It’s the defining image of the 1974 World Cup; the defining image of the great Dutch team of the 70s; the defining image of one of the most talented, enchanting and magical players to ever breeze around a football field.

It’s the 23rd minute of the Group 3 game between Holland and Sweden at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund, and Wim van Hanegem has the ball at his feet on the right wing. He’s about to be crowded out by Bjorn Andersson and Ralf Edstrom, so clips a pass back along the flank to Wim Rijsbergen, who in turn flicks the ball inside to Arie Haan, airily ambling through the centre circle. Haan takes a couple of quick, adroit touches to tee himself up, then wafts his right leg, spraying a long diagonal pass towards the left-hand corner flag, towards … Johan Cruyff.

Cruyff has already spent the opening exchanges of the game causing Sweden’s right-back, Jan Olsson, all manner of pain, bother, trouble and angst. But now he’s going to take it up a notch. Sticking out a telescopic left leg, Cruyff kills Haan’s pass. Well, nearly. The ball slides a touch to the right, and for a second looks like sticking awkwardly under Cruyff’s right boot. But the Dutch captain adjusts on the hoof, rolls the ball under his studs while turning through 180 degrees. He’s now facing back down the pitch, with Olsson tight behind him and nowhere to go. The full back is doing everything right. Then, through no real fault of his own, he’s doing everything wrong. Having read an almost imperceptible drop of Cruyff’s left shoulder, Olsson makes to chase him back downfield. It’s the right decision 999,999 times out of a million.

What are the chances? By dropping his shoulder a few millimetres, Cruyff has sold the defender the mother of all dummies, the subtlest of swerves. He caresses the ball with his right instep, pulls it back and spins to the right, retracing those 180 degrees. Olsson’s been packed off downtown, but his opponent is away in the other direction, making good for the touchline, and the Swedish box. A split second, and already there are a couple of yards between the players, Olsson struggling to stay upright as he realises he’s been diddled by a million-to-one shot, Cruyff striding into the area, free as a bird.

Those are the base mechanics of it, though a thousand words would never be quite enough to paint the full picture. No matter, as two suffice as a trigger to jog the memory: Cruyff Turn. The move became instantly world famous, seared indelibly on the brain, stored forever and available for replay on your mind’s eye-player. There it is! Cruyff Turn!

This was athletic, aesthetic, balletic brilliance out of the very top drawer. Cruyff was beginning, argued our reporter David Lacey, “to make the sort of impression on the competition that was left by Didi in 1958 and Garrincha in 1962”. Elite company – and that was the reason Olsson never felt ashamed about being diddled, reasoning, quite correctly, that nobody could have stopped a peak-era Cruyff from executing that trick, and in any case to be preserved in amber as an integral part of one of sport’s most magical moments isn’t the worst fate that can befall a player.

Cruyff’s turn came to symbolise the Total Football being played at the 1974 World Cup by the Dutch, somewhat erroneously perhaps, as it’s really all about one man’s other-worldly skill. Then again, the move does possess many of the trademarks of Holland’s constant carousel: a central midfielder and defender faffing around in tight spots down the right wing; another defender stepping forward to assume the role of playmaker; Cruyff patrolling the left which, if the Dutch footballers’ union had been far stricter about job demarcation, really should have been the beat of his team-mate Piet Keizer.

In any case, Total Football was less a tactical approach, more a state of mind. Haan explained the concept to the Observer’s man in Munich, Hugh McIlvanney: “People talk of total football as if it is a system, something to replace 4-2-4 or 4-3-3. It is not a system. As it is at any moment, so you play. That is how we understand. Not one or two players make a situation, but five or six. The best is that with every situation all 11 players are involved, but this is difficult. In many teams maybe only two or three play, and the rest are looking. In the Holland team, when you are 60 metres from the ball, you are playing.”

The Dutch proved the stars of the tournament. They saw off Uruguay 2-0, trounced Bulgaria 4-1, then started turning it on big-style in the second group stage, routing Argentina 4-0 before putting away the reigning world champions Brazil, who ended up resorting to base thuggery. Holland reached the final playing a new style of sexy soccer, and what’s more looked damn fine doing it, long hair flowing, love beads jangling, cheekbones glistening, the first football hipsters. (You can’t blame Cruyff for the way that particular trend developed, any more than you can finger Escoffier for McDonalds, or Laurel and Hardy for Sex Lives of the Potato Men.)

But there was a small flaw in the plan, which this most famous of moves inadvertently illustrated. The Cruyff Turn didn’t actually lead to anything. At all. Certainly nothing so crass as a goal. Having Harry Houdini’d his way into the Swedish area past Olsson, Cruyff flicked a nonchalant cross with the outside of his right foot towards Johnny Rep, level with the right-hand post, 10 yards out. Rep miscontrolled. Van Hanegem attempted to retrieve the situation by scampering across the face of the area from the right, but merely bounced to the floor off Bo Larsson, looking for a penalty kick that was never going to be awarded. Never mind: who remembers that bit anyway? This was art for art’s sake, more Whistler than Winterbottom, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that.

Providing you don’t mind not winning trophies, of course. The Dutch dominated the remainder of the Sweden match, but Rep and Keizer were off form up front, while the Swedish goalkeeper Ronnie Hellstroem was in an inspired and awkward mood. Indeed, Sweden could easily have nicked the win, Roland Sandberg fluffing a close-range shot on 81 minutes, Edstrom’s low fizzer being hacked away by a panicked Haan four minutes later. “It is a pity when you fail to produce a positive result after playing so well,” sighed Cruyff after the game. “We have played attacking and entertaining football.” His new party piece had symbolised the sparkling artistry of Total Football, but also served as a reminder that the purest forms of art are devoid of any utilitarian function whatsoever. No goal!

The Dutch masters also had to address another small problem: the hosts West Germany were world-class operators themselves, staffed with just as much (arguably even more) top-drawer talent. Holland had Cruyff, Rep, Haan and Johan Neeskens; the West Germans boasted Franz Beckenbauer, Sepp Maier, Berti Vogts, Paul Breitner and Gerd Müller. Not only that, the Germans were reigning European champions, had several players from the Bayern Munich team that had recently deposed Ajax as the continent’s No1 club side, and were confident enough to sideline their own idiosyncratic genius, Günter Netzer.

And their manager Helmut Schön’s view of football, while not quite Total, was not too far removed from that of the Dutch. “His definition of a good team would satisfy the Total Football lobby,” reported this paper. “He says it is one in which attack and defence are equally strong and in which all players are engaged whether the team is attacking or defending. Defenders are involved when the team is attacking, and attackers are involved when the team is defending.” West Germany could certainly walk it like Schön talked it, the left-back Breitner’s winner against Chile in their first match of the 1974 finals illustrating the point. He scored from distance along the inside-right flank, the culmination of a move he’d started himself on the other side of the field. If you blinked, you could have been forgiven for thinking the Bayern prodigy was patrolling both wings at once. The more robust-looking Germans may not have been blessed with the sultry sass of the dynamic Dutch, but a goal like Breitner’s qualified as Total Football. Totally.

Having said all that, West Germany weren’t half as impressive in the early matches as Holland. They fell to an embarrassing defeat in the group stage to East Germany, though that proved a more political and ideological blow than a sporting one, given it sent them into the easier second-stage group alongside Poland, Sweden and Yugoslavia. Or, to put it another way, Not Holland, Not Holland, and Not Holland. It gave Schön’s side time, space and opportunity to get their chops up and hit their stride; by the time they reached the final, they were ready to square up to the best team in the tournament.

How three weeks of tournament football had changed perceptions! Before a ball had been kicked, West Germany were “the outstanding favourites” for the 1974 World Cup, according to both the bookmakers and David Lacey, the latter noting that while Australia, Haiti and Zaire were “obvious makeweights, there is remarkably little to choose between the other 12 countries”. Holland had only scraped into the finals thanks to a highly dubious offside decision that went against Belgium in qualification, and despite boasting the “star attraction” in Cruyff, were no more fancied to do well than Poland, Yugoslavia, Uruguay, Argentina or Italy. But the Dutch touchpaper had been lit – an oranje boom – by the sheer audacity of Cruyff’s turn. Holland, now poets in motion, went into the final as new, hot favourites over the hosts.

“In the Dutch players,” began Hugh McIlvanney’s Observer preview of the final, “as they take the field at the Olympic Stadium, the normal flutter of nerves is likely to be tranquilised by a deep conviction that they have the talent, the courage and the collective maturity to lay emphatic hold on the championship. All who have seen them play, who have thrilled to an attacking style at once so spirited and so cuttingly precise that the effect is of a cavalry charge of surgeons, must share that belief. Yet, for some of us, those echoes of events that took place so many seasons ago tend to form ice cubes in the blood.” The legendary scribe then went on to recall the fate of the Hungarians in the 1954 final. Where, of course, the darlings of the tournament came a cropper against resolute German underdogs.

The Dutch flew out of the blocks in the final, so much so that they were a goal up before West Germany had even touched the ball. After 16 passes stroked around the back from kick off, Cruyff suddenly drove forward from the centre circle and along the inside-left channel, before drawing a hapless challenge from Uli Hoeness. To nick the catchphrase of the greatest television commentator of the day: one nil!

Vogts was then booked for persistently fouling Cruyff, an achievement that was quite remarkable (thanks to the BBC’s David Coleman again) seeing only four minutes had elapsed. But this was about as good as it got for the Dutch. They enjoyed the lion’s share for the next 20 minutes or so, stroking the ball around, almost teasing their hosts. Never mind Total Football; Total Humiliation was on the cards. (Mind you, whether the Dutch were collectively hell bent on deliberately shaming their opponents, as the legend states, is a moot point. Van Hanegem certainly had payback for the atrocities of war on his mind, but the team as a whole didn’t goad the Germans with any notable arrogance in their play, or put on any bullfighter’s airs and graces; it was just that, when on song, as they were in these opening exchanges, Holland were simply better at retaining the ball and recycling possession).

But this approach, while giving Holland dominance, was not foolproof, and the dangers inherent in their laid-back, probing style became apparent soon enough. One 51-second passage of play saw the Dutch ping the ball around with signal insouciance, 11 passes which culminated in an aimless Haan cross from the right. Breitner headed upfield with straightforward purpose, instigating a quick break. Müller was only stopped from racing clear by a desperate last-ditch intervention by Rijsbergen.

“Misguidedly, Holland continued to slow the rhythm of their game,” reported Lacey. “Perhaps they thought they could win the World Cup without allowing Germany to play in the final. If so, it was a rash assumption, for the Germans needed only a goal to recover their poise and confidence.” The equaliser came after Wim Jansen was denied a chance to break into the German box by an imperious Beckenbauer interception, then made a proper horlicks of chasing back after Bernd Hölzenbein, who was making good towards the area up the other end. The German winger took all available advantage of Jansen’s clumsy lunge; a hint of moral turpitude in the ease with which he went over, perhaps, but the challenge was dafter than the dive was saucy. Breitner, aged 22, slotted the penalty away. Before this match, there had never been a penalty in a World Cup final, a run that had stretched 44 years. Now there had been two in 25 minutes.

Three minutes after the equaliser, West Germany should have taken the lead. And if you wanted an example of Total Football – or Ramba Zamba in the much more sing-song German parlance – then this was it, Vogts of all people exchanging passes with Hoeness down the inside left, then belting a shot towards the top-left corner. Jan Jongbloed palmed away. Despite all the early Dutch pressure, their keeper had now been forced into more meaningful action than his German counterpart Maier.

Cruyff quickly began to betray inner turmoil, voicing legitimate concerns at a couple of barely legitimate challenges from Vogts, who was treading a fine disciplinary line, but also coming out on top in the majority of their encounters. But while Vogts gets most of the credit for doing a number on Holland’s star man in this final, the unflappable Beckenbauer won perhaps the most important mental duel with Cruyff. On 35 minutes, Cruyff and Rep sprung into the German half with Breitner and Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck claiming offside, even though Cruyff received the ball in his own half. The Dutch pair were two on one with Beckenbauer, but the German captain held a central line as he tracked back, ensuring Cruyff couldn’t get a shot away. Cruyff was forced to lay off to Rep on the left, who sent the ball straight at Maier from a much more difficult angle. The star of the 1974 World Cup had been effortlessly shepherded away from danger, the loser of a battle that was less football, more One Man And His Dog.

The decisive moment came two minutes before half-time. One of Jürgen Grabowski’s increasingly dangerous sorties down the right ended with Müller resetting himself and screwing a shot towards the bottom left, away from a wrong-footed Jongbloed, eight yards out. Müller’s Twist was everything Cruyff’s turn was not. It looked inelegant and scrappy. It was also forensic and brutal. Müller had adjusted his body weight on the hoof, then brilliantly threaded the ball home. Doing what had to be done, he had opportunistically found a way to win the World Cup for his country. It was a swivel as skilful in its own way as Cruyff’s had been. It was just positioned in a different place along the spectrum.

That was that. The hosts held the lead at half-time and – with Cruyff whining at the referee as the pair left the field and receiving a booking as punishment – had the upper hand mentally, too. Holland would come at West Germany with great determination during the second period, pinning them back in their own area for the last half-hour or so, Rep guilty of an astonishing miss on 77 minutes as he failed to connect at close range with a low Wim Suurbier right-wing cross. But even then, the Germans looked the more likely to actually get the business done: they had a perfectly good Müller chest-down and finish ruled out by an appalling offside decision, and a good appeal for a second penalty turned down when Jansen upended Hölzenbein again, for real this time.

Poor Holland, who ended up suffering for their art. They’d bared their souls to show the world all they had, and refused to compromise, giving so much pleasure over the course of the tournament. But it was the hosts who were lifting the brand-new Fifa World Cup trophy (Brazil having made off with Jules Rimet’s goddess of victory with their third win four years earlier). A sporting tragedy for Cruyff not to get a winners’ medal, but then what sort of world would we live in if the likes of Beckenbauer and Müller didn’t have one in their collection? And at least Cruyff, the aesthete supreme, was leaving with a unique consolation prize. He went home with an (admittedly intangible) award for artistic merit: the Cruyff Turn ensured his own personal legend, as it became the defining image of the 1974 World Cup, the defining image of the great Dutch team of the Seventies, the defining image of one of the most talented, enchanting and magical players to ever breeze around a football field.

But is there an image that defines it all better? As Müller twisted again, in celebration at the final whistle of West Germany’s astonishing victory, Cruyff could be seen standing stock still in the middle of a melee, towering above a throng of associates and punters who had surrounded him to offer commiserations. A perfect portrait of existential pain, he’s looking straight ahead, ashen-faced, in a world of solitude, peering exactly one thousand yards into the distance. Another arresting snapshot, but this one said even more about his, and his famous team’s, ultimate failure to get the job done. Never has a man on a football pitch looked so disoriented, lost and alone. With the possible exception, of course, of poor old Jan Olsson.