There can be few things more tiresome in international football than war analogies. Sometimes, however, they are inescapable and this can be no more true than in the case of European nations which once pitched up against each other on battlefields, only to find themselves facing off against their former allies or rivals for decades afterwards. In the case of the Dutch national team, the complex nature of its relationship with its neighbour – and former occupier – Germany has come to manifest itself through an occasional series of gladiatorial matches between the two national sides.
The Netherlands team has become so well-established in the latter stages of major tournaments in recent years that it is easy to forget that this wasn’t always the case. Although they won three consecutive bronze medals at the early Olympic Games, a lack of professionalism meant that increases in quality at the top level of the game left the Netherlands team behind. They did send a team to both the 1934 and 1938 World Cups, but they were knocked out in the First Round both times, by Switzerland and Czechoslovakia respectively. After the war, the team didn’t compete in the first two World Cups, which were held in Brazil and Switzerland, but football in the Netherlands was starting to change.
Professionalism in football was legalised in the Netherlands in 1954 and a national league, the Eredivisie, followed two years later. This change didn’t reap many rewards on the international scene for much of the next two decades – the Dutch failed to qualify for the next four consecutive World Cups – but by the middle of the 1960s tactical changes in the Dutch game were being driven by a small number of individuals at an even smaller number of clubs. The Dutch tactical revolution had begun in Amsterdam at Ajax, with English coaches Jack Reynolds and Vic Buckingham, but they really took their great leap forward with the return of former player Rinus Michels to the club in 1965.
The development of total football – a system of footballing perpetual motion in which all players covered all positions in a system in which attack was treasured above all else – was refined under Michels and elsewhere in the Netherlands as well. Feyenoord and Ajax won four consecutive European Cups between 1970 and 1973, but even during this spell the progress of the national team was laboured. In attempting to qualify for the 1970 World Cup finals they were knocked out by Bulgaria, and they fared little better in the European Championships two years later, this time knocked out by Yugoslavia. Even qualifying for the 1974 World Cup finals proved to be an arduous task. Needing only a draw from their final match against Belgium in Amsterdam, only an incorrect offside call in their favour against Belgium late in their final group match sent them through to the finals.
The story of the Netherlands at the 1974 World Cup finals is a well-trodden path. The team ignited the tournament with electrifying attacking football, sweeping their way past all-comers before getting unstuck in the final against an equally strong West German team. The reaction of the nation to it, however, did surprise some. The Netherlands had been occupied by Germany during the Second World War, but it has been suggested that the reaction of the country at the end of the occupation had been a constant process of looking forward rather than back, rejecting the country’s old fashioned, conservative power bases in favour of modernity and change.
It has been posited that all manner of psychological traumas resurfaced in Munich with that defeat, along with more prosaic possible explanations for the loss of the match, such as a now infamous story broken by the German newspaper Bild just before the final about the Dutch team spending time in a hot tub with women that patently weren’t their wives during the tournament or rumours of an all night telephone call the night before the match between Johann Cruyff and his wife which, it is said, unsettled the captain prior to the match and ultimately led to his retirement from international football.
What we know for certain is that this particular ninety minutes in Munich’s Olympic Stadium has been picked over like no other in the history of Dutch football. The Netherlands team failed to kill the game off after having taken a very early lead, which was won from a penalty kick awarded before West Germany had even touched the ball. The West German team, however, kept its composure and weathered the Dutch storm for the next twenty-five minutes, levelled with a penalty kick of their own and then won the game with a Gerd Muller goal just before half-time. Every conceivable explanation has been offered for the Dutch defeat, in no small part because the Dutch public took to this team like it had never taken to a Dutch national team before or since. The lasting impact of the tournament was to fundamentally alter the focus of Dutch football. The Red Devils of Belgium were no longer the obsession of those that followed the team. West Germany – later Germany – was now the match that mattered for the Netherlands.
Four years later, they would come even closer to lifting the World Cup in Argentina when, with the scores level in the last minute of the World Cup, Rob Rensenbrink hit the post when a goal would have taken the trophy back to the Netherlands. The early to mid 1980s ended up being a transitional phase for the team, and they missed out on both of the next two World Cups as well as the 1984 European Championships. The European Championships for 1988, however, saw a mixture of a new generation of players and a coach from the old school come home with a trophy, but that, it has been argued, wasn’t even the most important prize that the Dutch took back with them from their adventure in West Germany.
By the time of the 1988 European Championships, the Dutch had built a new side built around such mercurial talents as Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. The coach, however, was a blast from the past – Rinus Michels, who had taken the team to the final of the 1974 World Cup and who had brought total football to its peak in the first place. Michels had returned to the job in 1986 to lead the team through their qualifying group with six wins and two draws from their eight matches, but there were one or two question marks hanging over the team’s experience at this level. Their tournament started slowly, beaten by a lone second half goal from the Soviet Union’s Vasyl Rats in their opening match in Cologne and, although they hadn’t put in a bad performance, this left Michels’ team needing to beat both Ireland and England in their final two matches to guarantee qualification to the semi-finals.
For much of the first half of their second match against England there wasn’t much of an improvement in the Dutch performance and England even managed to hit the post twice before a Marco Van Basten goal just before half-time gave them the lead. England leveled early in the second half, but two more goals from Van Basten saw them win comfortably. The Netherlands went into their final group match against Ireland needing a win to go through to the semi-finals, while Ireland needed only a draw. The score was goalless with less than ten minutes to play, when fortune suddenly shone on the Dutch. Ronald Koeman’s shot from the edge of the penalty area had a hint of the desperate about it, but his shot was badly miscued, skidded into the ground and bounced up for a surprised Wim Kieft to head the ball past Pat Bonner to send the Dutch through to the semi-final.
The semi-final match saw them play West Germany, coached by the Dutch nemesis from fourteen years earlier, Franz Beckenbauer. West Germany had started the tournament as unsurprising favourites, which they had backed up with two wins and a draw from their group matches against Italy, Denmark and Spain. It took until ten minutes into the second half for the game to warm up, with a penalty for West Germany after Jurgen Klinsmann went down – as he often seemed wont to do – under a reasonable looking challenge. Lothar Matthaus converted the kick to give the home side the lead. This time, however, it was the Dutch team that didn’t wilt, and with sixteen minutes to play another soft penalty, this time for a foul on Van Basten, allowed the Netherlands to level and, with two minutes to play, a lunging Marco Van Basten got behind his marker to shoot across the West German goalkeeper Eike Immel and in.
It is said that in the Netherlands, a country with a population of fifteen million people, almost two-thirds of the population were out celebrating that night. Four days later in Munich, a header from Ruud Gullit and a sensational volley from Marco Van Basten, one of the greatest goals in the entire history of the tournament, won the European Championships for the Netherlands in a rematch of their opening fixture against the Soviet Union. They partied back at home that night as well, of course, but the real victory, the one which meant everything, had come in the semi-final with a win which carried a symbolic importance that was probably greater than its actual importance.
Such is the nature of these things that levelling the score against West Germany didn’t pacify the sporting relationship between the two countries. Two years later at the World Cup finals in Italy, West Germany, playing in their final tournament before reunification with the east, won a bad tempered rematch in Milan. The Dutch couldn’t retain the European Championships in Sweden in 1992, either. Having comfortably beaten West Germany themselves in a group match, the Dutch were themselves beaten on penalty kicks by Denmark in the semi-finals. They still celebrated as if they had won the tournament themselves when the Danes beat Germany in the final, though.
With the passing of time had come a change in attitudes, too. As the war faded in the distance to become a series of stories and memories, ideas of the old, conservative Netherlands which had been stripped away by the social changes of the 1960s and 1970s became a thing of the past, but not being German became part of the Dutch self-identity. In addition to this, outbreaks of fighting between Dutch and German hooligans became commonplace in towns along the border between the two countries. Sometimes, it all felt quite far removed from the unified European project of the nations’ politicians.
The complexities of the relationship between the Netherlands and Germany do put one significant point about the development of football in the Netherlands into the shade. The population of the Netherlands is a little under seventeen milion people, compared with the eighty-two million people that live in Germany. As such, any rivalry can hardly be considered as being between two equals, and it remains a truism to suggest that the most significant achievement of the KNVB (the Dutch Football Association) has been to channel the resources of a relatively modest country and turn this into the success of three appearances in a World Cup final and a win in the European Championships. The Dutch team that reached the final of the last World Cup may have been a demonstration of the final death of total football as an ideal, but the Netherlands remain a strong team and nothing would give the Dutch people greater pleasure than another win against their biggest rivals this summer. The Netherlands play Germany in Kharkiv on the thirteenth of June.
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