You could hear it in how high pitched her voice had become. The excitement and warmth towards the country was something I hadn’t expected from the middle aged lady but the way she drew a line under the past to focus on the present was admirable.

At the time it was hard for me to not think about the generation before her, those in their 60s and 70s, who lived through World War II when their neighbours had bombed them and killed thousands of innocent civilians who they knew as friends or family members.

Sixty-six years later, on the morning of a day in the middle of June 2006, my wife and I were making our way from Brugge in Belgium to Gelsenkirchen in Germany to watch Argentina take on Serbia & Montenegro in the World Cup. The three hour journey over two unmanned borders including a brief stop in Eindhoven to meet some locals and to grab some clogs to take home. The lady in the shop was very helpful as we found a pair and became more social when she found out we were heading to the football match in Germany.

“Have a great time there. It’s a wonderful country and the people are very friendly. We never used to like them you know? Now we’re as excited as they are to have the World Cup come here.”

Welcome to the 21st century where the Dutch let bygones be bygones.

Walking back to my car that morning I smiled as the image of Frank Rijkaard spitting on Rudi Voller in 1990 came into my mind. That day inside the San Siro these two countries hated each other.

The rivalry had been bubbling for some time on the football field. Two great nations battling in a knockout match at a major tournament once again meant memories of the past came flooding back.

Netherlands boss that day in 1990, Leo Beenhakker, would later say: “Beating Germany is something special. Losing to Germany, stays in the head, takes longer to recover from. It’s a massive emotional rivalry that’s all about one of the dark periods in Europe.”

Beenhakker is of course referring to a period that started on that fateful day of May 14th, 1940 when the Germans bombed Rotterdam killing 30,000 people in less than two hours and devastating the city, despite a surrender by Dutch forces prior to the raid. Germany began a five year occupancy of the Netherlands and when the war ended over 200,000 Dutch men and women had died.

Less than a decade after the war was over, a now divided Germany was allowed back into World Cup’s. The West German side would go on to produce ‘Das Wunder Von Bern” (The Miracle of Bern) in the 1954 final when they came from 2-0 down to beat the favoured Hungary side, 3-2. A new super power on the field was created. Five years later, in 1959, they humiliated the Dutch 7-0. At the time the Netherlands could only dream of playing like their neighbours.

West Germany would go on to play in the final of the 1966 World Cup and reach the semi’s in Mexico in 1970, tournaments the Dutch didn’t qualify for, but dreams in 1959 would soon become reality just over a decade on.

During the 1968-69 season, Hendrick Johannes Cruijff turned 22 and helped lead his Ajax side to their first ever European Cup final. His side would lose 4-1 that day to AC Milan but a valuable lesson had been learned. A year later Feyenoord went a step further, beating Celtic 2-1 in the final. Dutch football had arrived.

Cruijff’s Ajax went on to win three successive European Cup’s in 1971, 1972 and 1973, beating German champions Dynamo Dresden in ’72 on their way to glory and overcoming super power Bayern Munich on their way to a remarkable third straight Cup. The fluid, tactical system known as ‘Total Football’ had been born and extended to the national team who qualified for its first World Cup in 36 years. The destination? West Germany.

The Dutch blazed through their opponents, which included the likes of Brazil and Argentina, scoring 14 goals in six games on the way to the final. West Germany, however, struggled for momentum yet unconvincingly found themselves in another final. It would be the Dutch against the Germans in Munich for the title of World Champions.

“At that time it was still an issue in the minds of many people, that generation of players, still in their private lives, had consequences of the war. Some of the players afterwards said it was much more than a game,” said Beenhakker.

“We knew we were much better, we were not afraid at all”, added Cruiyff.

Englishman Jack Taylor blew the whistle to start the match and after 15 successful passes by the Dutch, Cruiyff was fouled in the box and his side were awarded a penalty. Johan Neeskens scored from the spot and West Germany trailed before they kicked the ball.

The hosts were not rattled, however, and after a Paul Breitner penalty made it 1-1, Gerd Muller scored to ensure the hosts had come from behind to lead at the interval. They would hold on to win their second World Cup leaving the Dutch crushed and stunned.

Johnny Rep would later confirm how the entire nation felt: “I think we thought we’d win it – a bit too sure of ourselves.”

After the World Cup, Cruiyff joined Barcelona and Bayern Munich took over from Ajax as the top club side in Europe, winning three successive European Cup’s in 1974, 1975 and 1976.

The Dutch did get further than their rivals at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina but once again it ended in tears as they lost to the hosts in the final, 3-1 after extra time. Two years later the pair were drawn together in the same group at Euro 80 in Italy, but the Dutch side was not the same and they would lose 3-2 to West Germany in Naples and fail to get out of their group. Eight days later West Germany were champions of Europe once again and the Dutch were left to reflect on a great era that was unable to get the better of the big bully.

By 1988 a new generation of players, inspired by Cruiyff, had come along and like the 1974 side before them headed to West Germany for another major tournament. They would once again meet their rivals, this time in the semi final in Hamburg and this time the Germans took the lead through a penalty, scored by Lothar Matthaus. Like the game fourteen years earlier, the game was leveled at 1-1 through a penalty and this time the Dutch would finally beat the Germans when Marco Van Basten hit the winner two minutes from time.

Captain Ruud Gullit would say: “It was already the final. Holland exploded, it was incredible. Almost like a revenge for 1974.”

The Dutch had done the hard work and did indeed go on to win the final against the Soviet Union to lift their first ever major championship.

The Germans didn’t have to wait too long to get revenge. At the San Siro in Milan during the 1990 World Cup, the Dutch, led by AC Milan’s trio Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard, were knocked out in the last 16 by their rivals who were inspired by their Inter Milan trio Andreas Brehme, Jurgen Klinsmann and Lothar Matthaus. The score was 2-1 but more people remember the incident on 20 minutes when Rudi Voller claimed to be fouled, something that incensed Rijkaard who confronted the striker and then spat in his hair. Voller was furious and the pair both got sent off. Two weeks later Voller was on the field in Rome when his team won a third World Cup title. Rijkaard, who later apologized, had no medal, simply regret.

The peak of their rivalry on the pitch had taken place and although hostility remained at Euro 92 when Netherlands beat Germany 3-1 in a group match only one team was left standing for the final and it wasn’t the Dutch. The Germans were now unified and the European Union was close to being formed. Suddenly an undivided continent was being created and the Germans and Dutch, similar people with similar likes and beliefs, realized just how alike they were, compared to other countries they now had to do business with.

By 2004, when they next met at a major tournament, the two countries were more than just friends.

Journalist Simon Kuper, who grew up in the Netherlands, added: “When we played together in 2004 in Portugal the crowd wasn’t segregated, German and Dutch fans were mixed and it was absolutely fine. There used to be hatred on the Dutch side but now there is only love.”

From the German point of view, fellow writer Raphael Honigstein agrees with Kuper: “This relationship has shifted because of the tremendous amount of Dutch players playing in the Bundesliga. The Germans have fallen in love with these players. The rivalry is a lot friendlier but it doesn’t mean the game (when they play each other) will be less intense.”

That will be put to the test on June 13th in Kharkiv when the Netherlands meet Germany once again. This time Marco Van Basten or Gerd Muller won’t be scoring the winner and it’s unlikely a player will spit at an opponent but these two giants of European football will be big rivals once again. Even if it is just for 90 minutes this time.

Kristian Jack