THERE is, in German football, a phenomenon known as the "englische Elfmeter-Krankheit" – the English penalty disease. Failure from twelve yards has, in the course of the last few decades, come to be as synonymous with England as black cabs, the monarchy and self deprecation. England and their choking superstars are not so much the arch enemies, but invalids, the sick men of Europe, worthy only of pity and the odd smug smile.
This is, perhaps, a slight exaggeration. Germany love to beat England as much as the next team. Bild’s “Revenge for Wembley!” headline, after that fateful afternoon in Bloemfontein, was proof enough that defeats to England linger in the memory. But on the list of arch rivals, England will always be eclipsed by one nation: the Netherlands.
There are differing accounts of how and why the mutual hatred between the Elftal and the Nationalelf first came into being. Dutch fans of a certain generation will point to the Nazi troops marching through the streets of Amsterdam, while others will cite Uwe Seeler’s hat trick in the 7-0 drubbing of 1959, or the Gerd Müller goal which toppled Total Football.
If the rivalry was, through the sixties and seventies, a muted manifestation of post-war distaste, the late eighties saw the hatred reach crisis point. Euro ‘88 saw one Marco van Basten sink Germany in a fateful semi-final in Hamburg, a result which Ruud Gullit later equated to “justice having been done”, while Ronald Koeman, it was alleged, celebrated by using Olaf Thon’s Germany shirt as toilet paper after the game. The Netherlands went on to win the tournament, with Van Basten taking the golden boot.
Two years later, the rivalry truly reached its zenith. Any moral high ground the Dutch could lay claim to was squandered when Frank Rijkaard famously reacted to receiving a yellow card by spitting at Rudi Völler. The German forward’s reaction got him booked, and moments later, he was dismissed after another verbal clash with Rijkaard. As he stood, bemused, by the goal line, the Dutchman took his opportunity again, and added another globule of saliva to Völler’s infamous perm.
The Argentinian referee has gone down in history alongside the Russian linesman as one of the great villains of German football. His inexplicable decision to show the red card was one that, in Völler’s own words, “he will take with him to the grave”.
Relations have cooled considerably since then, but even in the sterile, money driven world of modern football, there is a certain, unique delight that German fans take in beating the Dutch. The traditional roles, moreover, have been reversed in Germany’s favour. The current Dutch side, for all its attacking flair, is built around two of Europe’s best, and most shameless defensive midfielders in Nigel De Jong and Mark van Bommel, whereas the legendary German efficiency and arrogance has been replaced with a taste for precocious but talented youngsters.
When Germany beat the Netherlands 3-0 in Hamburg last November, the symmetry was not lost on the current crop of players, even though most of them were still in nappies in 1988. If Joachim Löw’s side take their opportunity on Wednesday to eliminate the Dutch from this summer’s competition at the earliest possible stage, the schadenfreude will not be in short supply.
Interestingly, the slow dissipation of the antipathy - Völler refused to use the word “hate” – of the 80s, was partially down to Holland’s conquerors at the weekend – Denmark. At Euro 92, the stage looked set for a crunch final between the Netherlands and Germany in Stockholm, but the party was spoiled for both teams. Holland were denied in the semi-final by a Peter Schmeichel save in the shootout, while Germany were kept at bay in the final, again by Schmeichel, before being put to the sword by goals from the inimitable John Jensen and Kim Vilfort, whose daughter was suffering from leukaemia. The Danish fairytale eclipsed what could have been the point of no return for Dutch-German football relations.
The chance to get one over on the old enemy, though, is still very much not to be wasted. Oliver Bierhoff and Mats Hummels have both noted the significance of this game for the Dutch in the past few days, and warned against complacency from the Germans. The bodily fluids may be flowing a little less freely on Wednesday night, but the tension should be plentiful. As for the England fans: sit back, choose your allegiance, and enjoy the show.