutch seemed set to cruise to victory against a rattled West German side and the dazzling passing sequences and ease with which the Dutch controlled the game was a joy to watch. A controversial penalty in the 35th minute pulled Die Mannschaft level, before Gerd Müller headed in his 14th World Cup goal to put the Germans in the lead. The Oranje fought hard to the end but could not find an equaliser.
On the day no Dutch player could hold a candle to the performance of Willem van Hanegem whose touch was assured and passing impeccable. His passion was evident in his tackling as he clattered into one German player after the next. Having felt the full effect of the war personally, he was absolutely determined to beat the Germans.
“I didn’t give a damn about the score. 1–0 was enough, as long as we could humiliate them. They murdered my family. Each time I faced Germany I was angst-filled.” – Willem van Hanegem
Leaving the pitch in abject disappointment, van Hanegem returned home to spend another two underwhelming seasons at Feyenoord. Moving to AZ Alkmaar in 1976, his wealth of experience helped to inspire a young side and he won a KNVB Cup medal there in his second season. He went on to spend one season in the nascent North American Super League with Chicago Sting before returning to join his childhood club, Velox, which had been merged some years earlier with two other clubs to form FC Utrecht.
Van Hanegem returned to De Kuip between 1981 and 1983 to wind down his career into retirement at the place where he achieved the most. This was a player who built a career from the ground up and worked tirelessly to hone his skills and build his talents. Gracing pitches across the continent he stroked pass after beguiling pass. The birthplace of Willem van Hanegem, the Dutch province of Zeeland, has a motto, one that epitomises his life and career : Luctor et Emergo, I Struggle and Emerge.