In 1988 the European Championships were held in West Germany, and there was no doubt that the Germans were favourites; they had come second in the 1986 World Cup and had a team of superstars that would go on to become world champions only two years later. At the same time the Netherlands, who after their greatness of the 1970s had not been at the top since, not playing the world cups of 1982 and 1986, nor qualifying for the Euro 1988. But the Dutch had nevertheless not stopped developing players in their great clubs. PSV Eindhoven had been the leading club who just a couple of weeks earlier had taken the European Champions title. The Netherlands star player, Ruud Gullit, had played for PSV before changing to AC Milan that same year. Ajax Amsterdam had also been able to develop a hugely talented generation that had won the European Cup Winner's Cup in 1987, with two notable players: Marco Van Basten, who had also changed to Ajax Amsterdam, and Frank Riijkaard, who was now playing for Zaragoza in Spain, but would eventually join his compatriots in AC Milan.
The Dutch had qualified with style ahead of Greece, Hungary, Poland and Cyprus, but had started the tournament by losing their first match 0-1 to the USSR, a victory that could be creditted to Rinaat Dasaev on the Soviet goal. But two victories in the following two matches, 3-1 against England (with three goals by Van Basten) and 1-0 against Ireland, put the Netherlands in the semi-finals where they would face the winners of group A: West Germany.
Coach Rinus Michels built his side based on a PSV defense, with Hans Van Breukelen on goal, and the solid Ronald Koeman, Barry Van Aerle, and complemented by Anderlecht's veteran, Adri van Tiggelen. The midfield revolved around Gullit and Frank Riijkaard, PSV's Gerald Vanenburg, Mechelen's Erwin Koeman and Ajax's Arnold Muhren and Jan Wouters. Up front was the great Marco Van Basten.
As hosts West Germany had not had to qualify. The team was still managed by the legendary Franz Beckenbauer, who had taken them to the World Cup final of 1986 with strength and at times cynical play. Still, the side had a hugely talented generation. A strong defense with Uerdingen's Mathiass Herget, Werder Brehme's Uli Borowka, and two of the world's best defenders, FC Cologne's Jurgen Kohler and Bayern Munich's Andreas Brehme stood in front of the Stuttgart goalkeeper Eike Immel. In midfield was the team captain and general, Lothar Matthaus from Bayern Munich. Along him he had the young Olaf Thon from Schalke 04, Leverkusen's Wolfgang Rolf, and then a strong attack with Borussia Dortmund's Frank Mill, Stuttgart's young supertalent Jurgen Klinsmann and the experienced and dangerous Rudi Voller from AS Roma.
West Germany won their group with a tie against Italy and victories over Denmark and Spain, and awaited to face the Netherlands in the semi-finals.
The Dutch had developed a hateful rivalry to the Germans. In 1974, when West Germany took the World Cup title against the Dutch in the final, this hate had resonated throughout the match, as memories of WWII were evoked again and again. The Dutch saw themselves as the small and beautiful, facing the mighty and evil Germans. After 1974 this rivalry had become more and more acute, and for the Netherlands it was seen as almost more than a football match. As the Dutch coach had said: “Football is war”.
The first half was somewhat of a footballing disappointment. Both teams seemed overly cautious, and chances were few and limited. But at the same time there was an enormous intensity, and the individual duels were dramatic. For instance Frank Riijkaard and Rudi Voller, or Jurgen Kohler and Marco Van Basten, all fought hard in direct confrontations, sometimes going beyond fair play.
Ten minutes into the second half came the first goal. Jurgen Klinsmann made it into the area where he was tackled by Frank Riijkaard. Klinsmann was clearly going for the foul as Riijkaard touched him only lightly, but the Romanian referee gave the penalty to the home team amid massive Dutch protests. It had been a clear dive by Klinsmann.
Lothar Matthaus made it 1-0 for West Germany.
Perhaps it was as compensation for the first penalty that the Netherlands got a penalty 20 minutes later. Marco Van Basten, who had been dangerous the entire match elegantly fought himself into the area, where he was tackled by Jurgen Kohler. Kohler barely touched the ball, but Van Basten, as Klinsmann, fell easily, although not as theatrically.
The hard-hitting Ronald Koeman shot the penalty and made it 1-1.
With few open chances and two strong defences, most people were getting ready for extra time when Marco Van Basten scored one of the most memorable goals in Dutch football history.
Jan Wouters kicked a through-ball towards Marco Van Basten, who rushed into the area after the ball in close contact with Jurgen Kohler. Just as it seemed the ball was getting away Marco Van Basten slid down and more tackled than kicked the ball towards the far corner out of range of a surprised Eike Immel.
2-1 and the Netherlands were in the final, and the country exploded into celebrations that had not been seen since the end of WWII. As if they had taken the title itself.
Of course they did go on to win the Euro, defeating the USSR 2-0 in the final.
Only two years after this match West Germany defeated the Netherlands in the World Cup quarterfinals and went on to take the world title. This match exorcised much of the Dutch complex about the Germans and WWII, but the rivalry has continued as intense as ever.
Hamburg, 21st June 1988
Referee: Ioan Igna, Romania
West Germany-Netherlands 1-2
West Germany: Eike Immel; Mathias Herget (Hans Pflugler, 44), Jurgen Kohler, Ulrich Borowka, Andreas Brehme, Lothar Matthäus, Wolfgang Rolff, Olaf Thon, Frank Mill (Pierre Littbarski, 79), Jurgen Klinsmann, Rudi Völler. Coach: Franz Beckenbauer
Netherlands: Hans Van Breukelen; Berry Van Aerle, Ronald Koeman, Frank Rijkaard, Adri Van Tiggelen, Jan Wouters, Arnold Mühren (Wim Kieft, 58), Gerald Vanenburg, Erwin Koeman, Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten.
Coach: Rinus Michels
1-0 Lothar Matthaus (pen) (55)
1-1 Ronald Koeman (pen) (74)
1-2 Marco Van Basten (88)