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Total Football’s Original Right-back

A tribute to Dutch great, Wim Suurbier, who passed away last Sunday...

Holland v Yugoslavia - European Championship 1976
Wim Suurbier, the Dutch international, who passed away, aged 75, last Sunday.
Photo by Icon Sport/Icon Sport via Getty Images

Sometimes being involved with a small Irish club can bring forth privileges.

It was a late season fixture towards the end of the last millennium at The Oval, Glentoran’s home ground for almost 120 years now, when I met Wim Suurbier. He was there as the guest of Noel Lemon, owner of the Tulsa Roughnecks and a son of east Belfast.

It wasn’t the Dutchman’s first visit. He’d already played there several years previously, winning 6-1 with his Ajax club in a UEFA Cup match.

Suurbier was introduced to our table, as nonchalantly as you like, in the Players’ Lounge at the conclusion of the game. You could’ve knocked me down with a feather. Getting to chat with someone who’d played in two World Cup finals and won three European Cups just didn’t happen every day of the week! At least not in Belfast!

Considering his achievements in the game he was humble, a regular guy, just like one of the lads. No airs or graces whatsoever.

For many of a certain age, that Dutch team throughout the seventies left a lasting impression. Through coach Rinus Michels they perfected what became known as Total Football, a concept where players would fluidly inter-change positions during the game. In 1974, they qualified for a World Cup finals for the first time 36 years.

Unfortunately West Germany weren’t too bad at something resembling total football either and the Dutch were thwarted in the final, after taking a first minute lead.

But it was the men in the bright orange shirts that captured most people’s imagination. The host country may have won the cup, but the Dutch walked away with the popular vote.

A young Johan Cruyff (left) with his good friend, Wim Suurbier (right) watching an Ajax game in the sixties.

The nucleas of that Dutch team came from the Ajax Amsterdam club whose own brand of attacking total football saw them dominate the European club game in the early seventies, during which they defeated Panathinaikos (1971), Internazionale (1972) and Juventus (1973) in consecutive European Cup finals. Wim Suurbier was their over-lapping right-back throughout those glory years.

Suurbier, born in Eindhoven on January 16, 1945, made his Ajax senior debut eleven days before his 19th birthday against Den Haag ADO, going on to make 509 appearances for the club (only Sjaak Swart on 603 has more).

When he finally left Amsterdam it was to play for Schalke 04 in Germany for a season before stopping off, again briefly, at Metz in France. Following his time in France Suurbier became part of the migration to the NASL, where he joined the LA Aztecs. Johan Cruyff was there at the time.

He won 60 caps for Holland scoring 3 goals.

Suurbier gained a reputation as a hard, fast, conditionally strong right-sided defender who frequently joined the attack. Like many defenders he begun his career as an attacker, where his pace provided a threat.

It was Jany van der Veen, credited with the discovery of Johan Cruyff, who converted Suurbier to a right-back in the Ajax youth ranks. He was a natural. “It all went by itself. I didn’t think I was doing anything startling,” Suurbier admitted.

But it was under Rinus Michels that Suurbier became a real modern right back. Then at Ajax, Michels forced him to run smarter and work on his pedalling technique. The coach never let up, driving the message home.

“Sometimes I thought, ‘Shut up. You just have to have me?’ But I have to say, that was the great strength of Michels. He continued to grumble until he saw improvement,” said Suurbier.

With Michels’ help Suurbier developed rapidly also becoming an effective crosser of the ball. It was from a Suurbier cross that Cruyff slotted home his opening goal against Internazionale in Ajax’s second European Cup final win.

Glory days - Suurbier playing in the famous colours of Ajax Amsterdam.

Toughness was another quality in the right-back’s locker. He was hard as nails, which came in handy when Holland met the ugliest Brazil team in living memory at the 1974 World Cup. The South American defending champions tried to win by kicking the superior Dutch all over the pitch. But Suurbier met Brazilian aggression head on. As team-mate Johnny Rep told De Telegraaf, “They kicked us and especially Johan Cruyff. But we had Wim.”

Holland won 2-0.

Suurbier’s last appearance for the Oranje was in the 1978 World Cup final in Buenos Aires. Robbie Rensenbrink hit an Argentine post in the dying moments. It would’ve given the Dutch the title, but extra-time ensued during which Argentina scored twice. The Dutch had fallen at the final hurdle to the host nation at successive World Cups. “Two second places at the World Cup do not count”, said Suurbier.

By now in the twilight of his career, after Los Angeles Suurbier returned briefly to Sparta Rotterdam before trading his home country for California once more and spells at San Jose Earthquakes, Golden Bay Earthquakes and Tampa Bay Rowdies.

He retired in 1987, aged 42, going on to coach various clubs mainly in the USA.

Sadly money problems began to plague Wim as his playing career concluded and beyond. Structure diminished from his life and a separation from his wife Maja extended to several years.

Soccer had collapsed in North America and at times he was taking driving jobs in LA for $50 per day, amongst other low-paid casual positions.

He did pass up some opportunities which would have helped. For instance declining a lucrative deal to write his biography because he didn’t want to hang out the dirty laundry.

Suurbier said in a 1985 interview with Johan Derksen; “When I have a hundred dollars I give away eighty, so I am not a money maniac. Nor am I jealous of those who financially have done much better than me. Because I have lived.”

There were times when even returning home to Holland proved problematic, due to monies owed to the taxman, but Wim managed to get around that by taking a flight to Brussels, hiring a car and driving to the Netherlands. That way his re-entry into the country wasn’t detected.

Suurbier didn’t fare too well financially in two failed marriages, one in Holland, and the other in the US to a woman with the desire to be a fashion model, “...who didn’t want to work.” When they lived in Tulsa in the 80’s she was spending heavily, and he soon racked up debts totalling $50,000 with no sound income providing the ability to repay.

People in Holland got to know of his financial woes when a well-meaning Dutch acquaintance living in LA wrote to Hans Kattenburg and Rinus Michels asking for financial help for Suurbier...

Again from his 1985 Derksen interview... “No doubt he [the Dutch acquaintance] meant well. But I wasn’t waiting for it. When I’m struggling I want to save myself, I refuse to hold up my hand. They may loan me money, but I pay everything back with interest, even if I have to work my ass off.

He didn’t want a benefit match either, feeling he’d been away from the Netherlands too long. “It is ridiculous to organize a benefit for me, while I have been away from the Netherlands for nine years. I already see myself in such a stadium, then I have to thank all people for their ten [guilders]. In addition, I was an average player, I am not Sjaak Swart, Johan Cruyff or Willem van Hanegem. I was popular, but you must know your place. In addition, I am not pathetic. Certain players have no problem holding up their hands. I do.

“I can look everyone in the eye. I’ve always been honest, I’ve never stolen.”

Wim remained friendly with Johan Cruyff, and visited him in Barcelona, his former captain receiving him with much love. ‘The jovial Suurbier was was a friend to everyone, someone you couldn’t get angry with and with whom you’d like to have a drink,’ wrote Voetbal International’s Johan Derksen.

He was famed for all his jokes and pranks. With teammate Ruud Krol they were known as Snabbel and Babbel because of their love of a practical joke. He had frequent evenings out with George Best in LA, worked as barman at the Irishman’s old Bestie’s Bar in Hermosa Beach, by then being run by Bobby McAlinden, Best’s friend and a former Manchester City reserve and Glentoran Irish Cup winner.

Wim Suurbier outside Bestie’s Bar in Hermosa Beach, where Bobby McAlinden gave him work.

He played football with Rod Stewart. George Best introduced them to each other.

One of the greatest players of a much-loved and famous Dutch generation, Wim Suurbier sadly passed away last Sunday, July 12th. He’d been ill from a cerebral hemorrhage at the end of April when he was found at his home by his ex-wife, Maja. He had since been in intensive care over the last ten weeks of his life at the VU Medical Centre in Amsterdam.

Jordi Cruyff, son of the late Dutch footballing legend Johan, said Suurbier was “a great player and an extremely loyal friend to my father and family. I hope you [each] get to reunite up there.”