The Dutch rarely fail to entertain at World Cups. Despite having never won the holy grail of international football, the nation often brings out its best on the grandest stage. Amongst all the fabled generations that footballing behemoths 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 – barring the brutal infamy of the class of 2010 – which cemented the players’ name in footballing folklore for a generation, despite their greatest success coming a decade earlier.
The team that won the European Championship in 1988 in West Germany was, no doubt, 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. Featuring a blistering attack and stern work at the back, with players able to perform in multiple positions, Louis van Gaal’s side dominated domestically and in 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, and a vast majority were Dutch. The only prominent foreign players were Finnish forward Jari Litmanen, Nigerian striker 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 in 1993 and would go on to greater success after that spell.
Dennis Bergkamp was blessed with all the capabilities required to be a world-class playmaker. Whether it was his deceptively quick speed, skill or intelligence, he possessed it all in abundance. He was a player who was fearless when facing a defender and had the sort of flair that made his game unpredictable.
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, 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.
The Netherlands were pitted against Mexico, Belgium and South Korea in Group E of their World Cup campaign. 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, 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 and quality. 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.
Their final group game was arrived at in great confidence. On the brink of qualification after other results 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. The Netherlands 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 Luís Hernández scored in the final 20 minutes to earn the North Americans a point and qualification to the last-16. And while the Dutch did progress as group winners, the game in Bordeaux exposed their frailties.
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 a global hub, Suriname has its own legacy in Dutch folklore. Much of the Netherlands’ raw material and slave trade sat within 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 the Netherlands or their country. More than half of the population chose the European side, and the country’s football team has become the jewel of beautiful football ever since. Many of the most talented Dutch players of all time have Surinamese ancestry. These include Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit. 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.
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 and provided the extra spark that teams required in midfield. He 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 glaucoma. Nevertheless, his retinal disease didn’t detract from his vision on the pitch and he was a major influence in the class of ’98.
In the last-16 tie against Yugoslavia in Toulouse, the Netherlands were favourites once again, despite a shaky ride in the group stages. 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, 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. The midfielder 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.
The Netherlands and Argentina weren’t the closest of footballing friends, with La Albiceleste’s fighting style contradicting the Dutch method of elegance first. They also had an old grudge from 20 years prior, when Argentina toppled their counterparts in the World Cup final beneath 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 at the back, but in this game, it was his attacking intent which settled scores and gave the Dutch a modicum of revenge. His floating pass to Bergkamp, which had the Argentines backpeddling due to its accuracy and force, in the final minutes of an exhausting game was the one which would take Oranje two wins away from the glory.
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 worthy of winning any game, and this was a big game with massive imprecations. De Boer’s pass, however, is often forgotten due to Bergkamp’s supreme work after it, but it deserves recognition and is a significant emblem of the Dutch campaign. The Netherlands 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.
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 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, 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 superb cross into Kluivert. He made amends for 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 that 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, he 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 tragic 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 rightly guessed all four Oranje penalties and made two decisive saves. Frank de Boer, who was perhaps the best player that evening, and Bergkamp – probably their best player in the campaign – both managed to ease their nerves and score. It was Cocu who missed the 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 mere consolation against the dismay of losing the semi-final. They faced further sorrow against Croatia, falling to a 2-1 defeat after a spirited display.
However, their final two games shouldn’t undo a memorable display of Dutch competence. Goals, tackles, passes and composure were demonstrated in abundance – a nod to the Netherlands’ exceptional player development. 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 Oranje side remain one of the best to have not lifted the Jules Rimet.
It was entertainment at its best – symbolic of an era of talent in abundance for the sport – and clear-cut evidence that the Netherlands’ footballing methodology shouldn’t ever be altered, no matter what the nation’s wider game is going through.
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26