By Ken Pendleton - USSoccerPlayers (Feb. 2, 2006) — In 1988, 14 years after Holland lost the World Cup final to West Germany, 32 years after they had defeated them in any match, and 43 years after the German occupation of their country ended, they took their revenge by beating them 2-1 in the semifinals of the European Championships.
As was the case in ’74, the match was of the highest quality and the Dutch, employing a remarkably sophisticated passing game, fully deserved to prevail.
What’s most remarkable, however, is what occurred afterwards. In the words of David Winner, the author of Brilliant Orange, “the sober, sensible, calm, and careful Dutch … went completely, utterly, entirely out of their minds with joy.”
Despite the fact that the match was played on a Tuesday night, more than 60 percent of the population took to the streets to begin a celebration that lasted for days, and almost continually referenced World War II. Citizens threw bikes in the air and shouted, “Hurray, we’ve got our bikes back!” a clear allusion to the fact that the Nazis had confiscated them during the Occupation. Even Prince Johan-Friso joined the Dutch players to belt out, “Can you hear the Germans sing.” And a member of the resistance during the War told a TV audience that, “It feels as though we’ve won the War at last.”
Subsequently, a book of poetry called Holland-Germany Football Poetry, consisting of contributions from acclaimed poets, public figures, and footballers was released. Virtually every submission cited the War. One of the acclaimed guys, Jules Deelder wrote, “Those who fell/Rose cheering from their graves.” And Johnny Rep, a starter on the ’74 team, added, “That new shirt is only really worth/Wiping your bum with,” which was, in part, an allusion to the fact that Ronald Koeman had used the jersey of Olaf Thon swapped with him after the match as toilet paper (the Germans refused the customary exchange the next time they met).
The most disturbing part of this story is that this match intensified long dormant animosity towards the Germans. In 1993, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, known as the Clingendael, published a report arguing that the present young generation was more antagonistic towards Germany than any other since the Occupation. Part of the explanation lies with the fact that there were a series of historical works, taught in Dutch schools, that highlighted the barbarism of the Germans, and, it should be added, understated how many of the occupied collaborated. There was, the report concluded, “reason for concern,” and, as Simon Kuper, the esteemed author of Football Against the Enemy, put it, “its cause lay in football itself.”
To be more specific, the problem started with the ’74 match. At the time, the Dutch celebrated and seemed to accept finishing second to the Germans. Over time, however, the match has become a defining moment in Dutch history. A poll conducted 20 years later shows that every sentient adult distinctly remembers where they were and what they were doing after the final whistle blew. According to the writings of historian Bastiaan Bommelje, it amounted to the end of innocence for the egalitarian, free thinking generation personified by Johan Cruyff and Total Football.
Ajax’s European Cups and the World Cup of 1974 somehow blended together with the rise to power of this generation. In reality, there was no connection, but every group and nation has its own myth of origin … complex myths explaining why they were in power, why they were the best, the brightest, and the most beautiful. That’s what happened for this generation. The Lost Final was a binding, defining moment for them.
Soon thereafter, the Socialist government was replaced and the Dutch abandoned their official Netherlands Guiding Light policy — “the aim of which was to attain peace by showing other nations how to live as the Dutch lived.”
The strange fact, according to Winner, is that the Dutch players and public accepted this fate but only until 1988. Goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed, who, at the time, described the ’74 defeat as “a short disappointment which slowly passed into a being-satisfied-with-silver,” sent the following telegram to the ’88 team on behalf of his teammates: “We have been released from our suffering.”
By way of explaining the ’74 loss, Jan Mulder, a prominent journalist argued that they faltered after easily gaining the 1-0 lead because of vertigo. Taunting the Germans with their clever passes “was a kind of complex to show their superiority, but in reality it was an inferiority complex: we are a small country, it’s normal … They played well in the second half because they were losing. They were comfortable then … ” Similarly, Rep argues that, “It would have been much better if the Germans had scored in the first minute.”
The 1988 match allowed the Dutch to revisit the myth. This time they fell behind 1-0 and equalized through a dubious Marco van Basten-drawn penalty (“Kohler brought me off balance, after which the referee pointed to the spot. And then I just had to bow to his judgment,” he said to reporters). Then, in the dying minutes, van Basten scored the winner from the tightest of angles.
The headline the next morning in De Telegraaf, the Dutch paper of record, simply said, “Revenge!” And the fans were free to continue to occupy Germany through the final on Saturday singing, “In 1940 they came/In 1988 we came.”
Kuper did an excellent job of summarizing the symbolism: This victory “was not only the resistance we never quite offered but also the battle we never quite won.”
He might have added, both during the Occupation and the Lost Final.