Johan Neeskens on the intimidating atmosphere at Argentina '78

Like four years earlier, Neeskens and his Dutch colleagues reached the World Cup final

Netherlands, Argentina, Daniel Passarella, World Cup, 1978, Johan Neeskens

Daniel Passarella, Argentina captain (l) and Johan Neeskens, Holland (r). Peter Robinson/EMPICS Sport

To date, Netherlands remains the only side to have reached three FIFA World Cup finals without once taking the trophy home.

In some ways they were perhaps unlucky to have faced the home nation in the first two of those finals, losing to West Germany in 1974 and then four years later against Argentina in 1978.

The former side is best remembered as it was the peak of Total Football and also featured Johan Cruyff. The second side from four years later got to the same stage without being as well remembered.

One of the players who unites '74 and '78 is legendary and tenacious ex-Ajax and Barcelona midfielder Johan Neeskens, who joined me on Newstalk's Team 33 this week.

Having scored a penalty in the 1974 final, the 65 year old had a sense of confidence heading into the tournament four years later.

"We had a sense of confidence but of course we were going even farther away [than in Germany '74] and you were playing with your fans," said Neeskens of the geographical challenges for the European teams and their fans in '78 as a long and expensive route to South America beckoned.

"Because in Germany there were all the time between 25-30,000 people in the stadiums. So for us nearly every game was a home game."

You can listen to the full interview on the podcast player or on iTunes:

"And then in Argentina, you know there are more South American supporters in the stadiums than from Europe, so that made it even more difficult but we were confident that we could go far in that tournament." 

Although, they only squeezed out of their opening group thanks to a goals difference advantage over a Scotland side that beat them 3-2 (the match which featured the Archie Gemmill wonder goal), Netherlands grew into the tournament to reach a final where home nation Argentina, who were also awaiting a first ever World Cup triumph, awaited.

The hostility towards the Dutch finalists would be one of the takeaways from '78 in an Argentina ruled by a right wing military dictatorship.

But before Netherlands and Argentina had reached the final, the Dutch enjoyed the welcome from the locals.

"In all the games before, the Argentinian people liked the way Holland played and we also had a little boy - a mascot - from Argentina all the time with us, even with us on the field and they enjoyed it. But the father, he came and then it turned around," Neeskens recalls.

"At the last moment when we knew we were going to play Argentina in the final then everything was against us. And even the public, when you were driving in the bus to the practice or whatever, there was a different atmosphere." 

Johan Neeskens describes sheer tension of taking a World Cup final penalty

Just before the final kicked off, there were other mind games that the Dutch had to contend with. 

Dutch winger Rene van der Kerkhof had been wearing a plaster cast on his wrist to protect an injury in earlier games but Argentina captain [and future manager] Daniel Passarella complained and the match referee forced Van der Kerkhof to comply, much to the anger of the Dutch. 

As The Glasgow Herald reported on their back page, "after much debate the referee as is always the case, had his way and the offending strapping came off". The paper also highlighted another little bit of "gamesmanship" to unnerve the Dutch: "They kept the Dutch waiting for fully five minutes before they themselves appeared on the pitch to be greeted by the most fantastic welcome I have ever witnessed. It rained confetti and streamers and through the white storm it seemed as if everyone in the stadium had hoisted an Argentinian flag."

Argentina fans waving flags are throwing toilet rolls from the stands. Peter Robinson/EMPICS Sport

The match itself would end 3-1 to the home side after extra time but it was played out in a physical manner (along with the skill) with both sides giving as good as they got in that regard.

Neeskens, for example, was left writhing in agony on the floor as tension built late in the final (you can see the incident here around the 1 hour 33 minute mark), after Passarella caught the Dutch midfielder with his arm off the ball, long after the then Ajax player had released a pass.

Neeskens would eventually finish the game but 39 years on, he does highlight the relevancy of the context of the time in Argentina.

"You could expect it because it was obvious in that final that Argentina had to win because of the whole economic problems over there, the whole political way. That was very clear and of course in that game a lot of things happened that the referee should not have tolerated. But OK it happened and we knew also that it was going to happen," he said.