The Netherlands side which won the 1988 European Championships didn’t just ensure that one of the most talented groups of players ever assembled would gain the recognition they deserved, they also inspired a whole generation with their blend of skill, determination and attacking football.
The Dutch side of the late 1980s was one of the best ever seen and consisted of some of the most recognisable names of that era, particularly a certain trio of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard.
Having arrived at the San Siro in 1987 they combined to bring the Serie A title to AC Milan for the first time since 1979 while leading the club to a glorious period of domination, not just domestically, but in Europe too.
Van Basten had gained a reputation as one of the most clinical marksmen around while Rijkaard would become regarded as one of the world’s greatest defensive midfielders and Gullit was seen by many as one of the finest attacking players on earth; throw in the likes of Ronald Koeman, Jan Wouters and Hans van Breukelen and it’s easy to see why this Dutch side were respected and feared in equal measure.
At the helm was the man who is generally considered to be the founding father of the “total football” movement, Rinus Michels, and although he hadn’t delivered on the international stage as a coach he had been responsible for changing the way football was played throughout much of the continent.
In his club career Michels had lifted four league titles with Ajax and led them to the first of the three European Cups of the 1970s, as well as winning La Liga and the Copa del Rey with Barcelona; but his biggest disappointment was the 1974 World Cup, where Holland were guilty of throwing away their grip on the trophy after being beaten by a superior West Germany side in the final.
However, with some of the world’s greatest talents at his disposal the prospect of another crack at glory was enough to tempt Michels out of retirement and back into international management as Euro ’88 gave him the perfect opportunity for redemption; the chance to close-out unfinished business and show the world that Holland were the real deal.
But the tournament couldn’t have got off to a worse start after a qualifying campaign which had seen the Dutch score 15 and concede just one as, with Marco van Basten sitting on the bench with an ankle injury, a stunning low shot from Vasyl Rats ensured the Dutch would lose their opening group game against the USSR. Once again, if they were going to taste success they would have to do it the hard way.
Fortunately for the Dutch their next opponents were Bobby Robson’s somewhat lacklustre England outfit who had been defeated by Ireland in their opening fixture and a side they had given a football lesson to at Wembley a few months earlier.
A comprehensive performance resulted in a 3-1 win with Gullit pulling the strings in the middle of the park, a victory which ensured that Robson’s men would go home humiliated while the Netherlands would live on to fight another day.
Victory over Ireland, courtesy of a Wim Kieft header secured the points and meant that Holland advanced into the knock-out stages where they would once again face their old foes West Germany in a mouth-watering semi-final of epic proportions.
Fourteen years before, in Munich, Holland had imploded against Germany in the final of the World Cup as a team which many considered the greatest side never to win a tournament were picked-apart by their old enemy; now in Hamburg they had the ideal opportunity to exact revenge while proving just what they were capable of once and for all.
Ditching their “total football” principles this time Michel’s men opted for brawn and outmuscled their opponents in every department in a bad tempered encounter, eventually going through 2-1 after a last-minute strike by van Basten secured a final berth just as the game looked to be heading to extra-time with the celebrations both on and off the pitch showing just what the victory meant to players and fans.
The venue for the final of the 1988 European Championships against the Soviet Union would be Munich’s Olympic Stadium, the very same arena where Michels had suffered his most bitter of disappointments back in 1974, but this time around the class of ’88 ensured there would be no repeat.
While not entirely a one-sided affair the Dutch were by far the better side and took the lead with a bullet header from Rudd Gullit, and the win was sealed by one of the greatest goals in the history of international tournament football when Arnold Muhren’s speculative centre was met by van Basten on the edge of the Soviet box and the striker’s volley flew past Rinat Dasayev and into the corner of the net.
1988 ended a long and frustrating chapter for the Dutch national side and the elation – combined with understandable relief – was evident for all to see at the final whistle. The demons had been banished; the albatross removed from around their necks and after more than two decades of work Michels had finally led the Dutch to the pinnacle of European football.