The third-place play-off at the World Cup is often seen as an afterthought, a meaningless game before the much-awaited final. The 2014 edition was different however, especially for the Brazilians. After being humiliated on their home turf by Germany 7-1 in the semi-final (which overtook the Brazil v Uruguay match at the 1950 finals as the biggest shock in the history of Brazilian football), Brazil had a point to prove. The Dutch, on the other hand, had been unlucky to be defeated by Argentina on penalties in the other semi-final and wanted to end the World Cup on a high. What followed was a relatively straightforward 3-0 win for the Dutch; the Brazilians seemed to give up after the second goal was scored and it was an easy game for the Dutch to see out.
This was a World Cup full of contrasting records for the two teams: Brazil had conceded the most goals by any team since the 1986 finals, whereas the Dutch had secured a second consecutive top-three World Cup finish and were unlucky not to reach the final. The two nations’ respective World Cup records could not be more different overall however. The Netherlands have never been victorious and have recorded the unwanted stat of reaching the most finals without triumphing.
Brazil, on the other hand, has won the tournament five times, lost the final twice and had, arguably, the best team to never win it in 1982. The direct matches between these two nations have surprisingly favoured the Dutch: three wins (1974, 2010 and 2014) compared to the two for Brazil (1994 and 1998). Leaving aside the 2014 third-place play-off, the other four ties have been classics.
The first World Cup meeting between the two nations came at the 1974 finals in West Germany. The format of the tournament included a second group stage instead of a straight knockout competition for the first time. After the two nations had won their first two matches in the group, their meeting was effectively billed as a semi-final clash: whoever won was through to the final.
Dutch football was on a high in 1974. The European Cup had been won by a team from the Netherlands in four out of the past five seasons. Feyenoord under the great Ernst Happel had beaten Celtic in the 1970 final and Ajax led by the marvellous Rinus Michels (followed by Ștefan Kovács) and his star pupil Johan Cruyff had triumphed for three consecutive seasons between 1971 and 1973.
Ajax used a style of play termed total football, a system that is extremely fluid and allows any outfield player to take over the role of any other player on the team. Michels slightly reworked this style that allowed for the genius of Cruyff to use his creative ability to exploit the opposition team. The Dutch World Cup record had been, at a glance, abysmal up until 1974. They had only qualified twice, in 1934 and 1938, exiting at the first round stage both times. Compare this to Brazil’s record of having been present at every past tournament and having won three out of the last four editions: whenever favourites were discussed then Brazil were always part of that conversation.
The Seleção had had to deal with the retirements of several key players since their victory in Mexico four years earlier however, most notably Pelé. The Dutch qualified fairly easily for the second group stage by topping their section with two wins against Bulgaria and Uruguay whilst rounding off with a draw against Sweden. This match was to be remembered fondly for the introduction of the “Cruyff turn”: Cruyff had control of the ball facing his own goal, he feigned a pass and dragged the ball behind his standing leg then accelerated away in the other direction, leaving the Swedish defender bewildered.
Brazil didn’t have it all their own way in qualifying for the second group stage. They won against debutants Zaire but could only draw against Yugoslavia and Scotland, securing qualification by the tightest of margins by having scored one more goal against Zaire than the Scots.
With two wins each in the second group stage, the Netherlands would play Brazil to decide who qualified for the final. This game almost signalled the passing of the torch, from the beautiful game to total football. The first half was marked by some rough challenges and scrappy football, with chances relatively even. The Dutch got after the restart with Johan Neeskens scoring his fourth goal of the tournament. This gave the Dutch confidence and a second goal followed when Cruyff fired a lunging volley past the Brazilian keeper Émerson Leão. This effectively killed the game and with the Dutch defending well, Brazil suffered further from Luís Pereira being sent off for a bad foul on Neeskens.
The Dutch lost the final to the hosts West Germany, while Brazil finished in fourth place. The next meeting at the World Cup between these two nations wouldn’t be for another two decades.
The fortunes of both nations had varied since their first meeting in 1974. The Dutch reached another final in 1978 and ran Argentina close before ultimately losing in extra time. Then they didn’t qualify until 1990, marking a generation of Dutch players who would never play at a World Cup – although under Michels, they did win the European Championships in 1988 with one of the finest ever Dutch sides.
The Brazilians finished fourth in 1978, but then with arguably the greatest team never to win the competition, failed to even reach the semi-finals for the next three tournaments extending the run to 24 years since the seleção had last won the competition.
Both teams moved towards an eventual quarter-final showdown in Dallas relatively easily. The Dutch were beaten by Belgium in the second group game but won against Morocco to qualify for the last 16. Brazil topped their group and defeated the hosts, USA, to go through to the quarters. The match between the two nations was hosted in Dallas in scorching temperatures which slightly favoured the Brazilians.
Both nations played in their away shirts, Brazil in blue and the Dutch in white. The match would develop into a classic after a slightly underwhelming first half that produced no goals.After the break things sparked into life: Romário and Bebeto led the line for Brazil and the pair combined well for the first goal. Then Bebeto rounded the keeper to score a second and introduced the famous cradling baby celebration to the world.
The Dutch, seemingly out of the match and the tournament, struck back immediately with a goal by Dennis Bergkamp – a stunning solo effort – and drew level shortly after through Aaron Winter. Extra-time loomed and with the temperature in Dallas draining the players, the Brazilians found their just reward with a winner by Branco, whose 25-yard free-kick flew into the corner, qualifying Brazil for the semi-final.
Brazil went on to win the tournament and level the aggregate score against their European counterparts. This time the wait until a next competitive meeting was short – 4 years – and their semi-final meeting in Marseille at France 1998 was to be a cracker.
The Dutch 1998 squad featured a group of players who had excelled in the famous Champions League winning Ajax side of the mid-’90s. Bergkamp was the focal point; an outstanding talent who had helped Arsenal win the English League and Cup double a month prior to the finals. Brazil were flying too and in particular Ronaldo had shown his class thus far in the competition.
The Dutch were unconvincing in the group stage, beating South Korea 5-0 but drawing in a fiery clash with Belgium and then again with Mexico. Two last-minute winners against Yugoslavia and then Argentina carried them through the knockout stages and on to the semi-finals. Brazil’s route was slightly easier, on paper at least. Qualification from their group was straight forward and then Chile and Denmark were dispatched to set up that semi-final clash with the Dutch.
The third meeting between these old foes at a World Cup started off tensely and no goals were forthcoming in the first half. At the beginning of the second half, Rivaldo slipped a great pass through for Ronaldo who clinically converted the opportunity. The Dutch needed another late show as they had in their previous two matches if they were to salvage anything from this game, and they duly got it. Frank De Boer pounced on some slack Brazilian defending and sent over a cross for Kluivert who powered a header past Taffarel.
Extra-time ended without any further goals, so it was to be penalties that would determine who would face the hosts in the final. Brazil scored all four of theirs, while Taffarel consistently guessed the correct way and saved two of the Dutch efforts by Coco and Ronald De Boer.
Dutch disappointment at the World Cup continued. Brazil failed to become the first team to defend their trophy twice as they crashed 3-0 to a Zinedine Zidane-inspired French side in the final. The next time the Netherlands and Brazil would meet on the grandest stage of all, the football world looked a very different place.
After losing in the 1998 final, Brazil bounced back to prove themselves the most potent team at the 2002 finals in what was a World Cup of the underdog with South Korea and Turkey reaching the semi-finals. Ronaldo redeemed himself by finishing top scorer and resurrecting a career that was seemingly under threat following several knee injuries. In what was almost like déjà vu from ‘98, they exited following another uninspiring performance against a French team led by Zidane in 2006.
The Dutch hadn’t even qualified for the 2002 finals; semi-final appearances at Euro 2000 and 2004 were as good as it got for a team in transition before the 2010 finals. This was also a Brazil squad in the midst of change; this was the first World Cup since 1990 to not feature Cafu and the first since 1994 to not feature Ronaldo in their squad. This was a team with a relatively new feel to it.
Brazil defeated North Korea unconvincingly in their first match and followed that up with a 3-1 win against the Ivory Coast. They rounded off the group with a stalemate against Portugal. The most convincing performance came against Chile in the last 16 in which they won 3-0 to set up a tie against the old foes – the Netherlands.
The Dutch won all three of their group games to finish top of their group in an efficient rather than entertaining style, however, this would serve them well all the way to the final. A tight 2-1 victory over Slovakia set up another titanic quarter-final tie against Brazil.
This was the fourth and most recent World Cup meeting between these two old rivals. Robinho opened the scoring in the 10th minute when he slotted home a splendid pass from Felipe Melo. Brazil had chances to double their advantage before halftime but couldn’t capitalise. The Dutch came out for the second half with a bolder attitude and in the 53rd minute it paid dividends as Wesley Sneijder’s ball into the box was turned into the Brazilian goal by Felipe Melo (the first own goal at a World Cup by Brazil in 97 games). The Dutch could smell blood and 15 minutes later Sneijder got his goal to give the Dutch a deserved lead.
Further misery was compounded on Brazil as Felipe Melo’s Jekyll and Hyde match ended prematurely with a red card. The Dutch avenged that penalty shootout defeat from ‘98 and moved on to the semi-final. Brazil exited at the same stage as in 2006 and with hosting duties due for the 2014 tournament, massive change was needed in order for them to regroup as the powerhouse they were used to being.
These two great nations have a wonderful history in the game and seeing them battle it out once again in World Cups to come would be a treat. Previous clashes between the two have lived up to the billing: from Cruyff’s glorious team in 1974 to Ronaldo’s magic in 1998; this rivalry is sometimes forgotten but always illuminates when given centre-stage.