The following article first appeared in Issue Ten, released in December 2015.

The Euro 88 semi-final marked the peak of the Dutch-German football rivalry

The terrible Romanian referee Ioan Igna blows the final whistle and races to the touchline to grab the ball. The Dutch coach Rinus Michels jumps off his bench, raises both arms, embraces an assistant — and that’s the end of Michels’s celebrations. Ten seconds later, his face is impassive again. As he walks past the stands he bites his lip, just to make sure he doesn’t show any human emotion. He gives only a little half-wave to the celebrating Dutch fans, with their ironic Gullit-dreadlock hats and their non-ironic eighties’ moustaches.

It’s 21 June 1988 and Holland have beaten West Germany in the semi-finals of the European Championship in Hamburg. Twenty-five years later, this remains the emotional peak of Dutch football history, the match that Dutch people think about when they want to cheer themselves up, even better than victory over the USSR in the final four days later. Watching the Dutch TV broadcast of the game again, your memories of that night — and of the anti-German feelings of the time — come rushing back.

The moment Igna ends the game, people in the Netherlands begin running out of their houses onto the street. This will develop into the biggest Dutch public gathering since Liberation in 1945. There are celebrations too in the Kuper home in North London. I had moved here from the Dutch town of Leiden in 1986. In 1988 I was eighteen years old. The match was on the Tuesday of my last A-level exam week, the climax of secondary school. I didn’t really have time to watch, I was gambling with my future, but there we all were on the sofa. When my mother said that Erwin Koeman was such a handsome boy, I glowed with pride, as if her nine years of alienation as an immigrant mother in the Netherlands had suddenly become worth it. In our British-South African family, I was the only spiritual Dutchman.

On Dutch TV Ruud Gullit is raising Michels onto his shoulders. Normally that’s supposed to be a collective endeavour, but even though Gullit hasn’t been at his best this month, aged 25 he is still about as strong as the average team.

The German midfielder Olaf Thon sits on the ground and symbolically takes off his boots: he doesn’t want anything more to do with football. At least he’s sportsmanlike enough to swap shirts with his conqueror, Ronald Koeman.

Meanwhile Lothar Matthäus has entered into a debate with Igna. The West German captain points meaningfully at his own eye. The Dutch TV commentator Evert ten Napel puts him in his place: “Played off the park.”

Dutch TV shows Van Basten’s winning goal one last time. Twenty-five years later you realise how lucky it was. Softly, the ball rolls under the outstretched arm of the diving Eike Immel: not good goalkeeping.

Van Basten’s not bothered about that. Nor about the blood on his face (apparently the souvenir of a smack from his marker, Jürgen Kohler). The Dutch striker jogs with his teammates to the corner flag to party with the fans. The moment you see his fragile supermodel’s legs, you understand why his career would end just four years later, when he was only 27. In fact most of the Dutch players, with their shirts off in celebration, look like weedy teenagers compared with today’s leading footballers. Even the Dutch right-back Berry van Aerle, famed at the time for his power, turns out to have almost no upper body. He probably went on to develop more arm muscles in his second career as a postman. The Germans, similarly shirtless, look a fair bit heftier.

“Holland are going to Munich again and are playing a final again,” enthuses Ten Napel on TV — no need for him to remind viewers which previous final he means. “How well the Dutch team played tonight,” he gloats. And, “Boy, oh boy, oh boy, what a football party.” And, “The Dutch team played a fantastic match here in Hamburg, and take revenge for the defeat.” (Ten Napel is referring to the defeat of 1974, although many watching Dutch people that evening will think first of 1940.)

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Watching the footage again today, these are surprising words: a Dutch commentator eulogising a Dutch football team. You rarely see Dutch footballers celebrating these days. From 1970 to 1995 the Dutch won six European Cups as well as this European Championship, but Dutch fans under the age of about 23 have experienced no greater triumph than Feyenoord’s victory in the Uefa Cup in 2002.

On TV, the Dutch players in the Volkspark are now topless (with the exception of Ronald Koeman, who for some reason has donned Thon’s German shirt) and yet their celebrations are considerably less sexual than the ones we are used to nowadays. The Dutch of 1988 aren’t lying in a heap and they don’t seem to be kissing, just hugging. The Germans too stay manly: a real old-fashioned pre-metrosexual northern European team. There’s barely a tear in sight. They just stare a bit numbly into the distance. Half of them would be world champions two years later anyway. Thon and Pierre Littbarski walk off the field together, already engaged in a post-match analysis. After a remark by Thon, Littbarski glares straight into his eyes.

Uli Borowka, who would become an alcoholic, pours a sports drink down his throat. In my memory the German players were uglier than the Dutch ones, but when you see the stocky machismo of Borowka and Matthäus, and the Rudi Völler moustaches sported by several of the Dutch, you do begin to doubt. Gullit in particular has become better-looking in middle age.

The TV cameras don’t register everything. They miss Ronald Koeman, who is amusing himself beside one of the goals. He has taken off Thon’s shirt and is pulling it back and forth between his legs: the famous bottom-wiping that he would boast about for years. Terrible guys, those Germans, real Nazis. No wonder that a group of Dutch fans, sitting on one of the security fences around the field, is making provocative hand gestures at the German fans. True soldiers of Orange, those lads, just like when we battled the Germans in the Second World War. Or to paraphrase the old joke about Holland: after 1945, the whole country joined the Resistance.

It’s 1988, so the Germans still make their public announcements in German rather than in English. The scoreboard thanks the spectators for their visit and wishes them a happy journey home. The Dutch fans will probably manage. “It’s probably going to be a long, hot night, here in the port city on the Elbe in northern Germany,” says Ten Napel on TV, in a mixture of diligent homework and fresh emotion. He refers to “eight or ten thousand” Dutch spectators, but on TV there seem to be far more. Since it wasn’t a special match for the Germans, a lot of Dutch fans had managed to buy German tickets on the black market. Moreover, in 1988 liberal Hamburg wasn’t exactly a hotbed of German nationalism. In the words of the German striker Frank Mill, “It might have been better to have played the match in Germany.”

Dutch TV is about to change programmes. We get one more long shot of the cheerless Volkspark with its running track. Then, in the studio back in the Netherlands, an anchorman appears on screen. He blows out his cheeks and then bursts out laughing.

But in Hamburg the night is still young. Van Basten, who in his moment of glory dares to smoke a cigarette in public, asks some Dutch journalists, “Kohler, who was that?” Everyone laughs. How witty the Dutch players were, we thought then, not like the humourless Germans.

One of the themes of the impromptu Dutch people’s party that evening was that all Dutch citizens, from the prime minister to the footballers to the viewers back home, were equal. We didn’t do German hierarchies. That’s why the Dutch players danced the conga as if they were fans, and sang supporters’ songs like, “We’re going to Munich” and “We’re not going home yet.” Later on, in Hamburg’s Intercontinental Hotel, even the young Prince Johan-Friso joins the players in a rendition of “Can you hear the Germans sing?” (Today Johan-Friso lies in a London hospital after a skiing acccident, in a coma from which he will probably never awaken.)

Something else that wasn’t shown on Dutch TV: in Holland’s team bus just outside the stadium, the midfielder Aron Winter is behaving like a drunken teenage fan. The reserve, who didn’t play a single minute all tournament, is standing by the open door of the bus, and while Matthäus gives an interview to a TV camera a few metres away, Winter jeers in schoolboy German, “Lothar! You lost, Lothar! A pity, Lothar!” Other Dutch players sitting in the bus find this hilarious. But then suddenly the German coach Franz Beckenbauer arrives. He climbs aboard the Dutch bus, shakes every player’s hand, and congratulates everyone. This display of civilisation silences even Aron Winter.

When Michels walks into the press conference, the assembled European press gives him a standing ovation. It turns out that Holland hadn’t just buried its own German trauma; apparently the whole continent had had the same trauma. Everyone wanted to beat Germany most of all.

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The period from 1954 to 1996 was the German era in European football and European economics. The British writer David Winner says that in those years, Germany was the “Darth Vader of European football”, the villain whom everyone wanted to beat, and therefore the most thrilling figure in the football drama. Hamburg ’88 was one of the few important matches that Germany lost to a European opponent in those decades. For once, Good had defeated Evil. That night resonated far beyond the Netherlands.

But in Muswell Hill in London, only one fan ran celebrating onto the street that evening. I needed this victory. When I had arrived in London two years before, I discovered that nobody there had the slightest bit of interest in the country where I had spent most of my childhood. A big chunk of my life was being thrown away. I had had friends in the Netherlands, but not in London. And now here at last was official proof that Holland was the best country on earth!

So there I was, alone on an empty street in a London suburb with my bottle of Heineken. In the Netherlands, millions of people were outside. But in Muswell Hill, the local Cypriots and Indians were sitting at home on the sofa, watching something else on TV. Where could I take my emotions and my Heineken? Of course: to the German neighbours.

We lived at number 16. Lukas and Karin (names changed) lived at number 18. Lukas was a historian. He liked football, although curiously enough he didn’t support Germany. But surely he would have watched the match? For several seconds I pressed on the bell of number 18. Lukas congratulated me on the Dutch victory, which was a little irritating. Then he invited me up for a beer.

Upstairs, Karin was happy for me too.

“Holland were better,” said Lukas. “Your penalty wasn’t a penalty, but ours wasn’t either.”

“The German players were much uglier,” said Karin.

We asked her, as an expert, who had been the most handsome player. “Rijkaard,” said Karin. “He was the one who looked most like a human being.”

I stuck around drinking for another hour. This was in part because I had an above-average interest in Germans. After the summer, I was to go to university to study German and history. I’d chosen German partly because I barely spoke a word of French and partly because in 1988 any idiot could see that West Germany was going to be a global superpower. In my generation, knowledge of German would be much more useful than knowledge of English.

In those days I cribbed football news from the Dutch press for World Soccer magazine. I had never met the editor of World Soccer and he didn’t know I was a teenager writing the articles in my bedroom. But late that evening, I reached him in his hotel room in Germany. Could he get me a ticket for the final on Saturday?

A day later he called me back. He had the ticket. My final exams were on Friday, and my parents agreed to pay for a flight to Munich as a school-leaving present. Soon after landing, I was fined 40 Deutschmarks on the bus and ended up having to sleep two nights penniless in the train station, but that’s another story. The point is that I took part in the symbolic Dutch invasion of Germany. Hours before kick-off I was sitting in the stands of the Munich Olympiastadion, soaking it all up, when a silver-haired German spectator tapped me on the shoulder. “Are you a Dutchman?” he asked.

That was a good question.

“Ja,” I answered.

“Then I want to congratulate you on your brilliant team.”

Don’t you just hate the Germans?

In September 1990 I moved to Berlin to study at the Technical University. A few days later, on the evening of October 3, I wandered by myself down Unter den Linden to witness the birth of the mighty new Germany. The Germans were already world champions, and as Beckenbauer had said, when the East Germans joined the team they would be unbeatable. Unter den Linden was full that night, but apart from a few easterners scarfing champagne, most people were wandering around quietly too. Like me, they seemed to be just looking. Walking down the most pompous boulevard of an empire on the night of its greatest glory, you seldom realise that this is the moment that the empire starts to collapse.

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Later I became a real football journalist, the kind who sometimes goes to interview footballers. In 1998 I went to Dortmund to interview Jürgen Kohler about his encounters with Van Basten. It was a freezing Tuesday afternoon and Borussia Dortmund were training in front of 17 spectators. They were doing a peculiar exercise. Two players stood in a little goal, one of them threw a ball into the air, and a third came diving in and tried to head it in the goal. Good practice for diving headers. Kohler liked it. “Ja!” he cheered when he scored.

Thomas Hässler — another villain of ’88 — was there too, also having fun. “Hihi,” he said as he jogged around the field after practice with a ball under his arm. Passing the heap of balls after each lap, he would take one with him for a dribble.

After the other players went in to shower, Hässler and Kohler stayed on to juggle a ball together. Every time Kohler managed to bounce the ball on his heel, he whistled triumphantly, though I don’t think it impressed Hässler. Whenever Kohler dropped the ball, he laughed and rolled over the ground like a cat.

Later Kohler and I settled in a nearby hut. He rarely gave interviews anymore, because he didn’t like fuss, but when Dortmund’s press officer had told him that a journalist from Holland wanted to ask him about Van Basten, Kohler had said yes at once. “Because Jürgen Kohler respects Marco van Basten above everything…” began the fax I got from the press officer.

And Kohler told me, “There’s one more beautiful story, which I won’t forget my entire life, and I think it shows that over the years he respected me as a player. It was Milan against Juve and at one point Marco came up to me and asked if we could swap shirts.”

I waited for the punchline, but it seemed the story was already over. “That he did that was the greatest recognition for me,” explained Kohler. He still had Marco’s shirt at home. I realised that Kohler in 1988 had not regarded himself as a member of the forces of Evil fighting the forces of Good. In fact, he didn’t seem like such a bad guy.

In 2000 Holland played a friendly against Germany in Amsterdam. It was Matthäus’s 144th international, a world record if you didn’t count certain African players, which Fifa didn’t. Before the match, Matthäus was confronted on the pitch with a bouquet of flowers — which on closer inspection turned out to be concealing the Dutch captain Edgar Davids. Matthäus looked startled, perhaps to see that the socially dysfunctional Davids had been made captain and perhaps because when he waved the bouquet at the Dutch crowd, here and there you could hear the sound of clapping. This was the biggest possible insult: the Dutch had accepted the Ur-German because they no longer feared him. Germany had stopped winning prizes and wasn’t Darth Vader anymore.

I also interviewed Völler and Klinsmann, two of the other villains of ’88. They turned out to be nice guys too. Klinsmann kept grinning at me as if I was his favourite person. I can now see that Rijkaard really did trip him for the penalty. Our interview took place in Lisbon, at the end of Euro 2004. I asked Klinsmann whether he would now become manager of Germany, but he said definitely not.

We’ll never again experience a Holland-Germany game as emotionally freighted as the one in 1988. In fact, if Holland isn’t occupied by another country soon, we’ll never again experience such an emotionally freighted football match.

This article was selected as part of our Daily Euros Read series throughout Euro 2020, as we unlock one article from our archives on every weekday throughout the tournament.
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