Before Rinus Michels’ Holland could meet Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s USSR in the Euro 1988 final, they had to face each other in the tournament’s group stage. The Dutch were favoured in the match, and for good reason: they had a squad stuffed with talent. Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Ronald Koeman, Frank Rijkaard – it’s almost comical how many individual superstars populated the Dutch team.
Lobanovskyi wasn’t the type to cower in the face of individual talent, however. Disciplined and organized, Lobanovskyi’s Soviet team were formidable. And they were also quite talented themselves. Lobanovskyi was still in charge of a strong Dynamo Kyiv team at the time of Euro 1988, and his Soviet side featured plenty of Dynamo players. In fact, Lobanovskyi named at least seven Dynamo players in his starting eleven in every one of the Soviet Union’s five matches at the tournament.
Two of the finest to feature for both Dynamo and the USSR were Igor Belanov and Oleksandr Zavarov. Belonov often played as a second striker with Zavarov lurking just behind him as a two-footed, attack-minded midfielder. In 1986, Belonov was named European Footballer of the Year. Not coincidentally, that same year Dynamo won the Cup Winners Cup, eviscerating Atletico Madrid 3-0 in the final. Belanov and Zavarov each contributed five goals to Dynamo’s victorious campaign.
Never becoming synonymous with a single formation, Lobanovskyi lined his teams up in a variety of ways throughout his career. Against Atletico in 1986, Dynamo deployed a 1-3-1-3-2 formation with Sergei Baltacha playing as a sweeper. But to combat Michels’ latest batch of cool and gifted footballers in Euro 1988’s group stage, he chose a compact, sturdy 4-4-2.
Going against type, the Netherlands also lined up in a fairly standard 4-4-2. By 1988, Michels’ coaching career had taken him to some unorthodox locations. After second stints with both Ajax and Barcelona, Michels coached the Los Angeles Aztecs in the ill-fated North American Soccer League and FC Köln in the Bundesliga.
Retired and aged 60 when he was appointed to manage the Dutch at Euro 1988, Michels’ reputation hadn’t exactly diminished (he was, after all, entrusted to manage an outstanding generation of Dutch footballers at a major tournament), but the aura surrounding him wasn’t quite the same. At the Müngersdorfer Stadion in Cologne, the slickness one would associate with a Michels’ team was noticeably muted.
For decent chunks of their round one encounter with the Soviet Union, the Dutch had to resort to playing the ball long over the top of a muddled midfield. The Soviets had little interest in possession and primarily sought to attack Holland on the counter. Maintaining defensive solidity to disrupt the Netherlands’ passing rhythm was the USSR’s main objective. Lobanovskyi – always willing to adapt his tactics based on the opposition – succeeded at forcing the Dutch into a style they were unaccustomed to playing.
It may not have been their first-choice tactic, but punting the ball to a masterful forward like van Basten doesn’t necessarily sound like the worst strategy for the Dutch to have to rely on – except, controversially, Michels left the AC Milan striker out of his starting lineup.
Van Basten had spent much of 1987-88 season injured (and entered Euro 1988 still nursing an ankle problem), so Ajax striker John Bosman, a frequent scorer in the Netherlands’ qualification campaign, was preferred. According to David Winner’s Brilliant Orange, Johan Cruyff told van Basten he should consider his omission an insult and refuse to play at all in the tournament. Citizens of the Netherlands are eternally grateful van Basten didn’t listen to Cruyff’s advice.
Sailing wasn’t completely smooth for the Soviet Union in Cologne. In the first half, the Dutch forced Soviet goalkeeper Rinat Dasayev into making several superb saves. Dasayev’s first-half heroics would prove especially irritating to Holland when, seven minutes into the second half, Soviet left-back Vasyl Rats forcefully volleyed home a nice Belanov cross-pitch pass to put the USSR up 1-0.
Van Basten was brought on as a substitute in the 59th minute to help aid the Dutch attack. Holland did manage to put the Soviets under a decent amount of pressure as the second half wore on, but an equalizer never came. Lobanovskyi had defeated Michels.
The end of an era of cultural and political optimism
Holland’s emerging group of prodigies were attempting to correct several years of Dutch futility at the international level. Embarrassingly, the Netherlands had failed to qualify for the previous three major tournaments.
The collapse against West Germany in 1974 still tormented Holland – and not just the nation’s footballers. People throughout the Netherlands were haunted by their unflappably hip generation of counterculture icons falling just short in the World Cup final. The defeat was a collective mental block the country couldn’t get passed.
“A TV poll conducted on the twentieth anniversary of the [1974 World Cup final] revealed that every sentient Dutch person recalled precisely where they were and what they were doing,” wrote David Winner in Brilliant Orange. “Playwright Johan Timmers studied the calamity and its aftermath and concluded: ‘The defeat of 1974 is the biggest trauma that happened to Holland in the twentieth century, apart from the floods of 1953 and World War Two.’”
“Holland’s defeat by West Germany marked not only the demise of a footballing ideal but also the end of an era of cultural and political optimism,” Winner, added.
Four years after the traumatic loss to West Germany, the Dutch were able to reach the final of 1978’s World Cup in Argentina. Michels wasn’t there, however, and neither was Cruyff. For years speculation persisted as to why Cruyff had declined to participate in the tournament.
Some theorized that Cruyff’s absence was an act of protest against the abominable military dictatorship of Jorge Videla. From 1976 through 1981 Videla oppressively ruled Argentina and was subsequently imprisoned for life for crimes against humanity.
Others believed Cruyff’s grounds were more banal: a sponsorship dispute with the Dutch national team (the Dutch national team was sponsored by Adidas, whilst Cruyff had a contract with Puma)
However, in a 2008 interview with Catalunya Radio, Cruyff himself revealed the deeply personal and unsettling reason he missed the 1978 World Cup.
Cruyff explained he and his family were the victims of a kidnapping attempt just a few months prior to the tournament.
“Someone [put] a rifle at my head and tied me up and tied up my wife in front of the children at our flat in Barcelona,” said Cruyff. “The children were going to school accompanied by the police. The police slept in our house for three or four months. I was going to matches with a bodyguard…we wanted to stop this and be a little more sensible…I couldn’t play in the World Cup after this.”
A few streets away from the Estadio Monumental – the expensively revamped Buenos Aires stadium that hosted the 1978 World Cup final between Holland and Argentina – was the largest of several hundred concentration camps in Argentina for political prisoners.
Black armbands could be found at the base of each of the stadium’s goalposts to honor Los Desaparecidos. ‘The Disappeared’ were the victims Videla’s state-sponsored murder. According to a 2017 Guardian interview with one of the groundskeepers responsible for the armbands, when football-clueless Argentinian generals inquired about them they believed the excuse that the goalpost adornments were ‘tradition.’
Against the profoundly disconcerting backdrop of Buenos Aires under Videla’s rule, and without their charismatic leader because he and his family were the victims of a horrifying kidnapping attempt, the Dutch walked onto the Estadio Monumental’s pitch to face Argentina in the World Cup final. They walked onto the pitch…and waited. Argentina were late. It took La Albiceleste five minutes to join their opponents. Five uncomfortable minutes where the Dutch were made aware of just how partisan the crowd were.
Tension and tackles were prevalent in abundance throughout the contest. The score was deadlocked at one with the match approaching extra time when Dutch wide forward Rob Resenbrink clanged a shot off the post. Holland were mere inches away from winning the World Cup.
Extra time wasn’t kind to the Netherlands. Mario Kempes scored in the 105th minute (his second goal of the match), and in the 115th minute with the Dutch desperate for an equalizer Daniel Bertoni extinguished Holland hopes with another Argentina goal. The Netherlands had lost a second straight World Cup final.
Appropriately, considering the grizzly circumstances that surrounded the 1978 Argentina World Cup and Cruyff’s absence from it, the era of the Dutch national team being synonymous with unbridled joy was over.
A new generation
By 1988, enthusiasm for Dutch football had returned. A new generation of Holland fans perhaps less scarred by history than their elders were vociferous in their support for the team. Fittingly clad in bright, beaming orange, the oranje legioen flooded into West Germany for Euro 1988.
Holland supporters are more aware than most that possessing a ‘golden generation’s’ worth of talent doesn’t guarantee a team anything. If the pre-tournament excitement surrounding the Netherlands’ Euro 1988 squad was uniquely fearless (particularly for a nation that had experienced so much agonizing disappointment), it may have had something to do with the unique composition of the team itself.
Located in South America, the tiny former Dutch colony of Suriname has had an massive impact on football in Holland. When the Oranje lost their verve post-1978, it was two individuals with Surinamese fathers who would help bring it back.
Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard (who would be the only two black players to feature in Euro 1988’s knockout rounds) were born in Amsterdam to Dutch mothers within a month of each other in 1962. Whilst their formative footballing experience took place in the Netherlands – and indeed, the adaptability associated with Total Football would feature prominently in both their careers – Gullit and Rijkaard each also brought the exuberance of South American street football to the Dutch national team. The influence of their fathers’ home continent was visibly apparent in their play.
Wearing the number ten shirt and taking the freedom it implies to the extreme, Gullit would drop deep in front of the Holland’s centre-backs to help aid the team’s buildup play. He would also lurk in the opposition’s penalty area and look to authoritatively plant his head on the end of crosses. Essentially, Gullit could damage the opposition from anywhere on the pitch.
Rijkaard’s game was similarly fluid. Playing as a central defender for the Dutch in 1988, Rijkaard also excelled as a central midfielder at various points in his career (particularly at AC Milan where he was an impeccable holding midfielder under Arrigo Sacchi). Rijkaard’s centre-back partner, Ronald Koeman, was technically proficient himself (technically proficient enough to play for Cruyff’s Barcelona in a year) and together the duo gave the Dutch explosiveness when playing out from the back.
In a Holland team that may have threatened to become rote (at least when compared to its 1970s predecessors), Gullit and Rijkaard ensured the 1988 version of the Dutch national team had a buoyant capriciousness. Aided by the pair’s creativity, the Netherlands beat England 3-1 (this time van Basten started and netted a hat-trick) and the Republic of Ireland 1-0. The semi-finals and a showdown with West Germany awaited them.
A romanticized version of the war
Demons were exorcised, nightmares were woken up from, the haunting remnants of 1974’s calamity were finally buried deep, deep in the ground – Ronald Koeman even wiped his backside with West German midfielder Olaf Thon’s shirt. The Netherlands 2-1 victory over West Germany in Hamburg was hugely significant within the context of football, and also, well beyond the context of football. “It feels as though we’ve won the war at last,” a former Resistance fighter said on TV following the match.
“In the Leidseplein square in Amsterdam,” wrote Simon Kuper for FourFourTwo, “people threw bicycles (their own?) into the air and shouted, ‘hurray, we’ve got our bikes back!’” Throughout the Nazi occupation of Holland during World War Two, all Dutch bicycles were confiscated.
“The match was, in short, a romanticized version of the war,” Kuper added.
Not even Michels was immune to the magnitude of the occasion. When confronted with jeers from West German supporters after emerging from the tunnel following half-time, Holland’s boss raised his middle finger as a response.
Following a goalless first half, the Netherlands and West Germany each converted penalties in the second half. With the match seemingly destined for extra time van Basten provided an instant of undiluted quality.
Somehow able to reach a Jan Wouters pass that should have surely eluded him, van Basten slid like he was avoiding a tag from a second baseman to place his right boot on the ball. Delicately, but assuredly he steered a shot into the net.
The 6,000 Dutch fans in attendance ecstatically lost their minds.
Holland’s momentous win brought them right back to where they started Euro 1988: a match against Lobanovskyi’s Soviet Union.
Modern football at 100km/h
Tireless defensive organization was paramount to the Soviet Union’s success in the tournament. After frustrating the Netherlands, Lobanovskyi set his Soviet team up to defend in a low block against the Republic of Ireland hoping to nullify the long-ball approach of Jack Charlton’s side. When going a goal down, however, Lobanovskyi switched to an aggressive press, which helped lead to Oleh Protasov’s equalizer.
Aggressive pressing was again utilised in the Soviets’ final group stage match against Bobby Robson’s England. When losing possession, the Soviet Union would immediately look to force England into a mistake to regain the ball. The first goal in the USSR’s 3-1 victory was an excellent example of Lobanovskyi’s approach working to perfection.
Winning the ball deep in his own half, England’s Glenn Hoddle decided to surge forward and start a counterattack. A perfectly reasonable thing to do against most opposition (particularly in this less gegenpressing-saturated era of the sport), but Hoddle’s eagerness would prove ill advised. Soviet defender Sergei Aleinikov swiped the ball, stormed passed a flat-footed England defence, and bashed a shot by a hopeless Peter Shilton.
Italy – in all their prestige and pomp – were the Soviet Union’s semi-final opponents. Heavy underdogs, Lobanovskyi’s side outplayed the Italians in a 2-0 victory. The Soviet Union were so impressive, former Italy coach Enzo Bearzot approached Lobanovskyi after the match. Fittingly, Berzot admired the Soviet players’ commitment.
“You play modern football at 100km/h,” Bearzot told Lobanovskyi. “The pressing you showed today is the sign of great ability, and the physical shape of the Soviet players is clearly the result of great self-sacrifice and professionalism.”
The rain stopped falling
It’s tempting to say the Euro 1988 final was all about the managerial match-up – Two Great Pioneers. Two Iconic Legends – the excitable, clichéd-but-true headlines practically write themselves. Michels and Lobanovskyi probably desperately wanted the match to be all about the managerial match-up, and not because of an excess of vanity on either man’s part.
If a football match was all about the individuals tasked with coaching the players – if the players themselves were mere chess pieces to be moved around by their managerial overlords – then a manager’s job would be relatively straightforward.
Living, breathing football matches wouldn’t be much different from their artificial FIFA counterparts. Perfect the art of knowing where which player should be at which time, convey the gospel to your players, and then sit back and watch your masterpiece play out. Simple.
Of course, football isn’t like that. As well drilled as the Netherlands and the Soviet Union were heading into the Euro 1988 final, it would be the vagaries of volition that would ultimately play the biggest role in the end result.
Much like the two teams’ encounter at the beginning of the tournament, the final also featured a high level of midfield congestion. The Dutch couldn’t play through the Soviets, but did well at forcing Lobanovskyi’s team into unsuccessful punts forward themselves. Considering Lobanovskyi and Michels are godfathers of pressing, the lack of space available was appropriate.
Impressively, the Soviets were defending well without their best defender, Oleh Kuznetsov. The Dynamo Kyiv central defender picked up a yellow card against Italy that ruled him out of the final.
“Have you seen how bees fly?” Lobanovskyi’s assistant Anatoly Zelentsov asked, according to Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, referring to Kuznetsov. “A hive is in the air, and there is a leader. The leader turns right and all the hive turn right. It turns left and all the hive turn left. It is the same in football.”
It was perhaps a lack of leadership on the Soviet back line that led to the Netherlands netting a breakthrough goal in the 32nd minute.
A blistering free kick from Gullit that was just pushed over the bar by Dasayev gave the Dutch corner. Eriwn Koeman (Ronald’s brother) took the corner and the ball was headed back out to him. The Soviet defence pushed forward, playing an offside trap. Koeman crossed the ball into the box and it reached the still-onside van Basten. The striker contorted his neck to head the ball to an unmarked Gullit who with a thundering header gave the Dutch a 1-0 lead.
The match remained an even contest after Gullit’s goal, with neither side able to establish a clear advantage. Lobanovskyi’s Soviet Union and Michels’ Holland were cancelling each other out. Two managers who excelled at exerting control over matches – who excelled at putting their fingerprints all over ever sector of a football pitch – were watching over a match that was having the life compressed out of it.
And then life – in all its random, unpredictable glory – exploded out of its constraints.
It’s likely you could give van Basten a million tries at recreating the volley he rifled into the net from the most preposterous of angles for Holland’s second goal and he wouldn’t be able to do it.
It’s also likely you could force Igor Belanov take a million penalty kicks and he’d convert nearly all of them. He was one of Europe’s most feared attackers, after all. Against the Netherlands, shortly after van Basten did the impossible to put the Dutch up 2-0, Belanov had a penalty saved by Holland goalkeeper, Hans van Breukelen.
Both van Basten and Belanov were outstanding forwards capable of dropping jaws and eliciting gasps. In the Euro 1988 final, one of them produced a moment of stunning brilliance that will be remembered for decades. The other didn’t. Holland’s long, maddening wait for a trophy was over.
The Netherlands’ 2-0 victory over the Soviet Union wouldn’t have happened without Michels’ intense attention to detail. It wouldn’t have happened without his unfaltering commitment to his team playing like a cohesive collective. But Holland’s only major tournament victory also wouldn’t have happened without individual, unique, fascinating, exquisite randomness.
There’s a famous line in Albert Camus’ The Fall about Amsterdam. “For centuries, pipe smokers have been watching the same rain falling on the same canal,” Camus wrote. The Fall was published in 1955, a decade or so before the city would truly be transformed culturally. Michels and his Ajax team certainly played a role in that transformation. It isn’t hard to see Michels finding comfort in the reliability of ‘the same rain falling on the same canal,’ though. It’s something you can plan for.
Maybe the Euro 1988 final gave Michels an appreciation for the unplanned.