The Group of Death: 1974 - Second Round - Group A

The prospect of the Group of Death has always been an intriguing part of the World Cup. Here we take a look at 1974 and a clash of 4 significant footballing nations: 

1974 World Cup - Second Round - Group A

Netherlands (16)
Brazil (1)
East Germany (7)
Argentina (9)

The world was a turbulent place in 1974. On 5 March 1946, Winston Churchill had famously declared: ‘From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent [Europe]’ [1]. Churchill’s comments spoke of the division that was approaching for Europe following the Second World War. With the Soviet Union championing the Communist ideology in the East, and Britain, France and even the USA encouraging free market capitalism in the West. No country better displayed this ‘iron curtain’ divide during the ‘Cold War’ than Germany, a nation who had become four and then two, East and West, following the aftermath of the war. In 1974, with tensions still high, and the ‘iron curtain’ firmly in place, West Germany would be selected for the honour of hosting the tenth edition of the FIFA World Cup. 

16 teams, from five continents, would compete in 38 matches across nine different host cities. Teams were drawn into four groups of four, with Brazil, Italy, Uruguay and West Germany separated by seedings. This tournament followed Brazil’s third success in four World Cups, and they came to West Germany as one of the favourites to lift yet another trophy. Likewise Italy, runners-up in the previous edition, were desperate to go one step further this time. Their rigidly defensive style, even with some attacking evolution over the intervening four years, was still being described ‘as much fun as toothache’ [2], despite the victories it earned them. Of course the West Germans themselves, as hosts, were eager too for a mighty triumph on home soil. 

These favourites were also joined by some fascinating newcomers, as Australia, Haiti, East Germany and Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) made their first World Cup finals appearance, with both Poland and the Netherlands returning for the first time since 1938. In regard to home nation representation, the only side who qualified were Scotland, who themselves were making their first appearance since 1958. Wales manager Dave Bowen nailed his colours to the West German mast in pre-tournament media: ‘I find it difficult to visualise West Germany failing to win the World Cup’ [3]. Despite no English involvement, the Newcastle Evening Chronicle previewed the zeitgeist of this global feast of football in meaningful and apt fashion:

‘Football has far reaching social, political and economic effects... Football has been, and still is, a substitute for patriotism, a post-Marxian opium of the masses, a potent form of escapism and even today marvellous entertainment.’ [4]

The Teams

The sides in the ‘Group of Death’ were not in fact initially drawn together in a manner modern World Cup viewers would be used to. In 1974, a second group stage was the means for finding finalists. From the original four groups, eight teams would proceed to the second round, the runners-up of Groups 2 and 4 joining the winners of Groups 1 and 3 to make Group A, whilst the winners of Groups 2 and 4 would be matched with second placed teams in Groups 1 and 3 to form Group B. Victors of this round would compete in the World Cup Final, placing immense importance on each game. Following the conclusion of the first round on 23 June 1974, Group A took its ominous shape - Argentina, Brazil, East Germany and the Netherlands - all with their own stories to tell.

Argentina progressed through the first round in less-than-simple fashion, as they were drawn in a group with 1970 runners-up Italy, 1972 Olympic gold medalists Poland, as well as newcomers Haiti. They were competing for one of the two top spots to progress and with a win, a draw and a loss, second place was enough to make it to the next round. However, despite the tough group, their exciting football was winning them many admirers. Their squad featured the likes of 18-year-old, future Albiceleste legend, Mario Kempes - with just five caps before the tournament began, Atlético Madrid forward Rubén Ayala, young and promising Huracán winger René Houseman and the experienced defender and captain, Roberto Perfumo. 

Their opening match saw them meet Poland, a nation who were at the beginning of their ‘golden generation’. The Poles enjoyed a mighty Olympic success two years previously, and came to West Germany seeking higher glory on the World Cup stage. With talents such as playmaker and captain Kazimierz Deyna, goal scoring winger (and 1974 Golden Boot) Grzegorz Lato and prolific striker Andrzej Szarmach, the Poles seized a 3-2 victory in Stuttgart to dent Albiceleste’s tournament early on, especially with Italy’s 3-1 win over Haiti (despite falling 0-1 down at half-time). 

It would be their next clash, against Italy, where the press would regard them so highly. Despite only drawing 1-1 with the Italians, thanks to a Houseman goal, Argentina were described as ‘classy’,[5] and more impressively, as shaking off their ‘black sheep of international football’ reputation. Regarded as playing with ‘a new lustre’ and as playing ‘fine football without a hint of malice’, even with the ‘provocation of some rugged tackling’ from their opponents.[6] With Argentina’s final tie against Haiti, who had just been decimated 7-0 by Poland, Italy would require a result themselves versus the Polish, but a 2-1 Poland win, matched by Argentina’s 4-1 victory over Haiti, Group 4 was settled - Poland moved on as group winners, Argentina through in second place.

Brazil’s route to Group A was equally as bumpy for the reigning world champions. An uninspiring 0-0 draw with Yugoslavia, set the Brazilians up for an interesting clash with Scotland. For the Scots this was a major opportunity, following their 2-0 win over debutants Zaire, with goals from Peter Lorimer  and Joe Jordan, a win would put the Scottish in pole position to top their group. For Brazil, it was not just the beginning of the post-Pelé era, but one that saw just seven members of the 1970 squad travel to West Germany, only two of those players had started the World Cup Final four years previously. 

Peter Lorimer (Scotland) takes on Brazil in 1974

Scotland had opportunities to take the lead against Brazil on 18 June, but they could not break the deadlock, as goalkeeper David Harvey managed to keep a hard-earned clean sheet, regarded as ‘one of his best performances of his career’.[7] The result, now remembered as ‘the most famous 0-0 in Scottish football’ history,[8] meant that the group would be decided on the final matchday, with Brazil facing Zaire - who had just been beaten 9-0 by Yugoslavia. Captain Billy Bremner acknowledged it would be ‘very, very difficult’ to qualify and admitted he felt ‘sick for the fans’, who ‘deserved a win’.[9] Jairzinho, Rivelino and Valdomiro wrapped up the 3-0 win to secure Brazil a second placed finish; whilst Scotland could only salvage an 88th minute equaliser with Yugoslavia, the 1-1 draw not enough to progress from third as the Yugoslavs topped Group 2. 

East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic (GDR), were a nation who, whilst seventh in the Elo world rankings, could hardly have expected to make it to the second round as Group 1 winners. Appearing in their first (and only) World Cup, seeing them drawn with their political and ideological rivals and neighbours, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), West Germany, was about as exciting as it could get for the neutral. Their first match though, was against fellow first-timers, Australia. Colin Curran’s own goal gifted the GDR the lead, before Joachim Streich wrapped up a good first win. 

GDR followed up their good first victory with a solid enough 1-1 draw against Chile, Martin Hoffmann’s single strike enough to secure a point. West Germany meanwhile, started strongly themselves, winning 1-0 against Chile, before dispatching Australia 3-0 to sit on maximum points after two games. Their final group fixture was the big one, West Germany hosting East Germany in Volksparkstadion, Hamburg on 22 June - victor topped Group 1. 

This was the first and only time these two international teams would face each other. It was a matchup that the GDR had constantly rejected and East German striker Hans-Jürgen Kreische recalled relishing the opportunity to compete with the West, ‘it was something we repeatedly strived for, but the authorities always prevented’.[10] Added to this was the fact that West Germany were led by Helmut Schön, their manager who had been born in East Germany but escaped in 1950 to further his coaching career.[11] Tickets for this battle were hard to come by and reportedly reached £66 (worth nearly £700 in 2021) on the black market, but as the Sunday Mirror wrote post-match, ‘for the East Germans who poured through Checkpoint Charlie… it was well worth every Deutschmark’.[12]

Helmut Schön - East German managing West Germany

West Germany’s squad was undoubtedly the more talented of the two, with Sepp Maier, Wolfgang Overath, Paul Breitner, Gerd Müller and their captain, ‘Der Kaiser’, Franz Beckenbauer to name but a few. However, when the two met it would be a single goal that separated the sides, and that was from East Germany’s Jürgen Sparwasser. In the 77th minute Sparwasser struck, and delivered a blow that left Helmut Schön ‘never the same coach again’, as he nearly ‘cracked up’ at being beaten by the country of his birth.[13] The result was historic, and was poetically recorded thus: ‘Earlier Sparwasser was booked for dissent. Now he's booked imperishably into the Fatherland's football history as the man who won this first meeting of the two Germanies.’[14]

The Netherlands were the final team in Group A and were actually classified the lowest in pre-tournament rankings. Throughout their Group 3 performances, Oranje’s stock had greatly risen, with two wins and a draw not telling the whole story of their impressive ‘Total Football’. Led by, the now iconic, Rinus Michels, the Dutch swept Uruguay aside in their group opener courtesy of a Johnny Rep brace

Their second fixture, versus Sweden, was more of a frustrating affair. The goalless draw is best remembered for the famed ‘Cruyff Turn’ of talisman Johan Cruyff. The Daily Mirror reported, ‘the best of Johan Cruyff's bewildering ability was not enough to lead Holland to victory’,[15] but, the turn has gone down in football history. The move, now a ‘skill taught to children across the world as soon as they are able to kick a ball’,[16] saw Cruyff dummy Sweden’s Jan Olsson by stepping over the ball, spinning his whole body 180 degrees as he dragged the ball beneath his body. Olsson was completely sold by the feint and Cruyff had his moment.

Cruyff recalled the instant impact of his flash of brilliance, ‘everyone was talking about the feint that I’d done, the so-called ‘Cruyff turn’’, with the genius explaining how, ‘the idea came to me in a flash, because at that particular moment it was the best solution for the situation I was in’.[17] Despite Cruyff’s acclaim, the Dutch still required a result verus Bulgaria to solidify top spot in the group. On 23 June, a Johan Neeskens brace was added to by Rep and Theo de Jong, the 4-1 victory put Oranje in first position, Sweden coming group runners-up. 

Cruyff's moment of brilliance


The first set of matches of Group A paired Netherlands with Argentina, whilst Brazil faced the East Germans. By this point, Total Football was hitting its stride and Argentina were taken apart 4-0, Cruyff opening (11’) and closing (90’) the scoring, with Ruud Krol and Rep scoring in between. Netherlands had beaten Argentina 4-1 in the build up to the World Cup, but that previous experience had seemingly taught Albiceleste little. The Dutch ‘passed the ball carefully, but could be ruthlessly effective when direct’ and their style, described as the ‘simple yet beautiful’,[18] was now turning heads.

The same day, Brazil dealt the GDR an early blow to their progression hopes, despite the resolute defensive display of the underdogs. Rivelino’s strike after an hour was the single goal that separated the two nations and allowed Seleção to get off to an unimpressive-yet-comfortable start. With group play allowing little room for error, these were big results for both the Netherlands and Brazil, whilst East Germany and Argentina would have it all to do in their next games if they wished to survive in the competition. 

The second matchday saw the mouthwatering prospect of a South America derby, Argentina taking on the Brazilians in Hanover; the first time the two had met at a World Cup. After a quiet opening half-hour, Rivelino found the net again to give Brazil the lead, but just three minutes later Argentina captain Miguel Ángel Brindisi levelled the scores. Despite two half-time substitutions from Albiceleste boss Vladislao Cap, it was Brazil who took an early second half lead through Jairzinho, and the 2-1 victory was secured. Argentina were out but the Brazilians were still in with a World Cup Final shot. The win had not done enough to convince the press of Brazil’s tournament prowess though: ‘What of Brazil? Defensively there can be no criticism… but the strikers are not as deadly as in yesteryear. … the spectacular feline pounces of Pelé, Gérson or Tostão are missing’.[19]

Mario Kempes takes on the Brazilians in their World Cup defeat

Meanwhile, in Gelsenkirchen, the Dutch were now in full flow. East Germany, who longed for more success than just having beaten their West Germany rivals, had the formidable task of keeping Oranje at bay. 22-year-old Carl Zeiss Jena defender Konrad Weise was given the job of man-marking Cruyff out of the affair. Weise did a ‘better job than any other defender in the tournament had before him’,[20] but despite his efforts, the Dutch Total Football machine created numerous opportunities. Neeskens and Anderlecht’s Rob Rensenbrink both scored and a 2-0 win put the Dutch as favourites for a spot in the World Cup Final.

East Germany’s loss meant they were going home the short distance across the border. They had outperformed expectations, but as was reported at the time, ‘ironically East Germany's victory [over rivals West Germany] put them in the tougher of the two second-round groups’.[21] Despite missing out on World Cup glory, the East would refuse to play the West again and they did not meet competitively until German reunification in 1990. East Germany could not boast lifting the FIFA World Cup, but they could boast a 100% record versus the West, and perhaps the rather sarcastic nickname of ‘Freundschaftsspielweltmeister’ (‘world champions of friendlies’). This title was given to them due to the tendency of communist nations to play ‘friendly’ matches against each other, and East Germany’s dominance in these games.[22] 

The final set of games found the Argentines playing the East Germans in what was effectively a dead rubber, but for either side, it was actually the opportunity for them to take a win back home from the second round. The GDR started strongly on 3 July, Hansa Rostock striker Joachim Streich giving his country a 1-0 lead after 11 minutes. This was short-lived however, with Houseman, known as Loco, netting his third goal at the tournament just nine minutes later. Scores would remain 1-1 at full-time and both nations bowed out of West Germany with a point apiece from their final three fixtures. 

In Dortmund, the Netherlands versus Brazil had far more riding on it. This tie was the unofficial competition semi-final, but with Brazil needing a win to advance. The Dutch’s superior goal difference meant that a draw favoured Oranje’s chances of making a maiden World Cup Final. 

Jaizinho slides in on Cruyff for a place in the World Cup Final

The first half remained goalless, but the Dutch probed at the Brazilian defence, three of Brazil’s four defenders picking up bookings inside the first 45. The awareness of Cruyff and his potential had seen Brazil keep tight reins on him, but early into the second half Dutch pressure would pay off. Neeskens released Cruyff out wide, and Cruyff’s exquisite return ball into the box beat two defenders to find Neeskens, who had continued his run. The 22-year-old Ajax midfielder managed to connect with his right boot as he slid in, and his touch lifted the ball perfectly above the head of goalkeeper Émerson Leão to give Holland the lead.

Just 15 minutes later, left-back Ruud Krol burst forward and himself produced a delightful cross, this time for Cruyff to get on the end of, and the Dutch number 14 volleyed home. Holland were now in full control and their position was sealed when Brazil were reduced to ten men with minutes remaining as Luís Pereira was dismissed. As full-time was blown, Rinus Michels could reflect that his side’s Total Football had earned Netherlands many admirers and a first World Cup Final, now it was time to get the job done.

Netherlands’s opponents on 7 July 1974 were to be the hosts, West Germany. The West Germans had ended up in Group B in the Second Round after their derby loss to the East Germans. However, despite the setback, they had found fine form with three consecutive wins in Group B against Yugoslavia (2-0), Sweden (4-2) and Poland (1-0). Bayern Munich great Gerd Müller had hit three tournament goals, and his danger was certainly something for Michels’s men to fear in preparation for the final, as was the desire of the hosts to win it on home soil.

Just a minute into the 1974 World Cup Final, Cruyff caused havoc for the West Germans as he weaved ‘like an eel’ through the defence leaving them ‘panting’.[23] Uli Hoeneß brought down Cruyff within the area, and English referee Jack Taylor ruled it a foul - Oranje had an early penalty. Neeskens blasted the ball past Maier and the Dutch had an early lead. 

Cruyff fouled to give Holland an early lead v West Germany

Despite the setback, West Germany appeared to stick to their game plan and defender Berti Vogts spent the rest of the final man-marking Cruyff out of the match. West Germany started to apply their own pressure, stifling the Total Football that the Dutch had played throughout the competition thus far; and after Wim Jansen tripped winger Bernd Hölzenbein, West Germany had a penalty of their own. Breitner slotted home to the right of the keeper and the scores were level.

With half-time approaching, the momentum firmly swung in the host’s favour. Rainer Bonhof pressed forwards and squared the ball from the right hand edge of the box to Müller. Müller’s first touch took the ball away from defender Krol and as he swivelled, he smashed the ball past Jan Jongbloed. It was a vital 2-1 lead on the brink of the break. This would be Müller’s last goal of an outstanding international career; a remarkable 68 goals in just 62 caps, including a then-record 14 at World Cups, making him one of the best ever on the national stage as he retired. 

 It has been a ‘blistering 45 minutes of frayed tempers, quicksilver football and fever-pitched excitement’.[24] Cruyff picked up a booking as the sides left the field, Taylor finding issue with his remonstrations, but the Dutch were forced to regroup and find a way back into the final.

The second half saw West Germany ‘swamped by an orange tide’ as Oranje stepped up the intensity in search of an equaliser. The Daily Mirror’s Frank McGhee reported: ‘I’d love to have heard what was said in the Dutch dressing room at half-time to produce such a transformation in mood, style and approach’.[25] The pressure saw chances for both Neeskens and Cruyff, but Maier and his defence repelled the Dutch, with the ‘great leader’ Beckenbauer marshalling his side well. The game was described as ‘sometimes frightening in its ferocity’,[26] but at the end of 90 minutes it was the Germans who stood victorious.

Netherlands had survived the group of death that was Group A, their scintillating Total Football has gone down in history, but they are only remembered as perhaps the greatest side to never win the World Cup. Michels’s Oranje, led on the field by the mastery of Johan Cruyff, had been defeated at the last hurdle by a fantastic West Germany. Schön’s men had managed to turn around the humbling by their East German neighbours to win the home tournament. Legendary libero, Franz Beckenbauer, Der Kaiser, held the World Cup trophy aloft as the country celebrated a competition for the ages. 

Franz Beckenbauer holds the World Cup aloft for West Germany

This piece was written by Gareth Thomas - Follow him on Twitter @GJ_Thomas and @TFHBs.


[1] In a speech, delivered at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, and widely reported in papers such as Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 06 March 1946.
[2] Daily Mirror, 27 February 1974.
[3] Sports Argus, 08 June 1974.
[4] Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 08 June 1974.
[5] Belfast Telegraph, 20 June 1974.
[6] Birmingham Daily Post, 20 June 1974.
[7]  Clemente A. Lisi, A History of the World Cup: 1930-2010 (Plymouth: Scarecrow Press INC., 2011) p.133.
[8] David Currie, ‘World Cup 1974: Scotland's undefeated campaign in West Germany’. BBC Sport, 05 June 2020.
[9] Aberdeen Evening Express, 19 June 1974.
[10] Mani Djazmi, ‘World Cup whisky and the Cold War: When East & West Germany met’, BBC, 07 March 2019,
[11] The Independent, 24 February 1996.
[12] Sunday Mirror, 23 June 1974.
[13] Ulrich Hesse, Tor!: The Story of German Football (London: WSC Books Ltd., 2003) p.193
[14] The People, 23 June 1974
[15] Daily Mirror, 20 June 1974
[16] Ben Jones and Gareth Thomas, The History of Football in 90 Minutes Plus Extra-Time (Worthing: Pitch Publishing, 2021) p.73.
[17] Johan Cruyff, My Turn (London: Pan Macmillan, 2016) p. 56.
[18] Jonathon Aspey, ‘Holland 1974: The Greatest Failures in History’, These Football Times, 11 October 2015,
[19] Belfast Telegraph, 30 June 1974.
[20] Clemente A. Lisi., pp.136-137.
[21] Sunday Mirror, 23 June 1974.
[22] Markus Hesselmann and Robert Ide, in Alan Tomlinson and Christopher Young (eds.), German Football: History, Culture, Society (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006) p.44.
[23] Daily Mirror, 08 July 1974.
[24] Newcastle Journal, 08 July 1974.
[25] Daily Mirror, 08 July 1974.
[26] Newcastle Journal, 08 July 1974.

©The Football History Boys, 2022
(All pictures borrowed and not owned in any form by TFHB)


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