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Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Teams That Made Us Fall In Love With Football #7: Netherlands 1988

Back to the international fray and a warm welcome to Magic Spongers for Richard Hall on the Dutch Euro '88 champions

Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Johnny Bosman. Yes, Johnny Bosman. At the beginning of June 1988, these three men were key to Dutch hopes of winning the European Championship in West Germany.

At the beginning of the decade, the celebrated 1970s side had faded away, replaced as is often the way in footballing nations with small populations, with an inferior crop of players. The Dutch game was no longer cutting edge, tactically, evident in the subsequent failure to qualify for the finals of World Cups in Spain or Mexico. Or the 1984 European Championship in France, which was won by a Michel Platini-inspired team that had picked up the mantle of sophisticated, progressive football relinquished by the Netherlands after their World Cup final defeat in Buenos Aires in 1978.

That same year, Ipswich Town emerged from the footballing backwater of Suffolk to win the FA Cup. Bobby Robson’s team had improved by the time my father took me to my first game, at Portman Road, in 1980. It would be facile to say that my five-year-old eyes were dazzled by the elegant passing of Dutchman Arnold Muhren or that my mind appreciated the tactical control of his compatriot Franz Thijssen. For me, falling in love with football engaged more straightforward senses and emotions. I associated football with the weekend, with family, with leisure, with good times. But watching two foreign players week in week out, and then seeing Town pit their wits against the likes of Widzew Lodz, St Etienne and FC Cologne in a successful UEFA Cup run, raised my sights permanently towards international football.

This association of football with good times extended to international football, as half-term family holidays coincided with the build up to World Cups in 1982 and 1986. I spent these holidays poring over World Cup previews, and rehearsing the action in the garden. I wrote in my holiday diary on 3 June 1982: “We listened to the football. Finland v England. England won 1-4. Paul Mariner scored two and Bryan Robson got two.” You could say that I was taking a keen interest in England’s preparations for Espana 82.

The colour, drama and exoticism of World Cup football were far more appealing to me than English football. By the end of the tournament in Spain I was hooked. By the end of Mexico 86 I was obsessed. No sooner had Jorge Burruchaga scored the winner in Mexico City than I was already waiting for the next major championship.

Sustained by World Soccer magazine and small morsels of Football Focus coverage of PSV Eindhoven and Ajax, I was fascinated by the players who were helping the Netherlands qualify for Euro 88. After emerging undefeated from their qualifying group, in which they scored 15 goals and conceded just one, the Dutch were the only novelties in the eight-strong field. Apart from Jack Charlton’s familiar Irish lads, the rest of the finalists had travelled to Mexico two years previously.

As hosts, and World Cup runners-up, West Germany were favourites. But they weren’t in the Netherlands’ group, and I figured that the Dutch couldn’t meet them until the final. Italy were also favoured, but their team was an unfinished piece of work, designed for completion two years later at Italia 90. The school playground was sure that England, West Germany or Italy would win. I wanted to be different. I tipped the Dutch. I didn’t know then that their manager, Rinus Michels, had been the great Ajax side of the early 1970s, or that he took the Netherlands to the World Cup final in 1974. But I did know about Ruud Gullit. And nobody else did. He had voted world player of the year by World Soccer in 1987. But the playground was still reading Shoot magazine. I knew about Frank Rijkaard, and thought it strange that he had played so little club football for Zaragoza in Spain, after falling out with Ajax. Struggling for match fitness, his place in the team was far from assured. As was that of Marco van Basten.

At 23 years of age, van Basten had acquired a reputation as a remarkable goal scorer – having netted 151 goals in 172 games for Ajax, and scored the winner in the European Cup Winners Cup final in 1987. Along with Gullit, he won the Italian league championship with AC Milan just before Euro 88, but an ankle problem had limited his contribution. With van Basten injured, his successor at Ajax, Johnny Bosman, had scored four goals in five qualifying matches – and had his five goals in a qualifier against Cyprus chalked off after a bomb incident led UEFA to annul the match. When the squad was announced, Bosman was handed the number 9 shirt, and would start as first choice. And then there was Arnold Muhren.

You may think that I was proud that one of the Dutch team had played for Ipswich Town. Not so. I was mortified that an ageing player that had represented a by now much-reduced Ipswich Town could make it into my Dutch team. “They can’t be that good if he can still get in the team,” said the playground. But as the tournament kicked off I was confident. I had never seen the team play and, with the exception of Muhren, had not seen any of them play for their clubs, even on TV. But I had faith in the idea. I had read about the 1970s. I had read about Gullit, Rijkaard and van Basten – and Bosman.

But after their opening match reverse at the hands of the Soviets, the school playground seemed to have called it right. Bosman fired blanks, and van Basten came on as a sub to no avail. Now I had a problem. England had also lost their opening game – against Ireland – so when Bobby Robson’s boys took on the Netherlands in the next match, the loser would go home. I knew who I was supporting. I was relieved when England twice hit the woodwork with the score at 0-0, then ecstatic when van Basten, selected in place of Bosman, scored a hat-trick in his team’s 3-1 victory. The Dutch were second best for much of the game, but the decisive moments broke for them. Van Basten was back and I was vindicated.

Yet progress to the knockout stage was not assured. With eight minutes of the final group match against Ireland remaining, the scoresheet was blank and the Dutch were heading home. Desperation had taken hold when sweeper Ronald Koeman’s scuffed effort bounced onto the head of Wim Kieft. Kieft nodded the ball goalwards, and it arced around Packie Bonner, spinning into the corner of his net. It was the type of goal that you would have expected the direct style of Ireland to produce. But Michels didn’t care. And neither did I. They were through.

It is a myth that this Dutch team produced just stylish and technical football. Midfielders Arnold Muhren, Gerald Vanenburg and Erwin Koeman, along with full-back Berry van Aerle and Ronald Koeman delivered a regular supply of crosses and long balls, looking to exploit the height of van Basten and Gullit. Yes there was excellent possession and build-up play, but they knew how to mix things up. Unlike the 1974 version, this Dutch side would not sacrifice all by sticking to Total Football principles. They were resilient, and did what it took to win.

The next match, the semi-final, was more than just a game. Johan Cruyff’s swaggering team had tried to make their West German hosts beg for mercy in the 1974 World Cup final. But they failed to build on a second minute lead, and after Paul Breitner matched Johann Neeskens’ penalty, Gerd Muller’s winner trumped the Dutch. Fourteen years on, Michels now had the chance for redemption. I was interested just in the football, but it was clear from TV pictures that the atmosphere seethed with a hatred that ran deeper than the game itself. The humiliating German occupation of the Netherlands in the Second World War was, I understood, at the root of Dutch venom. The methodical West German extinguishing of Dutch hope and self-respect in the 1974 final made this worse.

Now, again on German soil, the Netherlands willed victory. This twisting of football, politics and history produced a match unsurpassed in my 13-year old memory. As in 1974, the teams traded penalties. With two minutes remaining, the Dutch produced a breathtakingly simple winner. Ronald Koeman fed midfielder Jan Wouters, who split the West German defence with a pass to van Basten, who guided his shot between the legs of Jurgen Kohler and into the corner of the net. Revenge, redemption, and a place in the final.

Gullit’s header and van Basten’s volley saw the Dutch claim the trophy, as they eased passed the Soviets. But it was the semi-final victory which stayed with me most. The controlled, technical skill that produced the winner, amid the Hamburg maelstrom. It turned out to be the second match of a great Netherlands-West Germany trilogy. Drawn in the same qualifying section for Italia 90, the Dutch topped the group, though both meetings between the two teams ended in draws and both qualified. But part three came in the round of 16 in Italy. After three unconvincing draws, the Netherlands and Ireland qualified with identical records in second and third place in a group topped by England. Lots were drawn and, while the Irish went to Genoa to play Romania, the Dutch were drawn against their old foe.

In their San Siro home, the Netherlands’ AC Milan contingent met West Germany’s three Internazionale players, Andreas Brehme, Lothar Matthaus and Jurgen Klinsmann. While Klinsmann’s career-defining performance saw him bag the opening goal, and Brehme curl in the decisive second, the Dutch mustered just a soft penalty converted by Ronald Koeman. They were as listless then as they were vibrant in 1988; as fractious as they were once united and as resigned to their fate as they had been bent on determining it. Van Basten, goalless in four games, epitomised his team’s woeful tournament. He would never score a World Cup finals goal.

But I prefer to remember 1988. What is striking now, watching the matches again, is the team’s tactical flexibility. Three at the back against England – Rijkaard, Ronald Koeman, van Tiggelen – but a back four, with van Aerle dropping deeper, against West Germany. Switching between the two systems in the same game. Gullit either drifting wide, dragging away defenders, and leaving the space for van Basten, playing through the middle alongside his Milan team-mate, or dropping deep between the lines. They may not have played the pure passing football of today’s Barcelona, and were not afraid to mix possession football with the direct approach, but the team retained the watermark of Dutch football – the intelligent use and creation of space.

I didn’t understand all this in 1988. But this team started my appreciation of the Beautiful Game, beyond the mud, the fury, the violence, the long ball, the insularity, the tactical straitjacket that characterised English football in the latter part of that decade. It tapped into my interest in history and politics. And my playground predictions came to pass.

After Euro 88, Gullit, Rijkaard and van Basten combined to help Milan secure back-to-back European Cup wins. Their posters were on my wall. The same cannot be said of Johnny Bosman.

1 comment:

  1. Rich, I'm surprised you hadn't seen them play. They played a friendly at Wembley in the run-up to the tournament with highlights on the BBC:


    Not for the last time, Tony Adams scored at both ends. I'd forgotten that, but I do remember Gullit, particularly the hair but also Jimmy Hill and Terry Venables rightly salivating over his performance on Sportsnight. It being a schoolnight I must have got my Dad to tape it which means I probably then watched it at least ten more times.

    Several years and injuries later I saw him play for Chelsea at Elland Road and he was still awesome then, controlling the ball without looking at it, ghosting past a player and then feeding a Xavi-style simple but effective ball.

    Nice piece, great series.

    There's another good piece by Simon Kuper about Dutch football in the Blizzard, Jonathan Wilson's new magazine. Highly recommended: