“Professional football is something like war. Whoever behaves too properly, is lost“. It was a poignant remark by Rinus Michels, aptly named ‘The General’, but one that encapsulates the mutual disdain that exists between two of the beautiful game’s greatest dynasties. West Germany and the Netherlands.
The birth of the rivalry from a sporting standpoint is disputed, however, the reasoning behind such animosity is deep-rooted, with resentment stemming from the German occupation of Holland during the Second World War. In 1956, the Dutch defeated their foes 2-1 in the first ‘friendly’ between the pair since the fall of Nazi Germany. This hollow victory proved to be short-lived.
From 1957-88 West Germany would dominate the fixture. A ten match unbeaten run infuriated and humiliated the Oranje as deep loathing between the countries grew ever more apparent. Despite a 7-0 thrashing in 1959, it was another match that bore the greatest significance. In 1974, Munich, Germany played host to the World Cup final. West Germany faced the Netherlands in a fixture of epic proportions. The hosts seemed to have only recently cottoned onto the Dutch’s general resentment towards them and amidst waves of security threats, tensions were at breaking point.
For the neutral, the game had all the makings of an instant classic (pardon the clichés). Mainly down to the fact either side’s captain was heralded as a footballing icon. Now arguably the two greatest European players of all time, a contest between the pair on the world stage promised to be enrapturing. The inverted winger versus the libero. Total football meets Der Kaiser. Johan Cruyff against Franz Beckenbauer. They were two of the games pioneering ideologists, bound by footballing admiration, divided by nationalism.
Holland were widely touted as pre-tournament favourites. The great Dutch side of the 1970s had coasted their way to the final, undefeated with five wins from six, hammering the likes of Argentina 4-0 along the way thanks to a Cruyff inspired brace. The hosts had a similarly comfortable route, only losing once to their neighbouring compatriots East Germany 1-0 and seemed to be thriving on the indigenous euphoric support.
Munich’s Olympiastadion was the venue for the final which saw 78,200 spectators stare on in eager anticipation. One Englishman made the final, referee Jack Taylor, who was soon to be at the centre of the controversy. Holland took the lead in the 2nd minute from the penalty spot as a trademark mazy dribble from Cruyff saw him brought down inside the area. From there on out, it seemed the Netherlands biggest mistake was not trying to beat the Germans but belittle them.
“I didn’t give a damn about the score. 1–0 was enough, as long as we could humiliate them. I hate them”. Those the words of Dutch midfield maestro Wim van Hanegem, and it was perhaps all the years of enraged oppression during the war that motivated Holland not to want to win but to dominate. The Germans, with their emotions stereotypically in check, adopted a far more pragmatic approach, which saw them first equalise, then score the eventual winner. The aforementioned controversy arrived when German striker Bernd Hölzenbein went down rather softly (to put it politely) in the area resulting in Taylor pointing to the spot. The game’s second penalty was converted and legendary forward Gerd Müller’s first-half strike would decide the final. The defeat significantly damaged the Dutch’s national psyche.
Sweet revenge would have to wait until a match in Hamburg, Germany in 1988, when the Netherlands finally bested their German counterparts, beating them 2-1 in the semi-finals on route to being crowned European Champions. It is the most enjoyable match ever for many Dutch fans and holds its place at the epicentre of this phenomenal rivalry. Fans partied long into the night chanting songs such as “in 1940 they came, in 1988 we came”.
Since then the conflict between the two has cooled somewhat on the international front. A match in 1990 saw an altercation between Frank Rijkaard and Rudi Völler end in the dismissal of the pair but that marked the last high-profile dispute to date between the nations on a sporting field. It is a rivalry created by political upheaval and played out on the football pitch. “Professional football is something like war. Whoever behaves too properly, is lost”.