He was one of my heroes. Robbie Rensenbrink. And he went on to join that tremendous Dutch team up in the heavens, alongside the likes of Cruyff, Keizer, Moulijn and Van Beveren. He was 72 years old. A terrible disease took his life.
He wasn’t a player that is named often in the same vein as Cruyff, Van Hanegem, Swart, Keizer, Neeskens… But a legend he was, for sure!
The reason he was a bit overlooked, was because he left DWS in Amsterdam at a young age, to play in Belgium! Feyenoord was about to sign the dribble king on the left wing, but Club Brugge was a tad more aggressive (and in those days, Belgium was fueled with laundered money and the Belgium clubs paid very well!). So Robbie left for Belgium and in those days, we hardly got to see any games on telly… Only when Club (or later Anderlecht) would play in Europe, would we get to see highlights.
So, when I was 12 years old and in front of the tv to watch Holland play the World Cup in 1974, I was puzzled as to why Piet Keizer didn’t play as left winger?? Keizer, Cruyff, Neeskens, Krol, those top Ajax lads all together, with the hot shots of Feyenoord (Van Hanegem, Jansen, Rijsbergen). Where was Keizer? And who the F was Rensenbrink?
Well, he demonstrated who he was quite immediately in the tournament. And when the commentator called him The Snake Man it was clear. This was a tremendous player. He looked like Cruyff (from a distance on telly) and he could dribble like Cruyff. I was gobsmacked!
The first match vs Uruguay was an easy win, with two Rep goals (the second on a Rensenbrink assist). Neeskens, Jansen and Van Hanegem ruled the midfield, while the fast Rep from the right took the striker role whenever Cruyff was wandering about on the pitch. Rensenbrink played as a real left winger, with chalk on his boots as we said.
I knew JC was the best in the world. Neeskens was the favorite of many, due to his relentless working, tackling, battling and harassing while Jansen was the unsung hero, reading the game, interjecting passes and presenting the ball straight to playmaker Van Hanegem or super star Cruyff.
Rob Rensenbrink, Ruud Krol, Jan Mulder
Cruyff was the eye catcher, the symbol of this Oranje. Rep the pretty boy with the goals while Van Hanegem was the brain of the team. When you rewatch the games they played, you’ll agree with me that Van Hanegem played a faultless masterful tournament, doing everything right. The highlight of his career and in the eyes of many an expert, the man of the tournament. But I knew all this. I knew Jansen and Van Hanegem personally (they lived around the corner from me in my hometown). I knew Cruyff and Rep like every kid knew them. But Rensenbrink was the unknown factor and he blew me away.
And I saw in that Uruguay match why Michels (and Cruyff) picked him over Keizer!
The snake man.
And I developed a keen interest in the man. It appeared he played in Belgium from 1969 onwards. First two seasons at Club Brugge, but he got signed by Anderlecht and that is where is rise to fame really began. He got his nickname Snake Man there, due to his tremendous dribbles. He won a plethora of silverware… Belgium titles, two European Cups, two Super Cups and in 1976 he was crowned best player of the year. He actually got voted the best player of the Belgium League Ever.
In 1974, he was instrumental in the Oranje team but not as prolific as Rep or Cruyff…
Training with Willem van Hanegem
When the 1978 World Cup commenced, Cruyff and Van Hanegem opted not to go. Long story, maybe for some other time. So we knew, as fans, that we had to rely on the old hands Rensenbrink, Neeskens and Krol to pull us through, and boy did they deliver!
Rensenbrink got injured in the 1974 finals and couldn’t finish the game.
In 1978 however, it was his last attempt on goal in the 90st minute, at 1-1, which would end up being the most talked about football event in Dutch football history!
Holland played Argentina, in a finals that should have been between Holland and Brazil. In hindsight, Argentina’s win over Peru might not have legit. But anyway, Argentina dominated the game. They played with pizzazz and felt the support of almost 100,000 crazy fans on the stands, and 3 fans on the pitch, wearing black referee outfits.
But Kempes’ 1-0 and Dick Nanninga’s 1-1 made for a spectacular finish.
With Ruud Krol playing a signature pass over 40+ yards in the path of Rensenbrink who hit the post with his final ditch attempt… It remained 1-1 and Argentina would clinch it in the extra time: 3-1.
The Famous Shot on the Post
Rensenbrink’s career was a series of high lights of course, but that one particular shot on the upright would almost define his career. Every day. Every single fukcing day, someone would ask him about it. Remind him of it. He would get really agitated with it.
After his playing career, he immediately retired from football. He didn’t become a coach, or a youth coach, or a scout or an agent or even a tv pundit. He spent his last 40 odd years focusing on his second passion: fishing!
When JC died in 2016, the Guardian placed an action photo of Rob Rensenbrink on the sports pages, by accident. Sitting in his garden, with a cigaret in his hand, Robbie said: “I’m still here guys. But hey, Moulijn died, Keizer is gone, Cruyff…I’ll be next probably.”
In 2012, he was diagnosed with PSMA, a muscle disease. “I never had issues with my muscles during my career, but now I can’t even hold a fork in my hand… I heard that this disease has struck a lot of Italian football players… Maybe it has something to do with stuff we were given by the doctors…”. In one of his last interview, that final shot on the post has to be mentioned. The long pass by Krol, Bertoni defends weakly and Fillol misses the ball. But the post didn’t miss. “The moment of my life, I suppoe. But I keep saying, it wasn’t even a real chance. The pass almost bounced passed me, I stuck my foot out. Closed my eyes, so to speak and the ball hit the post. I couldn’t do more than that. It ‘s not like I missed for open goal or I missed a penalty. Just like Robben in 2010, he did everything right, but was unlucky. It happens.”
From another angle…
He went back one, after that 25th of June match. “With Johnny Rep, for some tv program. We were standing there, next to that post. But I had a better memory of 1978 than I had of 1974. In ’74, it was all about Cruyff, Michels and Total Football. When Cruyff decided to drift to the left, I had to make way. I played better in 1978. I took the penalties and scored 5 goals. It was all good. I don’t see any of the old players anymore, except for Rep, Jongbloed and Rinus Israel. Rinus went to Feyenoord from DWS and they wanted me too. DWS wanted 450,000 guilders. Feyenoord balked and Club Brugge came with a cheque. I signed for Anderlecht for 7 seasons. Boy did I regret that! Real Madrid and Inter Milan wanted me. Faas Wilkes came to negotiate on Inter’s behalf… But Anderlecht refused to let me go. I did go to the KNVB coaching course, but I couldn’t stand it. Some no-name educator who never played football was going to instruct me how to take a corner… I don’t go to the matches in the stadiums, I don’t even stay home for most matches.”
“They made a book for me in Holland, for my 70th birthday. But I already had a biography in Belgium. That tells the story.”