RUDOLF JOZEF KROL

MOHAMED MOALLIM >

The internet, and YouTube in particular, has become a wonderful tool for the football junkie; endless hours wasted basking in nostalgia, whether it be great memories, goals, moments, or even the odd controversy. But something I’ve come to lament is the lack of individual highlights, show reels, compilations – call them what you like – of some of the great players from a bygone age. Players who should be forever crystallised, their memories echoing through time. My favourites have a common denominator; see if you can guess it: Johnny Rep, Rob Rensenbrink, GerIllustration: GANT POWELL >

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rie Mühren, Arie Haan. Have you got it? I’m sure you have. However, one name I’ve omitted from that list is the biggest scandal of all. A player who I believe has no equal, either during his generation or since, in Europe or further afield. His name should be synonymous with Total Football, rampaging fullbacks, elegant sweepers. His name is Rudolf Jozef Krol. Here I must jump ahead somewhat to stress the term ‘total football’ has lost its original meaning today, where it’s associated with free-flowing, passing, attacking football. Theoretically no side has played Total Football system since the mid 1970s and frankly, it may be a long time until we see another side achieve

the same level that Krol and co. did. Where to begin with Krol, this marvel, this legend of the game? Superlatives soon start to dry up. In the modern game, many get carried away with Dani Alves’ attacking prowess – even I do sometimes – but Krol was on another planet, if not another galaxy. Yes, he was predominantly a left-back (early in his career, anyway), but I also believe his mate and counterpart on the other flank, Wim Suurbier, was also a greater player than Alves will ever be. But that’s another article for another time. Krol, on his day (which was more or less every time he took to the field), dominated the entire left flank. It was his domain; no-one touched

him. It’s amazing, considering that as a youth player he was mainly right-footed. When Theo van Duivenbode left Ajax in the summer of 1969, Krol was drafted into the squad. His coach, Rinus Michels, set him a challenge: take that vacant spot. But Krol needed to change his game – slightly. Michels wanted Krol to be as effective with his left foot as his right, to maximise his attacking potential, while also thinking of the various ways he could counter the opposition that would pose him problems. Michels also knew of the one major stumbling block to his development: his party lifestyle. He even commented that the biggest threat to Krol wasn't wingers, but the Amsterdam nightlife.

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Before he could get his head around where he was in his career, the 20year-old Krol was lining up for the national team. His début came against England, and despite playing well the Netherlands lost In his first pre-season for Back on the the game 1-0, which was the club, the defender’s domestic front, no shame against the impressive displays then world champions. against Schalke 04 and things weren’t Two months later in the Manchester City justified always rosy reverse fixture Krol Michels’ belief, and he played again in a goalless was given an opportunity to prove draw. After an imperious performhimself in the league. In one of his ance against him, England winger first games he scored a spectacular Francis Lee labelled Krol as the finest goal against Sparta Rotterdam, left-back he'd ever faced. catching everyone’s attention. The following day in training Michels acHowever, back on the domestic knowledged that he was on the right footing, things weren’t always rosy; path with a simple pat on the back despite an impressive start his place

Krol accepted the gauntlet. He would spend hours after training working on his left foot, with Michels watching on. Deep down, Krol knew Michels truly believed in him, and that he could reach for the stars if he applied himself correctly.

and word in the ear.

in the first XI wasn’t always guaranteed. Ajax had started to build a reputation as a slick-passing attacking team, and as their fanbase grew, so did the level of expectation. The fans demanded to be entertained. Michels noticed this, and in order to sate their appetite he would often – in the home games at least – bench Krol in favour of a more attackminded player (often the forward Dick van Dijk). However, when Krol was benched for a tricky away game against MVV Maastricht, he went to see Michels in his office the following day to ask him about his decision. Krol later reflected on that moment: “I know there were always exciting stories about me and how I lived my life, but in those days I was a serious pro-

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fessional. I simply asked for the reason and since then, I started in all the games.” An early setback saw Kroll miss Ajax’s first European Cup triumph, against Panathinaikos in 1971 (he was sidelined with a broken leg which he picked up against NEC just before the semi-final against Atlético Madrid). This was the lowest point in his career. Krol later described the agony of missing out on what would have been his first European Cup final: “You would stand there in the wide tunnel in Wembley, waiting to go onto the pitch. You had to wait a bit for the formalities. That feeling then and there, the sound, the excitement, that’s why you play football.

“The best players in the world stood there and they all felt the butterflies. And there I was, with my leg in a cast. And the noise from the stands swells up. The orgy of sound, of hope, singing, chanting, yelling. “Nowhere in the world is a venue noisier than Wembley. And I was there, among the players, but they got to play and I could only watch. It was the hardest moment of my career.” That disappointment quickly left him the following season. Krol became an integral part of the all-conquering side that won every piece of silverware up for grabs, setting all kinds of records in the process. He was tailor-made for Michels’ sys-

tem, which was continued by the coach’s successor, Ștefan Kovács. Like most – if not all – of his team mates, Krol was adept in various positions on the pitch, in what became known as the Total Football philosophy. Krol would often drift into the centre of the pitch, if the passage of play required it. Once that happened, defensive midfielder Arie Haan would take up Krol's original position. As Krol moved into this central position, it was more than likely he would take up a deeper role. This was mainly to cover for elegant centre-half Barry Hulshoff, who liked to continue his forward runs and join the attack. His partner, the sweeper Horst Blankenburg, in the same passage of play would shuttle across to the vacant rightback position, and Suurbier would

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end up as a right-winger.

was the philosophy.”

game he attributed to Velibor Vasović, the great libero: “I was always looking what Vasović was doing. I watched what he did, how he did it. I tried to think and move like him. Vasović played so many games without making one mistake. I learned a lot from him. He was the conductor.” Krol’s biggest strength was undoubtedly his tenacity. In the space of about two years he made the step up from talented junior player in the fourth class Rood-Wit Club to internationally respected Ajax defender. This takes more than just talent. His first contract was 2,500 guilders per year, with an extra 60 coming in bonuses for games won. This equates to around £22,000 in

There was no rushing in the Ajax sysKrol's intelligence meant that he was tem – there was no need to. It was often the organiser at the back, at built to make sure the players were times in tandem with Johan as fresh at the end of the game as Neeskens, the instigator of the they were at the team’s pressing start. Krol explained If I run 70 metres up game. But where he the simplicity of the the wing it’s not was deadly was in system: his natural domain: good if I immediately often more of a left“It was also a solu- have to run back 70 winger, alongside tion to a physical to my starting place the likes of Johan problem. How can Cruijff, Piet Keizer you play for 90 minutes and remain and Johnny Rep, he would cause strong? If I, as a left-back, run 70 plenty of problems for the opposimetres up the wing, it's not good if I tion. immediately have to run back 70 to my starting place. So if the left midMuch of his attacking prowess he atfielder takes my place and left tributed to studying and learning winger takes the midfield position, from Keizer, with whom he was then it shortens the distance. That close. The defensive side of his

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today’s money. He later said, “I knew it was hardest for me to go to Ajax, what with the competition and all, but I also knew that if I’d make it there I could make it anywhere.” As a student of the game, Krol was ever learning. When Ajax played Celtic in the 1970/71 European Cup, Jimmy Johnstone often got the better of him to the extent the left-back was made redundant in the game. Nevertheless, words of encouragement from Michels put paid to that. The manager, who would later be crowned FIFA Coach of the Century, urged Krol to rethink his approach and adapt to the situation, instead of letting it get to him. By doing this he could get one over on his tormentor, and that he did.

The 1972 European Cup final triumph over Internazionale was the game that cemented the team’s legacy. Although Cruijff would go on to claim the individual accolades, he remained humble in praise of his team mates, often saying Krol was one of the finest players he played with, if not the best. Back to the international scene. Krol was as effective in orange as in red and white. His brilliant play on the left flank was key to The Netherlands’ near-success at the 1974 World Cup, no more so than as provider of Cruijff’s now famous goal against Brazil. However, that brilliant Dutch side were denied the success that Krol and Cruijff enjoyed at club level, finishing as runners-up to West Germany, who defeated

them 2-1. Four years later and now minus Cruijff, they came even closer to glory. Now captaining the side and playing as a Vasović-esque sweeper, Krol almost scored the winning goal in the final: his free kick from deep in his own half was missed by Rensenbrink, and the ball rebounded off the post. Yet more agony. The game went to extra time, where Argentina triumphed 3-1. Krol won 83 caps for l’Oranje and was the most-capped Dutch player until Aron Winter broke his record in 2000. Only eight players have represented The Netherlands on more occasions than Krol. Despite playing over 300 games in

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12 seasons for Ajax, he felt that his decision not to leave along with Neeskens, Keizer and Cruijff may have hindered his career. This in no ways besmirches the club – it was clear for all to see that the glory days were waning. He did eventually depart in 1980, when he moved to the States to play in the North American Soccer League with the Vancuvoer Whitecaps. He returned to Europe after a year, where he played for four seasons at Serie A side Napoli. There, he became an instant fans’ favourite and is revered to this day. After playing for a further two years in France for Cannes, Krol hung up his boots in 1986. Three years later, unsurprisingly he took up the managerial game, starting out at KV Mechelen. Six clubs and 22 years

later he is still at it, managing the Orlando Pirates in the South African Premier Soccer League. YouTube may not have much of his individual highlights, but no matter what any poll or survey says, he is the greatest left-back that has ever been. No equal, no question. It’s a real shame that generations to come will not witness the brilliance of one of the finest players to have played the game. ■

Mohamed Moallim LA CROQUETA > @jouracule > A love affair with l’Oranje; can usually be found absorbed in DVDs of The  Netherlands  and  Ajax  circa 1970.  Expect articles on Dutch legends of yesteryear, but also musings on  other  topics.    One  of  Martin Palazzotto’s disciples from WFC.
This is an extract from Issue One of Man and Ball magazine: Let Sleeping Gods Lie. This issue introduces Nigel and features stories on German football since reunification,  African  Arsenal  fans,  an  unsung Dutch legend, and seven other intriguing articles. It can be downloaded in its entirety HERE >

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