Russia versus Poland. England versus France. Germany versus the Netherlands. The opening phase rivalries at Euro 2012 stretch back over the decades in both geopolitical and sporting terms.
Today’s meeting between two of Europe’s most fluent sides — three-time winners Germany and 1988 champions the Netherlands — has been arguably the most intense rivalry of all, going back to their meeting in the 1974 World Cup final.
Then, Germany won on home soil, but on the pitch, the bruised pride of conflicts past can be assuaged.
Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz insisted in his day that “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means,” whereas international sport, in the well-worn words of British writer George Orwell, is “war minus the shooting.”
Less discussed today is the 1984 and Animal Farm author’s parallel assertion in his 1945 article The Sporting Spirit, published in the left-wing magazine Tribune, that “serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence.”
Even the toughest tacklers in the brawniest team might not necessarily go that far, but where the Germans and the Dutch are concerned, their meetings could hardly be confused with a reunion of old friends.
Germany defender Mats Hummels said the Dutch would be fighting for their lives to qualify from the “Group of Death,” not just because they are taking on an old enemy and neighbor buoyed by a win over Portugal, but after their shock loss to Denmark.
“There is a huge history and a healthy rivalry between the two nations, so either team will have to give 100 percent, they have to win and we want to secure our passage to the quarter-finals,” he told reporters.
In soccer terms, there is little to choose between two sides, who between them won 19 out of 20 qualifiers, with the Netherlands’ only loss coming to Sweden after they had already secured their passage to Poland and Ukraine, but this is a fixture which transcends soccer — especially for the Dutch, who were occupied by Nazi German forces for five years during World War II.
Two games in particular demonstrated how, sometimes, the past is not a foreign country, but cannot entirely be buried, even by the passage of time.
After their 1974 World Cup final loss, the Netherlands, who had been expected to win even though Germany were the competition hosts, felt desolate, midfielder Wim van Hanegem in particular.
“They [the Nazis] murdered my father, sister and two brothers. I am full of angst. I hate them,” he said afterwards about losing his relatives during World War II.
In later years, Van Hanegem would modify those sentiments, but the hatred was still not far below the surface 14 years later when the Netherlands, en route to winning their only continental title to date, knocked tournament hosts Germany out of Euro 88.
On that occasion, banners could be seen in the stands in Hamburg reading: “Grandma, I found your bike” — an allusion to the fact that Nazi troops confiscated bikes during the occupation.
After a stalemate in the 1978 World Cup, when the Netherlands lost in the final to hosts Argentina, Germany beat their rivals on the way to lifting the European Championships in 1980, but that game was marred by some ugly challenges.