Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
After a six year hiatus, the greatest grudge match in European football is back.
Two neighbouring nations, who have served up many a classic down the years, will lock horns in an attempt to lay down a marker for next summer’s European Championship.
The date: November 15. The venue: Volksparkstadion, Hamburg. The game: Germany vs. The Netherlands.
Tuesday evening’s ‘friendly’ will be the 38th meeting between the pair, with Germany currently slightly ahead on 13 wins compared to Holland’s 10.
The rivalry originated from geographical proximity and a shared history, not to mention the emotive issue of the Second World War. It was no different with the players, most notably midfielder Willem van Hanegem. He infamously said before the 1974 World Cup final: “I don’t like Germans. Every time I played against German players. I had a problem because of the war.”
His personal animosity derived from the death of family members as they sought shelter during an air raid. The shelter they found was hit. “I didn’t give a damn as long as we humiliated them. They murdered my father, sister and two brothers. I am full of angst. I hate them”. After the final he left the field in tears. However he’s since taken a more conciliatory outlook.
That aside, there was no real hatred expressed, although Johan Cruyff wasn’t best pleased when discovering allegations of having a wild pool party in Bild on the eve of that same final. There was no real dislike. In fact some were on friendly terms, Cruyff and West German skipper Franz Beckenbauer in particular. Only one player from either side, Van Hanegem, didn’t attend the after match banquet.
Beckenbauer and Cruyff had met a year earlier when Bayern Munich and Ajax played in the European Cup quarter-final. In the first leg, described by L'Equipe as the greatest ever game, Ajax won 4-0.
The 1974 final at the Olympiastadion took the rivalry into the first steps of a post-war period. Whereas games before had focused on the generation that went through the war, from this point onwards, such sentiments started to drift away.
But there were still volatile flare-ups, and it was always in the background, casting a shadow over clashes between the two sides in years to come. The defeat in the final – Germany coming from a goal down – led to a nationwide trauma all of its own, poetically referred to as De moeder aller nederlagen: The mother of all defeats.
In the end, ‘Total Football’ couldn’t master the discipline of Helmut Schön’s men. Johnny Rep said: "We wanted to humiliate the Germans. It wasn’t something we’d thought about, but we did it. We started knocking the ball around – and we forgot to score a second." Herman Kuiphof, Dutch TV commentator, spoke for a nation: "they tricked us again."
It became a source of great bitterness among the Dutch and it would not be until they become European champions in 1988 that the intense desire for revenge eased. The semi-final victory over West Germany in their own back yard - with the Dutch coming from a goal down this time – sent the nation into an unparalleled euphoria.
After the game captain Ruud Gullit couldn’t hold back his delight: “We gave joy to the older generation. I saw their emotions, their tears.” Rinus Michels, the beaten coach fourteen years earlier, said the obsession and continued talk of ‘1974’ should cease as revenge had been fulfilled.
In his book Football Against The Enemy, Simon Kuper described the victory as an event of national significance, transcending sport and bringing more than 60 per cent of the population on to the streets in celebration. “German fans were less interested,” he said of the build-up to the match. “After all, Holland was not the only country Hitler had invaded.”
Dutch television interviewed former resistance fighters about their reaction. A special book of poetry was published to commemorate the victory, combining the efforts of footballers and professional poets. As Kuper notes, “almost all the poems made reference to the war.”
The pair also faced each other in Córdoba, during the 1978 World Cup, where they played out a 2-2 draw. Germany would get the better of the Dutch two years later in Naples winning a thrilling and hugely competitive encounter 3-2 on their way to their second European Championship crown.
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge lambasted the physical nature of the Dutch team’s play in the aftermath, suggesting it went beyond what was permissible and laying the blame on their supposed war complex.
“I think it’s a true shame and pity that they regard football as an outlet for their hatred from the Second World War.” Karlheinz Förster – who won 81 caps for West Germany between 1978 and 1986 - added his thoughts: “They hate us so much more than we hate them.”
Speaking of the years that followed the 1978 meeting in Brilliant Orange – the award-winning book studying the technical and cultural development of Dutch football by British writer David Winner - the author states that; “Over the following years, the intricate crossover between football-and-war-related feelings shaded into something much darker.”
On the pitch there was still the needless stoking of the fire. Ronald Koeman mimicked wiping his backside with Olaf Thon’s jersey following the Hamburg triumph, creating outrage in Germany.
Lothar Matthäus’ persistent fouling in the same match didn’t exactly win him friends across the border, but it was an unsavoury incident involving Frank Rijkaard and Rudi Voller in Milan two years later that marked a new low in the rivalry.
During the Italia 90 second round tie, the then-Milan midfielder infamously spat at the West German forward, with the ensuing squabbling eventually seeing both players sent off.
Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger wrote in Tor! The story of German football: “Games between Germany and Holland had clearly degenerated into something that only marginally concerned football.”
Significantly, from the early 1990s onwards, German fans began to acknowledge the rivalry, where in the past there hadn’t been much recognition from their side. The Euro 92 defeat in Gothenburg – where Rijkaard redeemed himself and Rob Witschge scored a beautiful free-kick – was a watershed moment.
The last competitive meeting was a 1-1 draw at the Estadio do Dragao during Euro 2004 which ultimately contributed to Germany being knocked out of the competition at the group stage.
A year later they would square off in Rotterdam with Germany coming from two goals down to draw 2-2. The last friendly on German soil, in 2002, which took place in Gelsenkirchen, saw the Dutch seal an impressive 3-1 win.
No longer is the war a central issue as both nations have moved to a less aggressive rivalry characterised by mutual respect and friendly tit-for-tat exchanges through the media.
However when the two sets of players take to the field, only one thought will cross their minds, to win and not give the opposition an inch.
The aura of the fixture remains, past meetings never forgotten and with a bright future ahead there’s the prospect of writing another chapter in the story of the two neighbours.
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