The rivalry between the Netherlands and Germany has at times been one of football’s fiercest and most keenly contested. There have been iconic clashes in the latter stages of several tournaments across the years, in what may at first seem a straightforward rivalry between neighbours with a contentious shared history. And yet contrary to what many would imagine, that this rivalry was born out of post-war hatred and resentment, the true picture is a far more complex and nuanced one.
Rather, in purely footballing terms, the truth is that the rivalry barely existed until one famous night in Hamburg in June 1988 in the semi-final of the European Championships. The enmity, primarily from the Dutch towards their larger neighbours, was maintained over the next few years reaching another peak in the second-round clash at Italia ’90, when Frank Rijkaard’s phlegm met Rudi Voller’s perm, and all hell broke loose.
But it was not always this way, far from it in fact. The 1974 World Cup final may have been an on-field clash between Dutch beauty and German pragmatism, but as for animosity, rivalry and cross-border hysteria was very little. With the war still relatively fresh in the mind at the time, you could be forgiven for thinking it was front and centre in the thoughts of the Dutch when facing up to their near neighbours. However, Johnny Rep, one of that great Dutch team’s most iconic players, when asked whether the war was ever mentioned amongst the Dutch squad during that World Cup, replied with a straightforward “Never.”
That isn’t to say that for some of the Dutch players involved there weren’t personal war-related demons nagging away at them. Willem van Hanegem, for instance, left the field in tears as that particular match had meant more to him personally as he’d lost his father and brother in the war. Ruud Krol’s father was a resistance fighter whose own personal demons had significantly shaped the young Ruud’s upbringing. But on the whole, the more toxic mood that would appear in 1988 was absent, and the defeat passed off relatively calmly. The Dutch were disappointed, sure, but were happy to have finished as runners-up in what was after all a first tournament appearance in four decades for the national team.
On a more personal level, the two sets of players had little in the way of animosity in spite of the fact that many of them came from the two eminent club sides of the era, and therefore natural rivals: Ajax Amsterdam and Bayern Munich. The two captains, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff, were friends and shared a mutual respect. It simply wasn’t a fierce footballing rivalry at that time.
After all, for much of the post-war period Dutch football had languished some distance behind its German counterpart. After a 1956 match in which the Netherlands beat the West German reigning world champions, the tide turned significantly in the Germans’ favour as they won the next four encounters. There was even a 7-0 thrashing in 1959 to emphasise this point. As the German wins mounted up, they overhauled the head-to-head lead the Dutch had enjoyed from a more pioneering age of football in the 1920s and 1930s.
Until the dawning of Total Football, initially at Ajax but then subsequently with the national side in the early 1970s, there was no chance at all of the Netherlands rivalling Germany as a football nation. In that era they were worlds apart. West Germany were a global force, reaching the latter stages tournament after tournament. The Dutch, on the other hand, were wretched. During this time they suffered a humbling defeat to another near neighbour, Luxembourg. They focused most of their thoughts on a rivalry with Belgium and failed to qualify for the World Cup or European Championships.
1974 was the first marker on the road to a football rivalry, one that would bring to the surface the post-war resentments that had sat below the surface, but had still felt too recent in 1974. By 1988, things would be very different.
Football-wise a few flashpoints did arise in the intervening period between the big matches of 1974 and 1988. During a 2-2 draw in the 1978 World Cup, with the Dutch on their way to the runners-up spot once again, Holland’s Dick Nanninga, later to score in the final itself, was sent off after clashing with Bernd Holzenbein – the same man who had gone to ground rather easily to earn West Germany’s equalising penalty in the 1974 final. Nanninga had claimed innocence, and to have only pushed the German out of retaliation. The truth was that Nanninga was the instigator, hitting Holzenbein in the stomach for little apparent reason.
Two years down the line, another tournament, another clash. A very similar incident took place at Euro 1980 in a match the West Germans won 3-2 on their way to being crowned European Champions. When Johnny Rep and German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher went up for a cross, the Dutchman hit Schumacher in the stomach, again for little purpose other than to antagonise. But these were footballing flashpoints, highlighting an increasing electricity or volatility to the regular high profile matches between the two, although the wholesale antagonism that wold later feature was still some way off.
This change in not easily explained as simple sporting enmity. Neither is it purely about the war, as the more cordial recent past demonstrated. But the fact remains that during the 1980s, attitudes in the Netherlands regarding the Second World War were changing. While in 1974, the war was still too close, and too fresh for many Dutch to dwell on, or analyse to any great degree, in the mid-1980s things were different. Memorials had begun to be installed to commemorate and remember the Holocaust. More significantly perhaps in terms of attitudes the 5th May, the anniversary of the Dutch liberation in 1945, was installed as a national holiday. This reintroduced, or reinforced, the concept that the Dutch were good and the Germans were bad. This idea was further enhanced by the release of many books to mark forty years since the liberation in 1985 which in a country that wasn’t yet facing up to its own war issues – collaboration, large Dutch Nazi party, complicity in the exportation of Jews – reiterated the idea of good versus bad.
This was the prevailing feeling in the Netherlands at the time the two sides met in the 1988 European Championships semi-final. On the football field, from the Dutch perspective at least, this contrast was visible in the players representing the teams. For the Dutch in 1988 there was Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard; elegant, sophisticated, pure. Whereas the West German team had Lothar Matthaus, Rudi Voller and Jurgen Klinsmann. To the Dutch, the contrast was stark. Their stars could really play, while the Germans played without beauty. As described by Simon Kuper in Football Against the Enemy, “The two teams, in short, summed up the way the Dutch wanted to see themselves and the way they saw the Germans. We were like Gullit and they were like Matthaus.”
As flawed as this notion was, there was an undoubted elegance to the Dutch side of 1988; and in taking on and beating the West Germans, in Germany no less, the tense background ensured that the Dutch victory caused emotions to spill over.
With memories of the 1974 World Cup final still relatively fresh to hand, there was an additional level of intrigue in the 1988 clash, in that it was an almost mirror image of what had happened fourteen years before. On that occasion it was the Dutch who took the lead from the penalty spot only for the German to equalise in the same way. As in Munich 1974, so it was in Hamburg 1988, although this time West Germany scored first before the Dutch equaliser. Both teams railed at the injustice inflicted by the penalty awards against them, but as the match went into its increasingly tense latter stages, it was poised at 1-1. In 1974 it had been the predatory instincts of Gerd Muller who had won the day. In 1988, the foremost striker on show wasn’t in the white and black of West Germany, but in the orange of the Netherlands. With two minutes of the game remaining, Marco van Basten scored with a delightful sliding goal, stretching his long leg to divert the ball into the German net. With that goal, the rivalry spilled over into new territory.
For Germany, this defeat was hard to take. As the tournament hosts with the weight of expectation behind them, to lose at home to the Dutch was tough to bear. While the Dutch celebrated with around 15,000 orange clad fans in the Hamburg stadium, many of the German players disappeared to the safety of the dressing as soon as they could. Only one of the West German players swapped shirts with a Dutch counterpart, but once Ronald Koeman had got Olaf Thon’s shirt he mimicked wiping his backside with it in front of the delirious Dutch support; an act, that legend has it, he repeated for real with the shirt later on.
On a Tuesday night back in Holland, the celebrations spilled onto the streets in a way they’d never done before. It was considered to be the largest public gathering since the liberation, and even though it was now more than forty years later, the feelings and various public statements kept harking back to the war, in stark contrast to anything that had occurred in previous meetings between the two neighbours. It was the first time that the Netherlands had beaten West Germany in thirty-two years, and it released the underlying Dutch feelings to such an extent that a sporting rivalry had become soured. It exorcised many of the lingering Dutch demons, finally getting one over on a rival that was far more than a sporting one. And to do it on German territory just enhanced the feeling of release from wartime occupation that it brought on.
It seems trivial to make such a comparison, and yet it can’t be denied that these were the feelings this Dutch victory brought on. Simon Kuper described the prevailing Dutch mood over this victory saying: “The match was, in short, a romanticised version of the war.” The good Dutch had beaten the bad Germans, in a symbolic reversal of the German invasion of 1940, with the Dutch fans travelling into Germany to defeat the locals. The chant of the time went: “In 1940 they came. In 1988 we came.” However, the fact remains that until this iconic game in 1988, the Dutch by and large hadn’t felt so strongly about the Germans. There had been the occasional footballing flashpoint, but nothing with this scale of animosity or contrived connection to past conflict. Past matches had passed off in the way you’d expect; as merely a sporting contest where the winners were appreciative and the losers graceful.
But 1988 changed all that for a while. It had turned into one of the most heated rivalries in football. The enmity was, at that time, undoubtedly more from the Dutch towards the Germans. As described by German writer Uli Hesse, “They not only started this rivalry, they have also carried it to a point where it is obsessive, almost psychotic.”
With the Dutch going on to be crowned European Champions, celebrating in the same Munich stadium where their hopes had been dashed in 1974, the style and panache of the flamboyant Dutch had reached its pinnacle. Marco van Basten’s remarkable volleyed goal was an appropriate way to seal the victory and secure the Netherlands first, and currently, only piece of silverware. Heading into the next two-year cycle leading towards the 1990 World Cup, the Dutch were riding the crest of a wave.
FIFA and the fates of football decreed that the next meetings in this newly forged intense rivalry would come during the qualification process for the World Cup. Pitched into a group alongside Wales and Finland, the two giants of the European game were competing for just one guaranteed automatic spot for the finals, although of the three European groups containing four teams, the two best runners-up would also qualify.
It was just four months later in October 1988 when the Dutch travelled to West Germany once again, Munich this time, to add the next chapter of this ongoing saga. On this occasion things passed off relatively calmly, likely aided by the fact that the teams played out a less than dramatic goalless draw to share the spoils. The same couldn’t be said of the return encounter in Rotterdam in the spring of 1989.
It wasn’t the fact that the Dutch again scored a late goal through Marco van Basten, this time to grab a 1-1 draw, to share the spoils that made this game so contentious. It was more what surrounded the game, with prickly intentions coming from both sides. Trouble flared ahead of the game when some German “firms” used the occasion to “invade enemy territory”. Inside the stadium, some Dutch fans revealed a huge banner comparing Lothar Matthaus to Adolf Hitler. The mood was altogether more sinister than anything that had gone before.
Both teams did successfully to make it through to the 1990 World Cup, with the Netherlands winning the qualifying group leaving West Germany to make it through as one of the best runners-up. But such was their stature, both were considered among the favourites to win the tournament in Italy. And yet while the Germans stormed through their group in fine style, the Netherlands failed to click, succumbing more to internal conflict as much as to anything their opponents were throwing at them. Three stuttering draws in the group stage meant it was the Dutch side’s turn to rely on being one of the best non-automatic qualifiers. They finished third in their group, albeit thanks to losing the drawing of lots of Ireland for second place. That meant they would face a group winner in the last 16; naturally the fates decreed that it would be West Germany.
What followed in Milan was an unforgettable clash for a variety of reasons, but it wasn’t for its aesthetic beauty that it would live long in the memory. Around twenty minutes into what had up until that point been a fairly benign, cagey affair, the fuse was lit in rather controversial style. Frank Rijkaard halted a run by Rudi Voller by scything him down as he surged towards the Dutch penalty area. It wasn’t especially vicious but the cynicism of it earned Rijkaard a justifiable yellow card, and as it was his second of the tournament it would have meant he would miss the quarter-final should the Dutch win.
The red mist descended for Rijkaard, and as he trotted into place for the ensuing free-kick he spat in Voller’s hair. Words were exchanged at this point which bizarrely led to Voller receiving a yellow card, ostensibly for complaining about being spat at. When the free-kick came in, Voller challenged for the ball as it was grabbed by Dutch keeper Hans van Breukelen and seemed to be legitimately trying to avoid making contact with the keeper. Rijkaard, still incensed and enraged, took exception and grabbed Voller by the ear and trod on his foot, sending the German to ground again. Rijkaard was sent off for his trouble, but again to the disbelief of most watching on, and certainly to Voller himself, the German striker was also red carded. As he stood in disbelief, brooding over what had just happened to him, Rijkaard walked past on his way from the field and deposited another round of spittle into the German’s hair.
For the normally mild-mannered Rijkaard it was astoundingly out of character, but it served to emphasise the shift in perception of the two sides since 1988. Where then the Dutch were the beauty to Germany’s more standard, functional approach, now the Dutch, still boasting astounding talent in all corners of the field, were betrayed by infighting and conflict, destroying their own hopes at every turn.
The match that followed became something of a classic as Jurgen Klinsmann took on the work load of his striking partner, running so much that he apparently collapsed after the final whistle. He scored a fine opening goal in the second half before Andreas Brehme’s delightful curling shot made it 2-0. The game was up, and a late, dubious penalty for the Dutch did little other than to make the score look a little better from their point of view. And certainly, it wasn’t for an attempted late comeback that the world would remember the Dutch efforts in this game.
Rijkaard’s act had been uncharacteristic to say the least, and he accepted responsibility and apologised for his startling aberrations, which Voller accepted. Initial claims on the Dutch side that Voller had racially abused him were denied by Rijkaard himself. In fact the two players had generally been on quite good terms, each familiar with the other from their exploits in Italy’s Serie A, as well as on the international stage. A more likely truth to Rijkaard’s red mist was his frustration at the stifling job he’d been tasked with on that day, combined with various issues from his personal life that will almost certainly have been occupying and preying on his mind during that World Cup. Whatever the reasons, this match took the newly intense 1988 rivalry and added a hefty dose of malice.
Thankfully, it would calm to an extent after this. There were still incidents, though the Euro 1992 group match between the two passed off without any particular flashpoints beyond the 3-1 victory the Netherlands secured. In getting carried away with that victory the Dutch, going into the semi-finals as group winners, seemed to complacently assume they’d be facing the Germans again in the final, only to forget they had to win their semi-final first. Denmark duly dumped them out on penalties on their way to their own date with destiny, and the Germans.
The following years saw the rivalry subside to a degree as the two national teams didn’t face each other competitively again until Euro 2004, although there was significant German delight at the Dutch failing to reach the 2002 World Cup. So much so that Germany’s own 5-1 humbling at home to England in qualifying was more or less forgotten, such was the delight at the Dutch demise.
Given the stature of the two nations, and the array of talented players they frequently have at their disposal, there will always be a level of interest and intrigue surrounding a high-level clash between the two teams. But the days of that intrigue having its more sinister edge are hopefully in the past. The rivalry will likely be more confined to the sporting spirit, but the memory of what had gone before will ensure the world will always be watching on with interest whenever Dutch orange faces German white and black on the international football stage again.