Greatness without glory: the story of Holland at France 98

Greatness without glory: the story of Holland at France 98

The Dutch rarely fail to entertain at World Cups. Despite having never won the holy grail of international football, the country often brings out its best on the grandest stage. Amongst all the fabled generations that footballing nations go through and the talent that they breed, it’s the Dutch that do it best.

Over time, names like Johan Cruyff, Rinus Michels, Ruud Krol and Arjen Robben have put the Netherlands on the football map. Perhaps their most famous team in recent memory was the class of 1998, which cemented the nation’s name in footballing folklore for a generation, despite their greatest success coming 10 years prior.

The team that won the European Championship in 1988 in West Germany was, of course, brilliant. Featuring the best of the best in the forms of Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten, amongst many others, the side deserved their glory, but it’s the heroes of 1998, at the World Cup in France under the guidance of Guus Hiddink, that deserves greater recognition than it actually gets.

This team arrived on the back of the country’s last great success in European competition – Ajax’s Champions League glory of 1995 is to this day the last time a Dutch side won the competition. That Ajax side embodied Cruyff and Michels’ vision of Totaalvoetbal. With some blistering attacking football and stern work at the back with players being able to perform perfectly in multiple positions, Louis van Gaal’s side dominated Holland and Europe, beating AC Milan on their way to European glory. They could have won the competition for a second successive season in 1996, but a penalty shoot-out defeat to Juventus made history wait a little longer.

That team had been honed together since the turn of the decade with a vast majority being Dutch. The only prominent foreign players were Finnish midfielder Jari Litmanen, Nigerian forward Nwankwo Kanu and his compatriot Finidi George. A star of that Ajax revolution was the mercurial Dennis Bergkamp, who left the Amsterdam giants for Inter Milan in 1993 and would go on to greater success after that spell.

Dennis Bergkamp was blessed with all the capabilities required to be a top quality playmaker back in the day. Whether it was deceptively quick speed, skill or intelligence, Bergkamp possessed it all in abundance. He was a player who was fearless when facing a defender and had the sort of flair that was able to push any team forward.

This was evident in London with Arsenal where he was the fulcrum of the side – the innovator, the creator and the deciding factor. After just a sole UEFA Cup triumph with Inter Milan, he earned his first honours with Arsenal in 1998, months before the World Cup. An FA Cup and Premier League double was met with the FWA and PFA Player of the Season awards, and also saw him score the first hat-trick of his career.


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Holland were pitted against Mexico, Belgium and South Korea in Group E of their World Cup campaign. The Oranje put their early hopes up in the air after an unconvincing start against their European rivals Belgium in Saint-Denis, where they were held to a 0-0 draw in a fiery encounter. Striker Patrick Kluivert, who was the subject of major transfer speculation all summer, was sent off eight minutes from time for launching a vicious elbow at Lorenzo Staelens, and his was a major loss for the Dutch.

If the first game was a stale but intense show, the next group game was anything but. Against South Korea they showed their commitment, much of which they couldn’t show in the tournament opener. They ran out 5-0 winners with Phillip Cocu and Marc Overmars scoring in the first-half before Bergkamp, Pierre van Hooijdonk and, sensationally, Ronald de Boer bagged three in the second half to complete the rout. It was de Boer’s strike which can be picked as the best of the lot as he showed what Dutch voetbal was all about.

Their final group game was arrived at in great confidence. On the brink of qualification after other results in the group went their way, it was Mexico who stood in their way of the last-16. The game highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of that Dutch side – and would in retrospect demonstrate why they were eventually eliminated from the finals.

Just like the opener, this game ended in a stalemate but felt more like a defeat. Holland were strong favourites going into the game and showed their potential with Cocu and Ronald de Boer scoring twice within the opening 20 minutes. The positive signs wouldn’t carry on until the end, however. Substitute Ricardo Peláez and his attacking partner Luis Hernández scored in the final 20 minutes to earn the Central Americans a point and qualification to the last-16. And while the Dutch did qualify as group winners, the game in Bordeaux exposed their frailties for the world to see and take advantage of.

Suriname, a small country in the northern side of South America, became a Dutch colony after they struck a deal with England to trade New Amsterdam, now known as New York, for the tiny nation. And while New York has gone on to become one of the most important destinations in the world, Suriname has its own legacy in Dutch folklore. Much of Holland’s raw material and slave trade occurred with the nation, and they are still beneficial to the Europeans, more than 40 years after independence.

After independence, Surinamese natives had the option of attaining citizenship for either Holland or their country. More than half of the population chose the Dutch side, and the country’s football team has become the jewel of beautiful football ever since. Many of the most talented Dutch football players of all time have Surinamese ancestry. These include Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit, who went on to win the European Championships in 1988. In 1998, there was a large presence of Surinamese heritage in the World Cup squad in the form of Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf, and a certain ‘Pitbull’ – Edgar Davids.

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Davids was part of that historic Ajax side which went all the way in Europe under van Gaal. He was given the nickname by the man himself for his tenacious style of football and provided the extra spark that teams required in midfield. Davids was, at the time, a standout performer in midfield, not only for his football but also his attire, which included long dreadlocks and protective goggles due to his fight with glaucoma. Nevertheless, his eye problem didn’t detract from his vision on the pitch and he was a major influence in the Dutch side in ’98.

In the last-16 tie against Yugoslavia in Toulouse, Holland were favourites once again, despite a shaky ride in the group stages. The Oranje defied doubts and took the lead in the first half after Bergkamp showed incredible skill and balance to take down a Frank de Boer long ball, shake off a challenge and thump it past the man in the net, Ivica Kralj.

The second half saw a fightback from the Yugoslavs within the opening minutes. Captain Dragan Stojković’s fizzing free-kick was met by the massive Slobodan Komljenović who beat Edwin van der Sar for the equaliser. With the game seemingly heading towards extra-time, Edgar Davids’ ferocious left boot was the deciding factor. He received the ball after a corner routine and struck it with all his might, a deflection helping it sail past a befuddled Kralj. Davids was the hero that night with a 92nd-minute winner, and the Dutch were through to the World Cup’s quarter-finals, where an old rival awaited.

Holland and Argentina weren’t the closest of footballing friends, with Argentina’s fighting style contradicting the Dutch method of elegant football. They also had an old grudge from 20 years prior, where Argentina toppled their counterparts in the World Cup final under a hostile Buenos Aires audience.

That afternoon in the Stade Vélodrome belonged to one man. It wasn’t the match-winner, the initial goalscorer, or the Argentine equaliser; it was the man who influenced the end result best – the ever-present Frank de Boer. The captain of the side, he was an important member of the side at the back, but in this game, it was his attacking intent which settled scores and gave the Dutch slight revenge over La Albiceleste. His floating pass to Bergkamp, which had the Argentines back-peddling due to its accuracy and sheer force, in the final minutes of an exhausting game was the one which would take the Oranje two wins away from the dream.

Take nothing away from Bergkamp, his world-class control and balance helped him overcome the excellent Roberto Ayala’s challenge and poke it into Carlos Roa’s net. The goal was picture perfect, one which was worthy of winning any game, and this was a big game with massive imprecations. Frank de Boer’s pass is rarely mentioned due to Bergkamp’s supreme work after it, but it deserves recognition and is a significant emblem of the Dutch campaign. Holland were through to the semi-finals of the World Cup after a 2-1 success, and were set to square-off against Argentina’s greatest rivals.


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Brazil were in brilliant form in France. With the attacking line of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Bebeto supported by the evergreen Dunga and Leonardo in midfield, they overcame the like of Norway, Denmark and Chile on their way to the final four. Holland would, however, surely provide their toughest challenge thus far.

After a tense first half, where chances were few and far in between, the second half saw an opening. Ronaldo grabbed his fourth goal of the tournament after wonderfully receiving and finishing a sumptuous Rivaldo pass. Just like their last-16 and quarter-final ties, the Oranje needed another late show to salvage their campaign. After some shoddy Brazilian defending, the ball ended up with Ronald de Boer on the wing who sent a wonderful cross into Patrick Kluivert; he avenged his sending off earlier in the tournament with a powerful header past Cláudio Taffarel to send the game towards an extra 30 minutes.

Extra-time brought out another gear in the armoury of Ronaldo, who was arguably the best footballer in the world at the time. His first attempt in the extra 30 was a fine bicycle kick attempt which was heading into an empty net had it not been for an important clearance from Frank de Boer off the line. The second attempt saw one of the most important saves of the tournament. After wriggling clear of a few challenges, the forward made space for himself and hit a powerful drive, only to see it saved by van der Sar. The semi-final would go to penalties to determine a team to face the hosts in the final.

An enthralling fixture would end in the worst form of disappointment for one. The Brazilian quartet of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Emerson and Dunga all hit immaculate penalties. And while the attacking set were perfect, the goalkeeping was flawless. Taffarel in the Brazilian goal rightly guessed all four penalties and made two decisive saves. Frank de Boer, who was again the best player wearing orange that evening, and Dennis Bergkamp – probably their best player in the campaign – both managed to ease their nerves and score. It was Cocu who missed a crucial penalty and Frank’s brother, Ronald, who missed the all-settling spot-kick after a weak attempt. Brazil were through, while Holland were heading home in the worst way possible.

Their third-place game was just a mere consolation to the dismay of losing the semi-final. They faced further sorrow against Croatia, falling to a 2-1 defeat after a spirited display. However, the last two games shouldn’t undo a memorable display of Dutch competence.

Goals, tackles, passes and composure were all demonstrated off in abundance. Whether it was Bergkamp’s winner against Argentina, Davids’ strike against Yugoslavia, van der Sar’s show-stoppers in goal or Frank de Boer’s fearlessness and leadership in the back, this Dutch side can go down in history alongside their compatriots on 1974 and ’78, Portugal of 1966 and Brazil of 1950 to have never won the World Cup.

It was footballing entertainment at its best and clear-cut evidence that Holland’s footballing methodology shouldn’t ever be altered, no matter what the nation’s wider game is going through.

By Karan Tejwani  @karan_tejwani26

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