Ahead of Germany and the Netherlands’ latest meeting, we look back at a game that is often overlooked between the old enemies, back at the 1992 European Championships…
Football is always much more entertaining when there’s simmering, decades-old resentment involved. Sure, it’s nice when the relevant footballers are good but sometimes, all you need is hate.
Happily, down the years games between Germany and the Netherlands have given us both. And around the turn of the 1990s, we were treated to a trio of humdingers, encounters in the finals of major tournaments that offered all you want from a rivalry like this: goals, spite, violence and with a little world class football too.
The first two have gone down in European football legend. At Euro 88, the Dutch gained revenge for the 1974 World Cup final, beating the Germans in the semi-final on their way to claiming their first ever major tournament victory. And two years later at Italia 90, West Germany hit back in the shape of a 2-1 win in the game remembered for Frank Rijkaard loading up Rudi Voller’s mullet with gob.
But the third is frequently forgotten. There often isn’t space in the collective football memory for anything other than Denmark at Euro 92, but the key game in the group stage was between the Dutch and the Germans: the first fixture between the two since the reunification of Germany, the defending European and world champions facing off with a coterie of all-time legends in both teams.
We were very hyped up. I was so nervous. But when the whistle blows, you get in the flow.
Still, while the Dutch were defending European champions, they were in some flux: Rinus Michels had been recalled for his fourth spell in charge to restore a little dignity after the shambles of their World Cup campaign two years earlier, scraping through to the second round with three draws, where they would lose that Voller-Rijkaard game.
So were they the underdogs? Bryan Roy, who played up front for the Dutch that day, isn’t so sure. “I don’t know if we were the underdogs,” he tells the Totally Football Show. “We had some of the biggest players in the world. Marco Van Basten. Ronald Koeman. Dennis Bergkamp. Ruud Gullit. Frank Rijkaard. We had one of the best teams ever.”
This time did feel different for them. Their team seemed to have a sound mix of the old stars who had won Euro 88, mixed with a new emerging generation, with youngsters like Frank de Boer, Roy and Bergkamp all making their way into the side.
And then there was Michels, although having a national monument in charge could be something of a double-edged sword. “We were all scared of him,” says Roy. “Not the big boys, but the youngsters, we were just like ‘It’s Michels! Wow wow!’ But he was so nice. In games, in training – he gave me confidence, and I didn’t expect that from him.”
Michels didn’t need to offer much by way of motivation: this was, after all, Germany. “Unnecessary,” says Roy, before repeating for emphasis. “Un-necessary. We were very tense and concentrated. We were very hyped up. I was so nervous. But then when the whistle blows, you get in the flow.”
The Germans, on the other hand, weren’t in such good shape, their squad gutted by injuries. Lothar Matthaus missed the tournament entirely having torn his cruciate knee ligaments, while his replacement as captain Rudi Voller had a broken arm and both Stefan Reuter and Guido Buchwald had head injuries. Karl Heinz Riedle played against the Dutch despite breaking his nose, and defensive reshuffles meant World Cup hero left-back Andy Brehme had to play on the right: the team had a strong ‘cobbled together’ vibe.
With that in mind, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Dutch were so rampant. It took them just five minutes to go ahead: Koeman skimmed over a free-kick from the right and Rijkaard stole in front of his marker to loop a header over Bodo Illgner, and another set piece doubled their lead ten minutes later.
As everyone waited for Koeman to shoot from around 25 yards out, much as he had done to win Barcelona’s first ever European Cup a few months earlier, he instead shifted the ball to Robert Witschge who hit a curious low shot which skipped and span off the turf and snuck inside the post, past the groping Illgner. Andreas Moller obligingly stepped out of the wall to give the effort the required room to pass, like someone politely allowing the alighting passengers off a train before boarding themselves.
A quarter of an hour in, and the game looked gone. After Witschge’s goal went in, the Dutch band in the stands fired up the hubris-o-meter and started playing ‘We Are The Champions’. In the Times report on the game, David Miller wrote: ‘It is not often that you see the Germans being cut apart, but the masterful Dutch did so for the first 30 minutes and the last 15’
At half-time Vogts was, to say the least, not happy. “I asked them if they thought they were in the playground or the European Championship. Fortunately, they listened.”
Well, sort of. They did pull a goal back through a towering Jurgen Klinsmann header not long after the break, but the revival didn’t last too long. Gradually the Dutch eased back into control of the game, and killed it with around 15 minutes remaining.
The basic facts of the third goal were that Dennis Bergkamp scored a header from an Aron Winter cross. But naturally, because it was Bergkamp, this wasn’t just a header. Winter took the ball down the right side of the box, got to within about eight yards of the byline and clipped back into the middle, at slightly below Bergkamp’s head height. In plenty of space created by a Van Basten run to the near post, he stooped and passed the header into the net, if it’s possible to do that.
But what are we doing wasting time explaining it ourselves? Here’s Bergkamp’s recollection, in ‘Stillness and Speed’, his book with David Winner: ‘I saw Marco pointing and I saw Aron understood his hint. As Marco sprinted to the near post, I automatically rushed to fill the space he’d created.
‘Nowadays, most teams play with their midfield pointing backwards, precisely to catch the opponent’s most advanced midfielder. But that wasn’t the case then, and you knew you’d find space in the middle when the centre-forward pulled his marker away with him. Heading wasn’t my specialty, but Aron’s ball had just the right pace and, because I was moving at speed, all I had to do was touch the ball with my head. It was an amazing feeling.’
3-1, then. The win four years earlier had been a hard-fought, come-from-behind effort, but this was a comparative breeze. “It is not every day that we are able to overcome Germany’s resistance in such a way,” said Michels afterwards. So was it a surprise that the Dutch nudged aside the world champions so easily?
“It sounds arrogant, but not really,” says Roy. “The way we played since we were young, we knew we would dominate, against every single team we would dominate. The only thing was: are we individually on our highest level? If that’s the case, we could beat anybody.
“Personally, I was in the flow. Every single time I passed my opponent, or did something great, the whole stadium was orange and they went WOW! I still get goosebumps from that. That was something special.”
My thanks go to Scotland. I knew we could rely on them.
This defeat should really have knocked the Germans out. They had three points, gained from a victory over Scotland and a draw with the Commonwealth of Independent States – the interim team while the dissolution of the USSR sorted itself out – earlier in the group, the latter salvaged with a 90th minute Thomas Hassler goal. That shouldn’t have been enough: the Scots had lost their two games and all the CIS needed to do was beat them to go through, but Andy Roxburgh’s team ran out giddy 3-0 winners, goals from Paul McStay, Brian McClair and Gary McAllister salvaging some pride for them and a place in the semi-finals for the Germans.
“My thanks go to Scotland,” said Berti Vogts afterwards. “I knew we could rely on them.” If only they could say the same of him a few years later.
The game was followed by what we’re obliged to call ‘ugly scenes’ on the streets of Sweden, as a group of German fans stuck around the Gothenburg area after the game and contemplated their fortune by drinking large amounts of booze, leading to around 30 arrests, a handful of deportations and two injured policemen.
Those rowdy boys were sticking around for the latter stages of then tournament, the assumption being that the two old rivals would meet in the final. Indeed, both managers said after the game that they expected exactly that to happen.
But while the Germans made it through, edging out the hosts 3-2, the Netherlands lost on penalties to the upstart Danes, who would of course go on to win the whole thing.
And so ended a rather curious tournament for both teams. One which promised great things but ultimately ended in limp failure. In this trilogy of big tournament games between a pair of hated rivals, this is the one that is least remembered: understandably so perhaps, but not by the Dutch. “You see a satisfied man, a happy man,” said Michels afterwards.
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