The tie in Kharkiv on June 13 promises to decide the destiny of a hugely competitive Group B and pits against each other the teams ranked second and third in the world, both of whom enjoyed a comprehensive qualifying campaign.
But surpassing even these concerns is the fact that Germany v Netherlands is one of the genuine grudge matches in European football – a rivalry with deep-seated historical and social contexts, burnished by on-field controversy and seminal matches. It is quite simply the grandest rivalry on the continent, and here is why...
Conflating sport and war is a process fraught with pitfalls, but to ignore the impact and legacy of the Second World War would be to ignore a central factor in the development of Europe’s biggest football rivalry; it is a thread woven through the story of this neighbourly dispute.
Neutral Netherlands was invaded by Nazi Germany in May 1940 and the country taken in just five days, ushering in a brutal occupation that lasted five years. For some of those players who met in the 1974 World Cup final, the wounds were still raw. Famously, midfielder Wim van Hanegem said of that game: “I don’t like the Germans. Every time I played against German players I had a problem because of the war. Eighty per cent of my family died in this war: my daddy, my sisters, two brothers. And every game against players from Germany makes me angry.”
Though such antipathy has dulled with the passage of time and no longer dominates the discourse of a Germany v Netherlands tie, it did come to the fore when the two sides met in the semi-final of the 1988 European Championship, hosted by West Germany. Journalist Simon Kuper writes of Netherlands’ victory in ‘Football Against the Enemy’: “[The win] was not only the resistance we never quite offered but also the battle we never quite won.”
July 7, 1974, is a date permanently singed on the Dutch psyche, a date when this particular rivalry became infused with recrimination, frustration and anger. In a World Cup taking place in West Germany, Johan Cruyff’s Total Footballers were to face the hosts in the final. It was a match on a faultline of football history: just two months previously Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich had ended Cruyff and Ajax’s run of three consecutive European Cup triumphs and at Munich’s Olympiastadion it was Der Kaiser who would triumph once again with Bayern team-mate, the great Gerd ‘Der Bomber’ Mueller, scoring the winning goal.
Coached by the incomparable Rinus Michels, Netherlands had set a high aesthetic benchmark approaching the final thanks to their intuitive understanding and exploitation of space and movement. However, their preparations were disrupted when German tabloid Bild accused four Dutch players of having a raucous party with four unnamed German girls, an accusation that was furiously denied. Cruyff himself was said to have fielded angry calls from his wife, Danny.
The Dutch started the game in imperious form, winning a penalty when Uli Hoeness tripped Cruyff before West Germany had even had a touch of the ball. Johan Neeskens struck the ball home but instead of the Dutch pressing home their advantage, they seemed intent on toying with the Germans, on humiliating them. As Johnny Rep later admitted: “We wanted to make fun of the Germans … we forgot to score the second goal." Paul Breitner then responded with a penalty of his own before Mueller struck a winner to leave a nation shell-shocked. Netherlands had suffered what became known as ‘de moeder aller nederlagen’ (the mother of all defeats).
Fourteen years after the trauma of Munich, the Dutch nation enjoyed a rather more cathartic experience at the 1988 European Championships, also held in West Germany. Drawn to face the hosts in a semi-final in Hamburg, a desire for retribution came bubbling to the surface. As goalkeeper Hans van Breukelen admitted: “It was one of my motivations in ’88 not to lose again. I think the whole team had that kind of feeling. We have to beat them this time.”
And beat them they did. The game in Hamburg even had spooky similarities to that in Munich. West Germany took the lead through a penalty from Lothar Matthaus before Netherlands replied with their own spot-kick, converted by Ronald Koeman. And like Mueller 14 years before him it was left to Marco van Basten, the most accomplished striker of his generation, to score the winner. David Winner writes in ‘Brilliant Orange: the neurotic genius of Dutch football’: “In the euphoria it felt as though the country was getting its second Liberation – this time not by Canadian and British soldiers, but by the efforts of their own righteous footballers.”
Netherlands went on to defeat Soviet Union 2-0 in the final – Van Basten scoring one of the great all-time goals – but it was the semi-final victory that inspired a special book of poetry. It also inspired another contentious moment as Koeman swapped shirts with the defeated Olaf Thon and pretended to wipe his backside with the white German shirt to anger supporters of Die Nationalmannschaft.
Few acts on a football pitch invite as much opprobrium as hurling a globule of spittle at a fellow professional. When such an act occurs twice, and at a World Cup, it is enough to leave a permanent mark on a career. That is what for many people, the name Frank Rijkaard will forever conjure up an image of the Dutch defender nestling a phlegm projectile into the mullet of Germany striker Rudi Voeller in an infamous 1990 World Cup second-round match in Milan.
Rijkaard upended Voeller with a firm challenge after 20 minutes before aiming a spit at his opponent. Voeller protested to the referee, to no avail, and then went in enthusiastically on goalkeeper Van Breukelen from the free-kick. A melee ensued that resulted in both men being sent off and Rijkaard took the opportunity to disgust the watching world again when spitting once more at Voeller, before trotting off the pitch. West Germany went on to win 2-1 and beat Argentina in the final.
Rijkaard said of his shameful behaviour: “That day I was wrong. I always had respect for Rudi, but I went berserk when I saw that red card. I talked to him after the match and I apologised.” But as German journalist Uli Hesse wrote in ‘Tor!’: “Games between Germany and Holland had clearly degenerated into something that only marginally concerned football.”
During the storied history of the German-Dutch rivalry it has always been tempting to cast the architects of Total Football as the artists and the more successful Germans as the arch pragmatists. Certainly that is the narrative established by the 1974 final: the game that more than any other defines this particular football conflict. However, events at the 2010 World Cup suggested that a shift had occurred in perceptions of these two football nations.
It was a feeling expressed as early as the first round of group games. After Germany, boasting young tyros like Mesut Oezil and Thomas Mueller, sauntered to a 4-0 win over Australia, the following day Netherlands were rather less impressive in a 2-0 win over Denmark, leaving a concerned Rafael van der Vaart to admit that “we played like Germany and they played like us”. Though Germany would fall in the semi-finals to Spain, their reputation as a thrilling young attacking side was established; Netherlands, meanwhile, were chiefly remembered for their crude attempts to stop Spain in a brutal final, with the lasting image being Nigel de Jong planting his studs into the chest of Xabi Alonso.
Writing in Issue Zero of The Blizzard, Kuper draws parallels between this surrender of Netherlands’ traditional football values and a shift to the right in Dutch politics to explain why it is Germany who would now be justified in expressing a moral superiority over their neighbours on both sporting and social grounds.
It would be making far too much of a leap to suggest that this rivalry has come full circle, but the dynamic of Europe’s most entrenched football dispute is subtly changing all the time. Who knows what extra dimension June 13, 2012, will add.