24 June 1990 was one of those typical Milanese evenings in which the sun departs and the humid atmosphere quickly sets in. In the suffocating intensity of that thick Italian air, beneath the glaring lights of the Guiseppe Meazza, two sides were swelling their own fierce weather. The Netherlands were playing West Germany in the quarter=final of Italia 90, and the match was as hostile as ever. 

The first half was an intense stalemate and a scrap for every yard of the green San Siro turf. Just after the break, Jürgen Klinsmann opened the scoring, finding the net after a clever dart to the front post. Then, with just five minutes remaining, Andreas Brehme added a second from the edge of the box. The Dutch made the game competitive again with a late Ronald Koeman penalty, but the damage had been done. West Germany progressed and would go on to become world champions.

That night, however, the match itself was a marginal affair compared to another, inherently more complex battle taking place. The duel in question was roused after twenty minutes or so.

After the well permed and invariably lively Rudi Völler skipped past a number of Dutch legs, a very late Frank Rijkaard lunged in and scythed the German down. Völler protested against the weight of the tackle and the Dutchman was rightly booked. Rijkaard accepted the card well enough and calmly jogged away from the Argentinian referee. But, while making his way back into the penalty area, Rijkaard proceeded to launch an unwelcome pool of saliva into the tight curls of Völler’s incredulous locks. Völler was understandably livid, but amazingly, his protests earned a booking too.  

The football soon began again and the resulting free-kick was welcomed by the sizeable hands of Dutch ‘keeper, Hans van Breukelen. A now justifiably irate Völler made a rash, but hardly serious lunge for the ball. Nevertheless, as if on a mission to wind up the German as much as humanly possible, an angry Rijkaard confronted Völler once more. The two men had a minor scuffle and were both shown the door. If the injustice of an undue red card was not ample cause to anger the German enough, as both players left the field Rijkaard lobbed another ball of spit into the back of Völler’s head. Not exactly the delicate treatment the German’s tightly curled mane was accustomed to. 

Rijkaards’ act was a wholly contemptible lapse in judgement which probably cost his team the match (and earned him the unfortunate nickname “Llama”). However, for Rijkaard to spit at an opponent was entirely out of character for a man who had forged a fine reputation both on and off the pitch. But Rijkaard’s error was more than an abandonment of ordinary reasoning by an otherwise well-respected man. Rather, in that unwarranted and indefensible moment, he had captured decades of complex history and raw hostility between the footballing nations. 

It may seem insensitive to compare a game of football, and a well-targeted ball of saliva, to the horrors of war, but the roots of the on-field hostility between Holland and Germany lay in the events of some 50 years previous. The Dutch had hoped to stay neutral during World War II, but by May 1940 found themselves in the mire of conflict. German forces entered the country on the 10th, and within five days had overpowered Dutch resistance and seized control of the nation. 

The Occupation lasted five years until Allied forces liberated Holland in May 1945. After The Liberation, thousands upon thousands of jubilant Dutch citizens lined the streets in celebration. But as a nation, they had suffered heavy losses, only Poland saw a higher number of its Jewish population massacred during The Holocaust.  


After the war, Germany was broken up between East and West and Holland began a slow healing process. The football field, however, was seldom affected in the immediate aftermath of the war and bore little resemblance to the hostile affairs they would later become. For the Dutch, Belgium remained their fiercest footballing rivals. In fact, Holland were trounced 7-0 by West Germany in 1959, yet the game failed to arouse a national sense of moral crisis. Furthermore, nations such as England believed defeating Germany at football-related to the events of the 1940s with far more vigour than the Dutch ever did. That is, until the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. 

The West Germans were optimistic about their chances before the tournament. Not only did they have home advantage and go into the competition as widely celebrated European champions, but they also boasted a side brimming with world-class talent.

Both the games’ greatest goalscorer Gerd Müller and the untouchable sweeper Franz Beckenbauer were at their transcendent best. However, it was the Dutch, not the West Germans, who truly captured the world’s hearts and minds. The Holland national side included the collective power of their innovative coach Rinus Michels, the genius of Johan Cruyff, and a significant number of Ajax and Feyenoord players who had lifted the European Cup over the preceding years. 

It was here, also, that the Total Football of Ajax, Michels, and Cruyff was truly perfected. The system relied on players being in a constant state of transition, perpetually shifting positions and destroying opposition defences with quick passing and sharp movement. Defenders would surge forward and join the attack, forwards would drop back to play deep and Cruyff would conduct the entire operation like a divine footballing orchestra. This system saw the Dutch side to the final. Their opponents; West Germany, of course. 

The Dutch kicked off in Munich’s Olympiastadion and their passing game hit top speed immediately. Cruyff dropped back to the half-way line, defender Wim Rijsbergen squared the ball and the master darted forward. Berti Vogts stepped out to confront him, but Cruyff was quickly away and hurtling toward the German box.  In desperation, Uli Hoeneß stuck out a leg and Englishmen Jack Taylor pointed to the spot. The cool Johan Neeskens, brooding under those flowing blonde locks, picked up the ball. Holland had gone one up without a German boot touching the leather of the Adidas Telstar. 

Typically, Dutch and German footballers are very different. To simplify; the Dutch play for beauty, but the Germans play to win. What happened next exemplifies this perfectly as the Dutch, clearly the better side and already one up proceeded to showboat. The precise cause of which is hotly contested, though. 

For some, to showboat was the unconscious way of the Dutch game, they had reached the final playing with style and self-expression and had every reason to show their skill off in football’s pinnacle match. For others, like Ajax winger Johnny Rep, it was to enforce that the Dutch were clearly the better team. 

“We wanted to make fun of the Germans,” admitted Rep. But, for Wim Van Hanegem, it was about the war: “Every time I play against German players I had a problem because of the war,” the midfielder despaired. Van Hanegem had lost his father and siblings during the conflict, and the match represented an opportunity to exact at least some form of revenge.  

To showboat is generally a punishable offence in football, but to do so against a West German side with the ruthless Gerd Müller up front is sporting suicide and the Dutch would soon pay. Just before the half-hour mark, Bernd Hölzenbein burst into Holland’s box, Wim Jansen lunged in and another penalty was awarded. 

To this day, the Dutch maintain Hölzenbein dived. The bohemian Paul Breitner stepped up and levelled the score. (Interestingly, Breitner was left-footed but bizarrely took penalties with his right). A few minutes later, it was time for Der Bomber as Rainer Bonhoff burst down the right and cut the ball back. Müller’s touch went behind him, but the German leaped back and struck the ball past the helpless Jan Jongbloed; 2-1 West Germany.   

In the second-half, the Dutch returned to their usual selves and dominated the game. Rep hit the post and Sepp Maier saved a rasping Neeskens volley. The clock ticked by so slowly that Müller could feel himself aging and could barely take anymore. But, eventually the clock did stop and West Germany were crowned champions. 

So, the Dutch team’s fate was sealed, and they joined that famed Hungary team of the 1950s as one of the greatest sides to not win the World Cup. But, the loss represented more than a mere footballing tragedy. A whole new generation of Dutch youngsters had experienced loss at the hands of the Germans. As Dutch football historian David Winner put it; “the Dutch youth could now easily identify with their parents, who had experienced the defeat of 1940”. This was more than mere football, this was history repeating itself.  


As a result, Holland would claim the moral victory. Once again, the egalitarian and liberal Dutch had been defeated by the brutal Germans. Consequently, both sides soon fell into a kind of symbolic binary opposition. The Dutch were good and the Germans evil. The Dutch wore brilliant orange and the Germans black and white. The Dutch played beautiful football, whereas the Germans were just ruthless winners. (That said, if a system were invented to best suit Beckenbauer it would surely have been Total Football). There were semiotics at play, too. The Germans had the ruthless Müller, Der Bomber, who had killed the maverick Cruyff and the hopes of the Dutch people. 

The game produced a complex mix of emotions for Dutch football which would not be properly exercised until the next major tournament played on German soil; the European Champions of 1988. Holland and Germany met in the semi-final in Hamburg, but this game had a much different outcome to the one played in ‘74. Yet, like The Lost Final, it too bore some symbolic significance to the events of the war. 

As Simon Kuper noted in Football Against The Enemy; “Hamburg was a reversal of the invasion: an orange-clad Dutch army drove its cars into Germany and defeated the inhabitants”. They came in good voice, too, “give us back our bicycles”, the army of Dutch fans shouted, in reference to the mass seizure of bicycles during The Occupation. 

The football itself soon began too, and the tension was unbreakable. Two men present in ’74, Michels and Beckenbauer, watched on from the sidelines. Both men looked slightly older, but it rather suited the patriarchal Michels who, after all, was the father of the modern Dutch game. Beckenbauer, though, looked consumed by angst, now unable to affect the action as coach in the same way he once had as talisman and captain. The half time whistle went; 0-0, and the second half began in much the same way. That is, until Jürgen Klinsmann found himself on the edge of the Dutch box.

Klinsmann’s touch was heavy and out stepped Frank Rijkaard in an attempt to win the ball. Klinsmann got there first, though, and went down under the weight on Rijkaard’s clumsy challenge. Van Breukelen held a sarcastic thumb up to referee Ion Igna before Lothar Matthäus squeezed the ball through his desperate hands; 1-0. As is normal for West Germany vs Holland now, it seems, the equaliser also came by way of penalty. Marco van Basten was a terrifying man to face in the box and Jürgen Kohler was all to aware of this. Trying to not allow the Dutchman any time, Kohler dived in; penalty; 1-1. 

The game was finely balanced and there were only two minutes of normal time remaining. If tradition is anything to go by, West Germany would surely win it late. However, this was a day of reversal for the Dutch. Jan Wouters picked up the ball in the German half, it bobbled off his boot but he managed to push a pass through to the run of Van Basten. The pass would have sent an ordinary striker wide, forced him to take a touch, turn, and start the attack again. But this was Van Basten, who met the ball and rolled it slowly past Eike Immel in the German goal. 2-1; game over, redemption for the Dutch.  

Holland went on to beat the Soviet Union in the final but that was purely academic, the real victory was beating West Germany. Ruud Gullit, the Dutch captain, called the victory “justice”. Justice for The Occupation and The Lost Final. Back home, millions of people lined the streets of Amsterdam in the biggest celebration since The Liberation. In one night, Holland exercised decades of angst toward Germany, in both historical and footballing terms. On this occasion, the Dutch again claimed the moral victory, but through victory itself, and not in defeat. 

All of a sudden, though, things began to look far less clear. Firstly, academics in Holland started revisiting the events of World War II and destroyed the myth of the Dutch resistance. As David Winner put it; “a new generation of Dutch historians began to dismantle the conforming image that […] Holland had been a nation of heroic Resistors”. The good and evil binary the nations seemed to occupy was equally questionable on the football field, too.   


After the match, Ronald Koeman stirred controversy with a public display of anti-German sentiment after he rubbed his backside with the shirt of Olaf Thon. Just a year later, Dutch fans held a banner aloft which absurdly compared German captain Matthäus to Adolf Hitler. And in truth, the German players of ‘74 had nothing to do with the war, either. The likes of Müller and Beckenbauer weren’t even born and could hardly be held accountable for the horrors of the conflict. Arguably, the only crime they could be accused of is preventing the world from seeing the romantic image of Johan Cruyff holding the Jules Rimet trophy aloft. 

And then Rijkaard spat at Völler, and the moral victory no longer belonged to the Dutch. Clearly, Dutch players were no longer all good, and German players not all bad. But what made Rijkaard commit an act so unbecoming of a Dutch footballer? “When Rijkaard spat the general hysteria had plainly got to him” noticed Simon Kuper. In truth, his act was an error in judgement swelled by a visceral hostility borne out of decades of complex historical and sporting conflict. The Occupation; The Liberation; The Lost Final; the emotion of 1988; the weight of history can do strange things to a man.