Euro 2012: Netherlands and Germany renew great rivalry

By Ben SmithBBC Sport

The rivalry between Netherlands and Germany was perhaps summed up best by Rinus Michels, the great Dutch manager, when he said "football is war".

At times over the past four decades, the line between metaphor and reality has become blurred when these teams have met.

There have been volatile flare-ups, outrageous moments of brilliance and historic matches. Old wounds have begun to heal but the scars remain.

On Wednesday, the teams meet again in their second matches of Group B at Euro 2012. This was always destined to be more than a game, even before the in their opening match on Saturday.

If this titanic encounter needed added significance, it has got it now. Defeat by Germany on Wednesday would almost certainly see Netherlands knocked out of a tournament many predicated they would win.

"Germany versus Netherlands will always be a special game," Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk said. "But now we just have to beat them. It's not going to be easy."

Former Germany captain Franz Beckenbauer was a central figure when the rivalry erupted in the 1970s. He describes the games as "football in its purest form".

"Matches against Holland have cost me years of my life," he said. "But I wouldn't have missed them for anything. Those matches always breathed football of class, emotion and unprecedented tension."

Germany have never regarded the fixture with the same intensity as the Dutch. As with many other 'big versus small country' feuds, the enmity is felt more by the smaller nation.

"Why do we feel differently to the Dutch? It's like England v Scotland, with us as England," was how Germany players and manager Berti Vogts put it.

Patrick Kluivert grew up watching the rivalry develop. While the former Ajax and Barcelona striker admits tensions have cooled, he told BBC Sport the significance of the match remains.

"It is about history," he said. "On the field we have respect for each other now - that wasn't always the case.

"The rivalry will last forever and to a certain point that is good. But the most important thing on the field is that the players play a good, fair game with respect for each other. It is now about the football."

The depth of feeling in the Netherlands remains. The Dutch still have 18 permanent museum exhibitions outlining the details of their football history with Germany.

Former Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy says the rivalry is about more than that. Netherlands declared itself neutral in the war - but Germany invaded in May 1940.

Van Nistelrooy said: "It's hard to take the emotion out of this game but whichever side does this best has a big chance.

"Obviously, history plays a part, football history and history itself. That's why the fixture is so loaded. It's about 60 years now [since the second world war] and that's it. You don't have to make it bigger than it is. The emotions are high but this is about winning a game."

The rivalry as we know it began in 1974, when the great Dutch team of Johan Cruyff and Neeskens - managed by Michels - lost the World Cup final to West Germany. It was the first time the two nations had met competitively since the German occupation of the Netherlands. Emotions ran high.

Wim van Hanegem, whose father and two brothers had died in the war, refused to attend the post-match banquet, saying: "I don't like Germany, I hate them. They murdered my family, my father, my sister, two of my brothers."

Vogts, the former Scotland manager, had marked Cruyff out of the game and remembers the angst at the final whistle: "He wouldn't shake my hand afterwards, but three years later we met at a sponsors' event and he said 'congratulations. I'm sorry. We had the better players but we lost'."

As a nation, the Dutch felt cheated. Their golden generation, a team of outrageously gifted footballers preaching the gospel of total football, succumbed to an altogether more pragmatic foe.

They met again four years later. Germany's Karl-Heinz Rummenigge remembers the group game at the 1978 World Cup. "The pressure was tremendous. The press was blowing up the old rivalry. It was a pity the Dutch regarded football as an outlet for their hatred from the Second World War," Rummenigge said.

The game ended in a 2-2 draw and the Dutch went to reach the final - only to lose to Argentina. Germany won again in Naples on the way to their second European Championship crown.

It was not until 1988 that the rivalry erupted once more. On a balmy June evening in Hamburg, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten produced a display of peerless brilliance to reach the European Championship final with a 2-1 victory over Germany. They would go on to lift the trophy four days later.

Nine million people, some 60% of the Dutch population, spilled onto the streets to celebrate - the largest public gathering since the Liberation. "In 1940 they came! In 1988 we came," they sang.

In Amsterdam, people threw bicycles into the air and shouted "we've got our bikes back". The Germans had confiscated all Dutch bicycles during their occupation in the Second World War. "Revenge" was Michels's reaction.

Guillt still remembers how it felt. "We gave joy to the older generation, I saw their emotion, I saw their tears."

The teams have met three times since that day, most notably during a fiery encounter at the 1990 World Cup when Frank Rijkaard and Rudi Voller were sent off when the Dutchman spat in his German opponents' hair.

The feelings no longer run as high but Wesley Sneijder is in no doubt about the importance of the occasion.

"It's the game. The biggest Holland can play. I grew up watching these games on television and they're always something different. I've dreamt of playing and scoring the winner against the Germans."

The days of hatred and ill-feeling have been replaced by mutual respect and an air of friendship, but if the fires have cooled, the aura remains.

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