Hostilities a thing of the past

JAMES LAWTON, For QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:34 PM ET

CAPE TOWN -- There is only one certainty here Tuesday when Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie seek to make another step toward righting a wrong that has haunted a sophisticated football nation for more than three decades.

It is that if any of them feel the weight of history on top of the challenge of mastering the resourceful and resilient unit who represent a mere three million Uruguayans in the Green Point Stadium, it cannot begin to compare with the one carried by some of their predecessors. They are the ones who will always be known, along with the Hungary of Ferenc Puskas, as members of one of the best teams never to win the World Cup.

True, the Dutch still have 18 permanent museum exhibitions outlining the details of the Dutch-German rivalry which might just reach a riveting climax in Johannesburg's Soccer City on Sunday.

There is also the phrase of a poet coined in the aftermath of the 1974 World Cup final in Munich, when the team of Johan Cruyff seemed intent on humiliating rather than merely defeating the formidable Germans led by Franz Beckenbauer. "De moeder aller nederlagen -- the mother of all defeats," he sighed.

The likes of Sneijder, Robben and Van Persie are of a different age and, plainly, a more pragmatic nature than some of those Dutch players who clearly crossed the line between football as a metaphor for life and the real thing when the two nations met competitively for the first time since the German occupation of Holland.

When Robben was causing such a stir at Stamford Bridge, he was asked by a BBC interviewer, "Are you the new Cruyff?"

"No," he said, "I'm not the new Cruyff -- and I never will be. Cruyff was unique."

So, though, was the apparently unshakeable pressure from the past that the great player and his teammates carried into the game in Munich.

This is the fine midfielder Wim van Hanegem recalling the emotion that weighed down on him. "I didn't give a damn about the score ... 1-0 was enough as long as we could humiliate them. I hate them. They murdered my family, my father, my sister, two of my brothers. Each time I faced the Germans, I was angst-filled."

Such anger has the power to shock in an age less stocked with moral certainties, one in which new German stars such as Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil are instantly and universally recognized as impressive young footballers unburdened by dark legacies created before they were born.

Yet there may be, if the force of Germany is maintained against the superior skill and midfield rhythm of Spain, a remnant of history to be disinterred and held up to the light over the next few days.

Certainly the German players of 1974 had no doubt about the scale of the hostility nursed by the Dutch.

Four years after the Munich game, when the nations met in a group game of the Argentine World Cup, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge spoke of a near unbearable atmosphere of antagonism.

"The pressure is tremendous. The popular press is blowing up the old rivalry. We know that on the pitch the Dutch players are ready and waiting for us. We know we have to focus. It's a great shame and pity they regard football as an outlet for hatred from the Second World War."

Two years on, another German player Karl-Heinz Forster, said after a 3-2 European Championship win in a group game, "Before the game, we knew it was going to be tense. We had sworn to win because the victory was so important to our sense of pride. To them, beating us is the best thing there is. They hate us so much more than we hate them."

That certainly was the implication in Munich when the Dutch opened the scoring before the Germans were able to touch the ball, Cruyff being brought down for a penalty converted by Johan Neeskens.

It was suggested by the apparent Dutch desire to hold the ball, to make taunting little essays rather than the flowing, dynamic rhythm which had become known as the Total Football of the innovative Dutch master coach Rinus Michels.

Bernd Holzenbein, who won the equalizing penalty, reported: "Before the game, we decided to look them in the eyes in the corridor to the pitch, to show them we were not afraid. Staring at them, I saw the feeling of invincibility they were filled with. They seemed to be telling us, 'So lads, how many goals do you want us to score?' I tried to look into their eyes but I couldn't. They made us feel so small."

It was a status Beckenbauer, with the vital help of Gerd "Der Bomber" Mueller, who turned brilliantly to put the Germans into the lead before halftime, worked diligently to change. He did it so effectively that when the great Dutch team of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard 14 years later gained a measure of revenge in the semifinal on its way to winning Euro 88 in front of a German crowd, Amsterdam had never had such a party.

Still, much bitterness lurked in some Dutch hearts. The goalkeeper, Hans van Breukelen, declared: "I had been waiting for that moment for 14 years. Before the game, I remembered my feelings watching TV as a teenager, and that boosted my anger. I am happy to have given a gift to the older generation who lived through the war."

Even the relaxed and philosophical Gullit said: "We gave joy to the older generation, I saw their emotion, I saw their tears."

The issue here, it is soothing to think, is not about old wounds but new and inventive ways to play a game to which both nations have made immense contributions. If there is any history to be dwelt upon, in the second decade of the 21st century, it is surely the missing line which records the World Cup victory of the Netherlands.

Their return to serious contention is remarkable. They now operate one of Europe's minor leagues, yet consistently they produce players of the highest quality. Maybe at times they have asked too much of a mere game but never have they dishonoured it.

If they should find a way to win their first World Cup, it will be a triumph not for old wounds but a glory they have refused to let die.

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James Lawton writes for The Independent in the U.K.


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