There are some football matches which transcend mere rivalry and tap into something more deep-seated, as if they tickle a synapse that we may even think that we have evolved away from. Few of these occur in international football, but when they do, they arrive with a force of personality that is almost overwhelming. The story of the Netherlands versus Germany isn’t just a tale of footballing rivalry, though. It’s a story of national identity, perceived injustice, what might have been and occasional bouts of appalling behaviour and violence, and almost forty years after arguably its defining moment, remains a brightly burning flame.
To understand the rivalry between the Netherlands and Germany is to pass well beyond sport and into something considerably more fundamental about human nature. In 1974, West Germany came from behind to win in the Olympic Stadium. Fourteen years later, the Dutch got their when a Marco Van Basten goal two minutes from time won a European Championship semi-final in Hamburg. Since then there has been toing and froing but this summer saw the two sides drawn together in the group stages of the European Championships with both sides near the pinnacle of the international game, yet something isn’t right in the Dutch camp. Familiar rumours – whether with foundation or not – surfaced of disagreements within the Dutch squad, whilst on Saturday afternoon they looked curiously deflated in losing to Denmark, the first (and still biggest) shock of the tournament. Germany, meanwhile, laboured a little in beating Portugal and might have dropped two points in the final fifteen minutes of the game, but they came through it and, as was widely noted at the time, were monly likely to improve on that workmanlike but somewhat unspectacular performance.
This evening, however, the stars shone brightly for Germany. The Dutch started strongly, as if they had a point to prove from Saturday – which, in truth, they did – whilst Germany looked out of sorts, as if they had only been woken up shortly before kick-off and hadn’t had their first cup of coffee of the day yet. So it was in 1974, however, as it was in 2012. Twenty-three minutes had been played when Germany burst forward on the right-hand side. Muller was looking for a one-two with Bastian Schweinsteiger, but Schweinsteiger spots Mario Gomez in a better position and Gomez, as cool as if it was just he and the ball alone in the stadium, drilled it past Stekelenburg and into the corner of the net to give Germany the lead.
It was a goal that didn’t just change the flow of the game, but picked it up and hurled it into a new dimension. Mullers low cross from the right evaded the foot of Gomez by a matter of inches. Suddenly it was the Dutch that were playing as if only recently acquainted while shortly after this a free-kick from the right found Badstuber unmarked and six yards out. While his header was a powerful one, though, it is badly placed and Stekelenburg blocks the ball. It was, however, the briefest of respites for the Netherlands and after thirty-nine minutes a simple, slide-rule pass found Gomez again and he shot across Stekelenburg from an angle to double Germany’s lead. Half-time could only have been a blessed relief for Bert Van Marwijk and his team.
For ten minutes at the start of the second half, it felt as if Germany could only add to their lead, but for all the possession they enjoyed over this period, they were limited to little more than a couple of half chances for Mats Hummels and between the sixtieth and sixty-fifth minutes of the match the Dutch awoke from their slumber. Robin Van Persies’s low shot was brilliantly pawed away by Neuer. Wesley Sneijder curled a shot narrowly wide of the post. And then, after seventy-three minutes, a goal – a fine shot from Van Persie, who had cut in from the left to find his position. A second Dutch goal, however, turns out to be a bridge too far. Boateng blocked brilliantly, twice, whilst at the other end in the final minute Stekelenburg slipped up and almost allowed Miroslav Klose to slide in and nick Germany a third goal.
When Gerd Muller swiveled and rolled the ball into the Dutch net for the third goal of the 1974 World Cup final in Munich, the Dutch television commentator Herman Kuiphof, with a phrase of magnificent economy that says so much about the nature of its relationship with its neighbour to the east, remarked, “They tricked us again.” There was no trickery on display in Kharkiv this evening, though. Had the Netherlands team come to life half an hour earlier, they might well have claimed at least a point from this match. As things turned out, though, seventeen minutes wasn’t quite enough to drag them back into this evenings match and Germany had enough about them to be able to repel Dutch desperation for this amount of time. The Netherlands now find their fate out of their own hands. They must beat Portugal in their final group match and hope that Germany can do the same to Denmark in their final match. Germany, meanwhile, could yet fail to qualify from the group stages but seems more or less inconceivable that they won’t. These two teams may well not meet in the final of this year’s competition, but they gave us another exhilarating chapter to one of international footballs greatest rivalries this evening.
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