Rob Rensenbrink isn’t the first name that comes to mind when thinking of Dutch left-wingers in the 70s, but he was close to usurping Cruyff as the national hero who achieved the ultimate. In the last minute of the 1978 World Cup final, with the scores level at 1-1, Rensenbrink hit the post.
Argentina scored twice in extra-time to lift the trophy, and instead of being hailed as the Dutch king, Rensenbrink has been left for a more obscure part of football history. He was inches from being the 1978 World Cup’s top scorer, best player, and winner – inches from legend.
The failure at the 1974 World Cup has become so synonymous with Dutch football that it’s almost forgotten that they came so close to winning it four years later (even if some believe that the World Cup hosted in Argentina was always going to be won by Argentina – whether they earned it or not), and in much the same way, while ’74 is about Cruyff, ’78 being about Rensenbrink has certainly been forgotten. But that’s just yet another case of Rob Rensenbrink being so close to stardom and having something in his way.
In Rensenbrink, we’re talking about a player who was one of the absolute best in the world at his peak, although never quite cemented his name. In 1976, his greatest year, Rensenbrink was runner-up for the Balon d’Or – another case of him being just on the edge of greatness but pipped to the award by Beckenbauer – and winner of the, admittedly less prestigious, Onze d’Or.
He was the second top-scorer at the ’78 World Cup, remembered as the second best player after Mario Kempes. He was absolutely dominant in European football at club level but in the second most important trophy – he’s the all-time top scorer for the Cup Winners’ Cup. His career was spent, unlike Cruyff, with a club in the tier below the top, in a league that wasn’t at the pinnacle – in Belgium with Anderlecht.
“He was as good as Cruyff – but completely different.”
The comparisons with Cruyff are easy to make – Dutch left-winger who led a World Cup squad as the star player all the way to the final with a relatively similar hairstyle – even if they are unfair. No one deserves to be compared to Johann Cruyff other than the absolute elite of the elite, but then the fact that there are those who played with the two of them who make the comparisons perhaps says a lot.
“Robbie Rensenbrink was as good as Cruijff, only in his mind was he not.”
Former Anderlecht and Ajax striker Jan Mulder
It’s perhaps quite fitting that the big comparison for Rensenbrink is something of a backhanded compliment (“He’s like Cruyff, but not on that level”), finding the sweet spot between his talent and the legacy he left – hugely talented, but not a legend like Cruyff.
But he could have been. A bit of luck and a slightly different path and Rensenbrink would have a reputation to rival most.
He began his career with the amateur Amsterdamsche Football Club Door Wilskracht Sterk (translation: Amsterdam Football Club Strong Through Willpower – a naming convention that more clubs should take. Liverpool Football Club Weak Through Defensive Errors just cuts to the chase). We’ll call them DWS like everyone else. The four years Rensenbrink spent at DWS would be the only time he spent actually playing football in the Netherlands. It becomes easier to understand why a player of Rensenbrink’s calibre failed to generate the following that other top Dutch players did – and indeed other top players of his era.
Those four years inspired Club Brugge to take Rensenbrink to Belgium. Two years with Brugge led to two consecutive second-place finishes in the Belgian top flight, but also a Belgian cup in his first season. That cup began a love affair with two competitions for the Dutchman – the Belgian Cup, and perhaps more significant, the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup.
A strike rate of one in two prompted a move to Anderlecht, the club that would be Rensenbrink’s home for the next nine years. Trophies were easy to find at Anderlecht, and although the club won the title twice in his first few years there, Rensenbrink’s time at the club is undoubtedly most known for the dominance of the Belgian Cup from 1972-76, and the subsequent success in the Cup Winners’ Cup.
’72, ’73, ’75, and ’76 were all Belgian Cup winning years for Anderlecht, and winning it that often meant the team was consistently a part of UEFA’s secondary competition. Rensenbrink flourished in the tournament, and his 25 goals over the years made him the all-time top scorer in the competition by the time it was disbanded in 1999. Four of these goals game in finals, too. Anderlecht reached the final three consecutive times between 1976 and 1978 (another record), winning it in both the former and the latter. Rensenbrink scored twice in a 4-2 victory over West Ham in ’76, and another two against Austria Vienna in a 4-0 thrashing in ’78.
1976 was Rensenbrink’s year. A Belgian Cup win, a Cup Winner’s Cup win, and European Super Cup win (Rensenbrink scored twice in a 4-1 home leg win over Bayern Munich) all came that year – and naturally, the awards followed. He was named as the Belgian player of the year, awarded the Onze d’Or (the inaugural winner), the IOC named him the European Footballer of the Year (which seems a strange award for the IOC to give, but win it he did), as well as finishing runner-up in the voting for the Balon d’Or behind Franz Beckenbauer. This laundry list of awards would usually grant legendary status to any player, but Resenbrink lacks that.
It’s most obvious by looking at his international career, and his impact on the national team really set his legacy in stone. This is 1970s Dutch football, of course, so the immediate places to look are the two World Cups of that decade.
Rensenbrink’s 1974 World Cup was hindered by one thing in particular – he played where Cruyff did. That simple problem prevented him from establishing himself in the team, and he went into the tournament as the left-sided midfield player, deeper than he preferred. The squad was made up of mostly Ajax and Feyenoord players, with a couple of Twente talents, a goalkeeper from Club Brugge, and Barcelona’s Cruyff (although, obviously, Cruyff was practically Ajax). It meant that Rensenbrink was perhaps an outsider in the team, unable to play where he wanted, and a name from another country. Still, he played all but one game in the tournament. That fateful final against Germany was a particular disaster for Rensenbrink. Rinus Michels has gambled on his fitness ahead of it, but the Anderlecht star was forced off at half-time, left to watch the disappointment play out from the sidelines.
Rensenbrink did, however, make the team of the tournament, despite the unideal place in the squad. It was a sign of what was to come four years later.
“I never argued with Cruyff about this. For me it was no problem. We had success in ever game. But I didn’t really playat the level I did in Belgium. I played much better in ’78 because Cruyff wasn’t on top of me, but also because I was four years older”
The 1978 World Cup was when Rensenbrink’s career would be defined. If things had gone another way, he’d have passed into legend, as it was, he has a legacy not befitting his talent.
Cruyff retired from international football before the tournament began, meaning Rensenbrink would have the favoured position that he was kept from having four years previously. He scored a hattrick in the opening game, picking up a further two on route to the final (his strike against Scotland was the 1000th World Cup goal) as he lit up the show as arguably the best player at the tournament. Argentina, the hosts, awaited the Netherlands in that final.
It’s still believed by many that there was no way Argentina were losing that final, the military dictatorship that ruled the country perceived as running things to get the result they wanted. Shenanigans, a dodgy referee, possible match-fixing – there was a lot to be pointed at by those who believed it. Regardless, The Netherlands came within inches.
Having gone 1-0 down to a Mario Kempes goal in the first half, substitute Dick Nanninga equalised with ten minutes to play, setting the stage for the defining moment of Resenbrink’s career.
The game reached stoppage time, a free kick is floated in from deep, evading everyone. Rensenbrink sticks out a leg and pokes the ball past the onrushing Ubaldo Fillol in the Argentina goal. Agonisingly, the ball bounced back off the post.
“If Rensenbrink hadn’t hit the post in the Final, he would have been the top scorer.”
Argentina scored twice more in extra-time to lift the trophy, Kempes getting a second to lift him above Rensenbrink as the tournament’s top scorer – also clinching the Golden Ball for best player in the process. And that sums it up better than anything. If Rensenbrink prods that ball slightly to the right, he wins the World Cup, finishes as top scorer, and almost certainly wins that golden ball. Has there ever been a finer line in football?
“If it had gone in, we would have won. We would have been World Champions in Argentina. It’s a pity.”
He remained with Anderlecht for a further two years, but the 1978 World Cup was the last of Rensenbrink at his best. THe last two years of his career were split between the USA with Portland Timbers and France, playing (and winning) the second division with Toulouse.
Trophies and individual awards glittered the career of Rob Rensenbrink, but it could have been so much more. He could have gone down in history as a great, could have been a defining image of his nations footballing history, but instead one ball, in one moment, was slightly off target.
“Sometimes I think it would have been better for me to miss completely. Then people wouldn’t ask about it. If it was a big chance, I would still suffer from it, but really it was impossible to score.”