By Ken Pendleton - USSoccerPlayers (November 2, 2006) — It’s a pity that Jurgen Klinsmann’s performance for West Germany during its 2-1 victory over Holland in the second round of the 1990 World Cup, surely one of the greatest ever, was completely upstaged by an incident that has no place in soccer.
Both teams entered the tournament as favorites, but only the Germans had lived up to the hype. The side had pummeled Yugoslavia 4-1 in their opening match and the United Arab Emirates 5-1 in the next. There seemed to be a perfect balance between drive, provided by players like left wingback Andreas Brehme and all-around midfielder Lothar Matthaeus, and creativity, which could come from two-sided winger Pierre Littbarski or Thomas Haessler and Andy Moeller from midfield. Klinsmann and Rudi Voeller were in top form up front. The only real concern seemed to be that they had conceded goals, from crosses, in all three of their first-round matches.
The Dutch had won the European championship in 1988 after beating West Germany — in West Germany — in the semifinal, but the squad was in disarray by Italia ’90. Leo Beenhakker had been chosen to manage the team despite the fact that the players had made it clear that they wanted Johan Cruyff. Beenhakker later admitted, “I had no chance. I knew it before the tournament ? The only thing you can hope for then is that it works out because there is a very talented group ? With such great players, the coach is not so important and I hope that they take the responsibility.”
They indeed were a talented group. Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten seemed to have a monopoly on the European Footballer of the Year award, Frank Rijkaard was a wonderfully skilled all-around player, and Ronald Koeman had an extraordinary ability to orchestrate their attacks by launching passes from defense. Still, they were lucky to get through the first round. They drew all three of their matches. They were outplayed by Egypt, played off the pitch by an unlucky England side, which used a sweeper for the first time, and blew a lead against Ireland after goalkeeper Hans van Breukelen fumbled a simple cross.
However, the Dutch progressed to the second round, and German manager Franz Beckenbauer took them very seriously. Littbarski was the only truly creative player selected to start, and before the match Beckenbauer walked over to speak to Beenhakker. “Leo, I’m going to tell you something. The one who wins this game will be the champion.”
Beckenbauer was right to ignore their bad form. The Dutch calmly pulled the German defense completely apart with a varied series of passes during the opening minutes of the match, but midfielder Aaron Winter squandered two glorious opportunities in the box. The first occurred after Gullitt shook off his marker and crossed from the left, and the second after a sweeping, field-stretching move culminated in a pinpoint Berry van Aerle cross from the right.
The Germans were clearly struggling to come to terms with all of the movement and positional interchanges, but the match completely changed in the 21st minute when Frank Rijkaard spit on Voeller. For some reason, the Argentinean referee, Juan Carlos Luustau, decided to send off both players, but, by his own admission, fault lied entirely with the Dutchman. Rijkaard apologized a few months later and explained that his nerves were frayed because he and his wife had divorced right before the World Cup.
The relationship between the two nations reached new lows after this incident. Voeller was one of the more likeable Germans and many of his countryman concluded that Rijkaard’s act was provoked by the prejudice, specifically the unwillingness of the Dutch to forgive the Germans for occupying their country during World War II. There were some Dutch players who harbored this kind of ill-will towards the Germans. Ronald Koeman, for example, admitted that he used a German jersey as toilet paper after their semifinal match in EURO 88. And some of them claimed that Voeller had directed a racist remark at Rijkaard after being fouled, but Rijkaard has confirmed Voeller’s claim that he was just asking, “Why did you foul me?” Rijkaard has also made it abundantly clear that he was not out to settle some grudge against Voeller or the Germans. “Looking back, it’s really quite funny, isn’t it?”
The fact that Voeller was also given marching orders may have been entirely unjust, but the Germans took full advantage of the fact that both teams were down a man. The game was now wide open and Klinsmann did a masterful job of exploiting the additional space. Right after the interval, Matthaeus raced out of his own end, played the ball out right to Kliansmann, who crossed the ball back to him, only for Hans van Breukelen to catch the subsequent header. Less than a minute later, Guido Buchwald, one of Germany’s three central defenders, took up position on the left touchline and alluded Winter to cross to Klinsmann, who beat his marker to the near post and shot the ball into the far side of the net.
The Dutch now threw everything they had into attack. Van Basten opened up the German defense with a diagonal ball into the box from left to right that put Jan Wouters behind the defense, but his shot just missed the far post. Gullit raced into the right channel from all of 40 yards away before shooting past the far post. Gullit pushed into the inside left channel and crossed to Van Basten at the near post, but Juergen Kohler just managed to clear the ball for a corner. Finally, Johnny van’t Schip got the behind the left the German defense and picked out Van Basten near the penalty spot, but his shot was not powerful enough to beat Bod Illgner.
The Dutch were playing well, but a second goal from the Germans always seemed more likely. Klinsmann raced down the left and the confusion he caused ultimately led to another shot by Matthaeus, which just went wide of the left-hand post. Littbarski created space moving from left to right towards the top of the penalty box before Van Breukelen saved his shot. Klinsmann nearly split the center of the Dutch defense in two, almost managed to pull off a sombrero just outside the box, and nearly reduced the right-hand post to kindling with a half-volley in a matter of minutes.
Klinsmann was replaced, presumably because Beckenbauer thought he had run himself into the ground, with 13 minutes left, but the Germans went on to wrap up the game after Brehme curled a shot just inside the far post from the top right-hand corner of the box. Van Basten won a late, entirely undeserved penalty, but it didn’t matter
At the press conference after the match, Beckenbauer went over to Beenhakker. “Now watch me. Now we will be the champion. And if you had won this match, you would have been World Champions.”
His prediction proved accurate, but we will never know if the Dutch would have gone on to lift the trophy if Rijkaard had a Zidane-like moment of madness.