It’s the Netherlands’ biggest neighbour - its big brother if you like - and it’s certainly the country the Dutch love to hate. Or they used to. Respect for Germany has grown in recent years, says veteran Dutch sports commentator Evert ten Napel. Aversion has gradually morphed into something bordering on admiration. This even touches an activity the Dutch always thought they were better at: football.
Ten Napel, who also serves as an ambassador for the German-Dutch Chamber of Commerce, says:
“Germany is a beautiful country - Dutch holidaymakers love it and it’s our main trading partner. Several times larger than the Netherlands, Germany is, and will always be, a country we look up too, a country we love to beat in football. And that happens quite regularly, but sometimes it doesn’t, like the end of last year, when Oranje were given a hammering by die Mannschaft in a friendly in Hamburg. But there’s respect too, I think, for Germany as an economic powerhouse, as a key political factor within the European Union and as a sporting nation.”
That respect has grown in recent years. The long-running hatred and resentment of the former Nazi occupiers was finally shaken off in 1988 when Holland beat Germany 2-1 on their own turf during the European Championship semi-finals.
It was a cathartic moment for the Dutch, not only because they got their revenge for the 1974 World Cup final “which we should have won, because we were so much better,” but also because the ghosts of the past could finally be laid to rest.
Holland went on the win the final too, and the entire nation felt on top of the world. “Flags were flying everywhere and cars didn’t stop hooting. The whole nation was in party mode,” Ten Napel recalls, “much to the surprise of the Germans, who thought: ‘Jeez, it’s only a football match, what’s all the fuss about?’”
“Later I spoke to Franz Beckenbauer, Germany's coach at the time, about the euphoria in the Netherlands. And perhaps it was the majestic Beckenbauer, Der Kaiser, who came to personify the change in Dutch attitudes towards the Germans. In 1988, he ventured into the Holland dressing room to congratulate the Dutch players on their victory. ‘What’s that guy doing here?’ some of them initially thought, but all later appreciated his kind gesture, which didn’t quite match the macho stereotype of the Germans.”
Famous Dutch journalist Ischa Meijer grew up in a family traumatised by the experiences of the Holocaust. After interviewing Beckenbauer in the wake of the 1988 victory, Meijer remarked: “There are some sympathetic Germans after all.”
“If you talk about a Holland-Germany match, I invariably think back to the 1988 European Championship and many people will too. But this time our previous match in Hamburg will be a motivating factor as well.”
Parallels with the Dutch game
Van Bommel believes the Germans have adopted elements of the attractive Holland style of play:
“Particularly when they switch from defence to attack, Germany play the type of football that we’d like to play and that people in the Netherlands like to see.”
Ten Napel also sees clear parallels with the Dutch game:
“Germany now play a different kind of football: less athletic and more creative, perhaps even more frivolous, courtesy of the talents of their players of Turkish and North-African descent, like Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira. But there’s a Dutch influence, too, in the shape of coaches like Huub Stevens and the late Rinus Michels as well as players like Van Bommel, Arjen Robben – a frivolous player - and Klaas Jan Huntelaar.”
It also explains why so many Dutch football enthusiasts zap to German TV channels every Saturday to watch the Bundesliga highlights.
“It’s one of the strongest leagues in the world, with exceptionally attractive football in splendid modern stadiums that are always filled to capacity. I remember the recent German Cup final between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich [which Dortmund won by a convincing 5-2, ed.] It’s great to watch and I have the impression that the Dutch now appreciate the Bundesliga more and even admit that it’s one of the world’s best competitions.”
“A real Bundesliga player has a winners’ mentality: the will to win whatever it takes and never give up,” says Holland skipper Van Bommel. “And that also goes for me. That’s what it’s all about: that you give everything you have to win so that you can accept a loss with no regrets.”