In the Final of the 1974 World Cup René van de Kerkhof replaced the injured Rob Rensenbrink at half-time. This substitution marked the real beginning of the van de Kerkhof years of Oranje. Along with his twin brother Willy, René was an integral part of the national team from the mid to late Seventies.
Renier Lambertus and Wilhelmus Anthonius van de Kerkhof were born in 1951. The van de Kerkhof twins were the leaders of PSV which grew to become Holland’s dominant club as they won the national championship in 1975, 1976 and 1978. In the early Seventies the national team was centered around Ajax, Feyenoord and the Total Football concept. This made is somewhat difficult for the van de Kerkhof twins to get recognition. In addition they were a few years younger than the Cruijffs and van Hanegems of the team, and hence they matured a few years later.
1973 René made his debut for Oranje against Austria. A year later, in the final warm-up match before the 1974 World Cup, Willy made his debut against Romania as a substitute for Wim van Hanegem. Willy did not get to play in the World Cup itself and René came in as a substitute for Rob Rensenbrink in the second half of the Final. As he had not played previously in the tournament, it was a real baptism by fire.
By the mid-Seventies the van de Kerkhofs’ PSV was the best team in Holland. In the 1976 European Championship the brothers appeared together for the first time in an international tournament. They had established themselves as fixtures on the national team. Willy scored a very nice goal in the consolation match. In 1978 the van de Kerkhof twins inspired PSV to its UEFA Cup victory over Johnny Rep’s Bastia. The twins were still at the nucleus of the national team as they joined Oranje to prepare for the World Cup in Argentina. Both brothers scored in that tournament, the only time that has ever happened in Dutch football history. Willy scored on a counter against Austria and René pierced the West German defence to score the equaliser in the next match. Willy and René stood together in the Final and despite playing well, they went home empty-handed. René in particular had a good match and by beating the Argentinean off-side trap, he floated a cross into the penalty area for Dick Nanninga to head in the equaliser.
In 1980 the van de Kerkhof twins were back on the national team in the European Championship. In the second match of the first round Willy scored against the West Germans. This made him the second Dutch player ever to score in three tournaments. The first player, Johnny Rep, had accomplished the feat seven minutes earlier. Willy can, however, claim all his goals were during the course of the play whereas Rep’ only goal in 1980 was a penalty. Dennis Bergkamp equaled the record in 1996.
The brothers played for Oranje together for the last time in 1981 in Holland’s victory over France. René retired after that match with 47 caps and five goals. Willy lasted much longer on the national team. He continued to play in a number of important matches until retiring in 1985 after the first play-off match against Belgium for the 1986 World Cup spot. Upon his retirement Willy had 63 caps and five goals to his name.
The van de Kerkhof twins were one of a number of sets of brothers on the national team in what appears to be a somewhat Dutch phenomenon. In recent decades the Mühren, Koeman, Witschge and de Boer brothers have all had their turn on the national team, something that is not often seen in other countries.