During the Seventies, in the Total Football years, players like Johan Cruijff, Ruud Krol and Wim van Hanegem were renowned for their refined technique and vision. The muscle of the team was, however, Johan Neeskens. Due to the fact that his career was so intertwined with that of Cruijff, the “other Johan” was often overshadowed by Cruijff. Neeskens was a tremendous player who was critical to the success of the national team during the Seventies. He was an aggressive, sharp-tackling midfielder who was perfectly suited for the pattern of “Total Football” with both Ajax and Holland. He is still considered Holland’s best-ever midfielder and is always included at the top of the list of the greatest midfielders the sport has ever produced. Neeskens, who was often known by such nick names as the warrior player and the commando, was said to go where angels fear to tread. He provided the physical strength for his more technical team-mates.
Neeskens was born in 1951. He was a natural athlete whose passion for football equaled his love for baseball. Fortunately for Oranje, Neeskens chose to pursue football. He worked his way through the youth teams at Ajax and was moved onto the first team by Rinus Michels, who was strengthening the team after its 1969 defeat in the Final of the European Cup. In 1971 Ajax was back in the Final and Neeskens, who was considered the new wonderboy of Dutch football, was in the starting line-up. Ajax won the title and they dominated the international scene for the next two years. Neeskens won the European Cup three times with Ajax. He then joined Cruijff and trainer Rinus Michels in Barcelona. Neeskens’ skill and
physical prowess was feared by all who stood in his way. He became known as one of the toughest players in the world. He had been incredibly important to Ajax because he was one of the few players who really understood Cruijff. The collaboration of the two Johans was particularly fruitful because of Neeskens almost telepathic ability to predict and read the complex Cruijff.
In the 1974 World Cup, Neeskens was in top form. He scored five goals, but his fourth goal, in the Semi-Final against Brazil, was a real beauty. It was a mix of strength and skill that demoralised the Brazilian defense. In the Final he earned a place in history by converting the first-ever penalty in a World Cup Final, which was also the fastest ever goal of a Final. The 1976 European Championship was a disappointment for Neeskens as he was expelled with a red card in the Semi-Final for being a bit too tough. The 1978 World Cup in Argentina was hard on him as he suffered a rib injury in the second match which side-lined him for several matches. When he returned he played well but was unable to impose himself as much as in 1974.
Although only twenty-eight, Neeskens retired from the national team after the 1978 World Cup. He had played 49 international matches with Oranje and had scored 17 goals in the process. His successes with Barcelona continued, however, as he won the European Cup-winners Cup in 1979. Neeskens then made a career move similar to that of many of his generation and went to play in the North American Soccer League. He stayed in the United States for four years before returning to Holland, to wind down his playing days with Groningen.
After his retirement Neeskens settled in Switzerland and took up coaching. He was the trainer of an amateur side in September of 1996 when he was called up by national trainer Guus Hiddink to serve as his assistant. Neeskens accepted and once again became of pivotal importance to Oranje. Naturally his many fans hope that the top spot will open up to him in the future as Holland has known few sportsmen as inspirational as Johan Neeskens.