The life and career of Willem van Hanegem is one built out of graft and pure determination. The events of his early life taught him many valuable lessons, and put a fire in his belly that would never be extinguished. Before he was a year old he lost his father and three of his siblings in a bombing of his hometown. The rest of his family moved east, to a new home in the Dutch city of Utrecht. It was in this city that his fortunes were to change, after meeting, and falling in love with, the beautiful game.
One morning, a 16-year old Wim van Hanegem was staring through the fence, observing the training of local team, Velox of Utrecht. It was here that he showed the first glimpses of his amazing tactical ability. A self-appointed ball-boy, Van Hanegem would pick the ball up after it had flown over the fence, steady himself, and play a seemingly innocuous pass back onto the field. These passes were almost inch-perfect, landing right at the feet of a Velox player. The players thought nothing of it, but then Velox manager, Daan van Beek was quite impressed. He invited the young boy to train with the team, a breakthrough for a player who would become a Dutch legend.
“Too slow. Too fat. Can’t do anything with his right foot. Too reckless.”
In a game that was becoming increasingly fast-paced, Van Hanegem’s future teammates complained. He was very big for a 16-year old and not very mobile. He also had 70% of his sight and saw the pitch in a fuzzy haze at times. However, coach Van Beek had been won over by his impeccable technique and handed him a first-team start at the age of 18. Wim van Hanegem was deployed mainly on the wide left, as a left midfielder. At that young age, he would earn the nickname, de kromme (the crooked) owing to his often lugubrious running style and the otherworldly amount of curve he put on his passes.
After four seasons at Velox Utrecht, Van Hanegem moved on to Xerxes Rotterdam. There he would meet German coach Kurt Linder, a pragmatist and strict disciplinarian, who demanded hard work from a young Van Hanegem. This brought out the bad side of the youngster, with a few training ground bust-ups with Linder in the early part of his time at Xerxes. This was soon to change, as the Dutchman warmed to the challenge and saw great benefits. He became fitter and more mobile adding a different dimension to his game.
The most important change though occurred on the tactical side; Van Hanegem was moved from the wide left to inside left in a 4-2-4 formation. It took a season for him to adjust to his new formation, when he did though, the Netherlands national side begun to take notice. De kromme lit up the first division, scoring 26 goals, his most in a single campaign. Riding on the wave of Van Hanegem’s goals, Xerxes Rotterdam finished third that season. That performance led to a first national team call-up in 1968.
However it wasn’t all good for Van Hanegem. Having been offered the chance to sign the young midfielder, Ajax coach, Rinus Michels, wasn’t too keen on his style and stature.
“Too slow and too one-dimensional. Not suited for modern football.” – Rinus Michels
In hindsight, Van Hanegem’s lack of pace was his only real drawback. He defied those odds by injecting raw aggression into his game, meaning that he was not just an elegant orchestrator, but a brutal destroyer when he needed to be. Feyenoord saw all his qualities and in 1968, Van Hanegem moved to his new home.
In his first season at Feyenoord, Van Hanegem got his hands on his first pieces of silverware, winning the Eredivisie and the KNVB Cup. A year later he shone in a Feyenoord side led by the Austrian Ernst Happel that became the first Dutch side to win a major European trophy, clinching the European Cup in 1970. Van Hanegem was instrumental in that triumph, scoring the goal that knocked out reigning champions AC Milan in the second round of the competition.
In front of a packed crowd at De Kuip, Van Hanegem headed home with just about ten minutes remaining, his goal sending the stadium into utter pandemonium. Feyenoord had knocked out the great AC Milan. In the final of 1970, Feyenoord would face the European Champions from three years previous; Jock Stein’s Celtic.
Showing great tactical aptitude, Feyenoord boss Ernst Happel deployed three midfielders in a 4-3-3 system. This meant that Feyenoord outnumbered Celtic in midfield. The Scots were playing a 4-2-4 system, allowing Van Hanegem to dictate play alongside Franz Hasil and Wim Jansen. Through that, and the guile and grit of the Feyenoord players, they tasted victory, with Ove Kindvall scoring a late winner and putting the icing on top of a brilliant European campaign. One which De Kromme was at the very heart of.
Over the next four years, Wim van Hanegem would lift his second and third Eredivisie titles as well as a UEFA Cup (defeating Tottenham Hotspur 4-2 in the 1973-74 season); the latter however, would signal the end of Feyenoord’s short period of dominance – by this time Ajax had firmly established themselves as European giants and Feyenoord would also have to wait another ten years before they could lay claim to the Eredivisie title once again.
Some Feyenoord fans have continued to fight the erroneous perception that Ajax alone revolutionised Dutch football in the ’70s and ’80s. That feat was only achieved through the continuous determination to get better on the part of most teams in the Netherlands at the time. It was mainly Ajax and Feyenoord though, as the Holland squad in 1974 would show.
The Oranje had not been to a World Cup in 38 years, after being kicked out in the Round of 16 of the 1938 showpiece by Czechoslovakia. However, there was a renewed sense of belief in the Netherlands. The revolutionary ‘Totaalvoetbal‘ pioneered by the Dutch meant that the Oranje were playing mesmerising football. This however would have all counted for nought, if the usual club differences between Ajax and Feyenoord players had been allowed to take root and fester.
Willem van Hanegem ensured that did not happen. Allowing himself to be a subject to the leadership of the great Johan Cruyff (who played for Ajax), he set an example that the rest of the Feyenoord players followed. This made it easier for Rinus Michels to coach a very talented group of players, who made it to the final of the World Cup.
It was at the final barrier that the Dutch machine immediately came to a halt. It was an emotional match. Many Dutch players and fans had felt the full effect of the German occupation of Holland in the Second World War. With the Oranje looking favourites to win, it was viewed in some quarters as a sort of consolation for the terrors that happened during the war. However, it was not to be.
Scoring within two minutes of kick-off, the Dutch seemed to be cruising to victory against a very rattled West Germany team. The dazzling passing sequences and ease with which the Dutch controlled the game, was a joy to watch. A controversial penalty in the 35th minute though, pulled Die Mannschaft level, before Gerd Müller, headed in his 14th World Cup goal to put the Germans in the lead. The Oranje fought hard to the end, but they could not beat the Germans.
On his day though, no Dutch player could even hold a candle to the performance of Willem van Hanegem. If it was even possible, his touch felt more assured and his passing was impecccable. His passion was evident in his tackling as well; he clattered into the German players, making them feel his presence. Having felt the full effect of the war, he was absolutely determined to beat the Germans.
“I didn’t give a damn about the score. 1–0 was enough, as long as we could humiliate them. They murdered my family. Each time I faced Germany I was angst-filled.” – Willem van Hanegem on squaring off against Germany
Leaving the pitch that day with the utmost dissapointment, van Hanegem returned to Holland. Moving to AZ Alkmaar in 1976, he won another KNVB Cup medal in his second season. His wealth of experience helped to inspire a young AZ side. He went on to spend one season in the nascent North American Super League, with Chicago Sting, before returning to join his childhood club, Velox, which had been merged with two other clubs to form FC Utrecht.
Approaching the twilight of a glorious career, Van Hanegem returned to De Kuip and finished runners-up in the Eredivisie, ending his brilliant career where he achieved the most success.
Willem van Hanegem crafted a career and built it from he ground up. With blood, sweat and tears he worked tirelessly to hone his skills and build his talents. Gracing various pitches across Europe, he stroked pass after beguiling pass, tackled and passionately fought his way to the top. The birthplace of Willem van Hanegem, Dutch province of Zeeland, has a motto, one that epitomises his life and career.
Luctor et Emergo, I Struggle and Emerge.