Having failed to negotiate the group phase during their European Championship campaign in France in 1984, Germany would host the tournament four years later in what would be seen by many as the perfect opportunity to pick up a third European crown. Under new coach Franz Beckenbauer the Nationalmannschaft had done well to finish as runners-up during the World Cup in Mexico in 1986, and there would be plenty of expectation as Europe’s best eight teams arrived to compete for the Henri Delaunay trophy on German soil.
Following two somewhat unconvincing opening displays against Italy (an arguably lucky 1-1) and Denmark (a somewhat flattering 2-0), Franz Beckenbauer’s side had delivered a far more polished peformance in their final group phase match against Spain, suggesting that they had finally turned the corner. German teams had always been notoriously slow starters in major tournament finals, and the encouraging two-goal victory in Munich led many commentators to believe that the side was coming to the boil at just the right time. Standing between the Mannschaft and a place in the European Championship final would be an opponent that had over the years weaved itself into the fabric of German football history: the Netherlands.
While the Germans had been below par for much of the first phase, the form of their Dutch opponents would be far more difficult to gauge. A disappointing single-goal defeat at the hands of the Soviet Union in their opening game had been followed by a spectacular 3-1 demolition of England, with the recalled Marco van Basten scoring a brilliant hat-trick. This was then followed by a do or die final fixture against the Republic of Ireland, where a rather fortunate Wim Kieft header just eight minutes from time saved the Oranje from an early exit from the tournament.
Not wanting to make too many changes to a team that had finally found its feet in the tournament, the German Nationaltrainer planned to stick with the same line-up that had beaten the Spaniards. The 1-3-4-2 formation remained the same, though with Andreas Brehme returning to his more familiar position at left-back. However just as things finally seemed to be going to plan, winger Pierre Littbarski was forced to pull out of the starting eleven with a stomach complaint. With there being no comparable alternative among the available reserves, Beckenbauer would start with Borussia Dortmund striker Frank Mill.
Going into a match that many in both Germany and the Netherlands had billed as the “real” final, both the German side and their supporters must have been quietly confident of repeating their previous tournament victories over the Oranje in 1974 and 1980. Indeed, the Germans had not lost to the Dutch in ten matches – a record that stretched over thirty years back to 1956 and a 2-1 friendly defeat in Amsterdam.
Of course, previous form and statistics would count for nothing in what would be a straight single-match shoot out between two countries that had over the years developed a bitter rivalry. A good number of Dutch supporters had made their way across the border for the match, and a significant portion of the crowd of just over sixty-one thousand in Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion was decked in that wonderfully lurid shade of orange. The home crowd were expectant, the array of musical instruments among the Dutch supporters were making a merry racket, and the atmosphere was electric. Sadly but not unpredictably, both national anthems were roundly jeered by the opposition supporters.
On what was a fine Hamburg evening the Dutch set the early pace, playing both through the centre and down the flanks as they quickly settled into their stride. The bullish Ronald Koeman in particular was looking dangerous with a number of long balls down the right towards dreadlocked skipper Ruud Gullit, while the free-running Marco van Basten was also making threatening moves down the left. It was Koeman who would get the first shot on target, as he hit a low free-kick from distance that was easily collected by German ‘keeper Eike Immel.
With a quarter of an hour on the clock Franz Beckenbauer’s side looked to have finally found their feet. Replacement left-winger Mill found himself able to get a shot on target which was gathered by Hans van Bruekelen, and moments later a Koeman back pass almost put the Dortmund striker in on a run on goal. The Dutch ‘keeper was able to deal with the threat, though not without putting a little too much of the shoulder into a challenge that floored the fast-advancing Mill.
With the Mannschaft starting to move forward with increased confidence an Andreas Brehme cross from the right found Rudi Völler in space, but the Roma striker couldn’t quite find his timing as his header sailed harmlessly over the Dutch crossbar. The crowd hardly had time to draw breath before the play swept to the other side of the pitch, as roving midfielder Erwin Koeman blasted a left-footed shot just wide of Immel’s right post.
Despite being weakened in midfield with the late loss of Littbarski Germany were suddenly starting to move the ball forward with more purpose: first the energetic Jürgen Klinsmann burst foward before sending a wayward cross into the Dutch penalty area, and Lothar Matthäus was very unlucky to be called offside when he picked up a lovely through ball from Olaf Thon down the right flank. Matthäus had been clean through on goal with Frank Rijkaard clearly playing him onside, but there was little the German skipper – or an irate Beckenbauer standing on the touchline – could do as the Romanian linesman raised his flag.
The final third of the first half saw the play switching quickly from one end of the pitch to the other. While the Dutch on the one hand were putting together some neat passing moves and continually finding open space down the flanks, the Germans were looking increasingly dangerous on the break – with both Völler and Klinsmann continually threatening to breach the Dutch back line. The absence of Pierre Littbarski’s guile and pace was telling however: his replacement Frank Mill was clearly not the sort of player to conjure up a magical cross into the opposition box, and more often than not what looked like a swift and concerted counter-attack seemed to lose its momentum as Mill slowed up and checked back rather than look to get behind his opponent and towards the byline.
As half-time approach another swinging ball into the German box saw Marco van Basten foiled by both Immel and Jürgen Kohler, while Beckenbauer’s half-time tactical talk would have been badly put out of joint with the withdrawal of sweeper Matthias Herget who had to be helped off the field with his thigh heavily strapped. Herget was replaced by Bayern’s Hansi Pflügler, and having played just under two minutes of additional time the Romanian referee signalled the end of what had been a highly entertaining forty-five minutes.
Tactics would have been high on the agenda in the German dressing room at half-time, as when the two teams re-emerged Wolfgang Rolff had been switched into the sweeper’s role while substitute Pfügler – who was making his first appearance in the finals – was slotted into a re-jigged defensive line-up. The injured Herget may not have had the best of tournaments, but the second half of a major semi-final against a dangerous opponent was the last place Beckenbauer wanted to be testing out new defensive combinations.
Five minutes into the second half Gerald Vanenburg almost put Erwin Koeman through on goal, with the Dutch midfielder catching Eike Immel as he attempted to leap over him. Immel went down, the physio ran on, and players from both sides gently squared up against each other in the centre circle. It had taken just over fifty minutes, but the blue touchpaper that had always existed in matches between the two sides had finally been lit.
Moments later the flame would burst into life, as Kohler found Klinsmann at the edge of the centre circle just inside the opposition half. The blond striker turned brilliantly inside his marker Adri van Tiggelen and accelerated with purpose towards the edge of the penalty area, before cutting back inside and across the extended boot of Frank Rijkaard. Rijkaard’s leg was nowhere near the ball, Klinsmann went down, and referee Ion Igna immediately pointed to the penalty spot. Elfmeter!
As Lothar Matthäus prepared to take the spot-kick, time appeared to stand still: the Romanian official attempted to take centre stage by having a pointless discussion with the German skipper over the correct placement of the ball on the penalty spot, while Hans van Bruekelen played his own part in the drama that was unfolding by advancing off his line to offer a few words of friendly advice. The crowd finally hushed, Matthäus came in off a six-yard run, and sent his shot to van Bruekelen’s left. The flying Dutch ‘keeper got his hands to the ball, but was unable to do much more than push it into the side netting.
The Volksparkstadion crowd roared.
Having fallen behind, the Dutch upped the pressure – and with it the tension that had been slowly simmering on the pitch. After Völler was taken down from behind by Jan Wouters, three Dutch players rounded on the German striker, who having got up was shoved back down to the ground by Ronald Koeman. There was arguably a clear case for Koeman’s dismissal, but all of these shenanigans seemed to escape the lazy eye of Mr. Igna who waved everyone away.
Spurred on by the crowd, the feisty Uli Borowka robbed van Basten of the ball and played it to Matthäus, who embarked on yet another bustling run down the left before making his way to the edge of the box. Despite being crudely clattered by van Tiggelen the German skipper was somehow able to leave the ball for the fast advancing Klinsmann, whose right-footed snapshot from some twenty yards fizzed past the static van Bruekelen and just past the far post.
Having been put completely off their stride and being forced to endure a torrid quarter of an hour, the Dutch finally began to get back some of their composure, but the home side would have felt comfortable in being able to hold onto their slender lead. Klinsmann in particular was playing beautifully and almost single-handedly engineered a break down down the right when he skinned van Tiggelen, but unfortunately for Beckenbauer’s side Frank Mill could do nothing with the ball when it found him just outside the Dutch penalty area.
With just over a quarter of an hour left on the clock the home side were clearly on top, but in a flash a cruel turn of fate and the referee’s whistle would throw everything up in the air again. A well-timed long ball from Ronald Koeman found van Basten, who made his way into the German penalty area before trying to go outside Kohler who timed his challenge perfectly while van Basten stumbled and fell like a drunk with both feet tied together. Kohler heard a whistle, and was clearly distraught to see referee Igna pointing to the penalty spot; in fairness to van Basten, he also looked slightly surprised at the decision.
Ronald Koeman drove the ball into the left-hand side of the net to even things up, sending Immel the wrong way.
Having been gifted a way back into the match, Rinus Michels’ side were clearly looking to settle matters before it went into extra time. With five minutes to go Beckenbauer removed the ineffective Frank Mill and replaced him with Littbarski; it was unclear as to whether the little 1. FC Köln winger had recovered sufficiently from the stomach complaint that had led to his being unable to start, but he soon made his presence felt as the home side also attempted to steal a winner before the ninety minutes were up.
With four minutes to go Littbarski found Klinsmann, who played the ball out Matthäus who in turn found Thon out on the right. A cross flashed across the Dutch penalty area, and Ronald Koeman arrived just in time to put the ball behind for a corner with Völler all set to pounce at the far post. Littbarski’s corner showed just what his side had been missing, as he sent in a left-foot special that curled in towards the Dutch net before being cleared off the line by a leaping Vanenburg.
Just as things appeared to be sliding towards the final whistle and extra time, it was all ended in a blur of orange. Picking the ball up just inside his own half, Ronald Koeman almost nonchalantly found Wouters in space, and the midfielder played a well-timed ball of his own into the German box. There to meet it was van Basten, who slid in and hooked his right leg around Kohler to roll the ball agonisingly across and past the outstretched right arm of Eike Immel.
Like a fatal stab in the heart, the ball gently nestled in the back of the German net; van Basten celebrated with a little leap, the orange section of the crowd burst into life, and the German defence could only look on in shock. With just over a minute left on the clock, there would be no way back into the match for the Mannschaft.
When the final whistle blew there were no loud complaints or histrionics from Franz Beckenbauer’s beaten side; as they applauded their supporters and departed quietly in a dignified manner, they left the field to their opponents. Unfortunately, the Dutch once again allowed the need to make a petty statement get in the way of a hard-earned victory: having swapped shirts with a disconsolate Olaf Thon, Ronald Koeman put on a show of his own in pretending to wipe his backside with it in front of the Dutch crowd.
With their representatives on the pitch lowering the bar in the post-match bad taste stakes, it was perhaps unsurprising to see numerous Dutch supporters in the stands follow this lead as they took their cigarette lighters to any German flag they could lay their hands on. It was a disappointing conclusion to what had been an well-fought match, though one that would add yet another layer of controversy to the long-running rivalry between the two teams.
Many German supporters probably found themselves gritting their teeth as the Oranje went on to defeat the Soviet Union 2-0 in the final in Munich, capping off a stellar performance with van Basten strike that was both magical and memorable. It would have been a bitter moment to see the Dutch receive the trophy in front of a packed Olympiastadion, but any pangs of disappointment that may have been felt as a result of the Mannschaft’s semi-final exit would also be tempered by the fact that they had lost to a talented Dutch side that in the eyes of many neutrals had been deserving winners.
Despite the defeat the DFB would maintain their faith in Franz Beckenbauer, who was able to continue in his mission to develop the team ahead of the World Cup two years later in Italy. His side would meet the Dutch three times in this two year period, with the third meeting producing a memorable – and arguably even more controversial – encounter in Milan in 1990.
Germany: Immel – Herget (45. Pflügler) – Brehme, Kohler, Borowka – Matthäus (c), Thon, Rolff, Mill (85. Littbarski) – Klinsmann, Völler
Netherlands: van Breukelen – van Aerle, Rijkaard, R. Koeman, van Tiggelen – Vanenburg, Wouters, E. Koeman (90. Suvrijn), Mühren (59. Kieft) – Gullit, van Basten
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