The Dutch felt a sense of liberation in 1988. “It feels as we have won the war at last”, a former Dutch resistance fighter told Simon Kuper in his book Football against the Enemy. A university professor went even further, arguing that a Germany versus Netherlands match will always carry the connotations of World War II.
Tonight’s game is the biggest game of the tournament, even including the highly charged Poland v Russia encounter. A nation that, in 1993, thanks to the Institute of international Relations rated Germany as the most hated nation, against a country bemused by the constant hatred, and yet acutely aware of the elephant in the room. Football is not war, but somehow Germany v Netherlands can only be war.
The 1988 European Championships, held in the dying embers of West Germany, also served to right a footballing wrong, that of the 1974 World Cup. Heavily fancied, the Dutch imploded in a sea of arrogance and calmness. The German team, led by Beckenbauer and Muller, ruthlessly claimed the title. Total football was destroyed by single mindedness.
Despite this, there was a free-spirited nature about both teams in 1974. Rep and Breitner were anti-establishment, and Cruyff and Beckenbauer were great friends. The sole animosity came from Willem van Hanegem, who reasoned that his hatred for Germans was due to their ancestors. In 1974, he was a sole voice amidst the freshness of 29 year old wounds. In 1988, the mind-set had altered.
The 2-1 victory for the Netherlands in Hamburg signified a seismic shirt in Dutch attitudes. Winning the game on German soil felt like a sense of revenge for the five years of occupation on Dutch soil. Whereas the 1974 Dutch team were dignified in defeat, the 1988 team reflected the fans, with Ronald Koeman famously wiping his backside on Olaf Thon’s shirt. The popular opinion seemed to be that this German team ticked all the stereotypes. They were wildly ruthless, betraying little emotion or flair.
The truth is that, in 1988, the Dutch played with the same dogged determination, turning a footballing spectacle into its own mini battle. They deservedly won the tournament, and yet this was the catalyst for the rivalry to elevate. War rhetoric was rearing its ugly head, with the Dutch displaying a banner saying ‘we have come for our bicycles’, a reference to the confiscation of their favourite mode of transport during the war.
World War II’s horrors shame Germany, and rightly so. The atrocities by the Nazis are incomprehensible, and the suffering beyond the realms of humanity. But, what place does it have within football? The Dutch aren’t the only ones to fall into the trap. In 1996, the Daily Mirror showed themselves up with its own war references, badly misjudging the mood of the nation. To label all Germans as relics from a time that generations have tried to distance themselves from is to always live in a world without progress.
It’s also far too simplistic, but a convenient smokescreen to use. In 1988, the Dutch all believed that they came from familes who resisted the Nazi occupations. Films and plays about Dutch freedom fighters were commonplace, with the message abundantly clear: During the war, the Dutch were fout (good). Simon Kuper argued against this notion in a further book, suggesting that, in actual fact, very little resistance was offered by an exasperatingly compliant nation. He goes on to further discuss that the only nations to be relatively guilt free with their own record at helping Jews are Denmark and Bulgaria. The post-1988 rivalry may have its origins in the realisation that the Dutch were not the resistance fighters that was previously conveyed to the masses.
Tonight’s match sees a further shift. The Germany of 2012 are poles apart, excuse the pun, from previous generations. Players with historical roots in Spain, Poland, Turkey and Tunisia are playing an exciting, counter-attacking football, in comparison to a Dutch side that has moved to further relegate the beauty of total football to an historical footnote. The German attitude towards the Dutch remains one of jovial patronising, underpinned by the unspeakable guilt caused by a past generation. Football is not war, but Germany v Netherlands is always a footballing battle.