Games don't get much bigger than Dutch vs. Germans
KRAKOW, Poland (AP) -- Both are ranked in FIFA's top four. They finished second and third at the last World Cup. If that were not enough -- it's the Netherlands vs. Germany, one of the biggest grudge matches in soccer, and of all sport for that matter.
And to compound matters, the Netherlands needs to win Wednesday to claw its way back into the European Championship. A loss would probably mean elimination and, coming at the hands of the victorious Mannschaft, would make it particularly stinging.
"You can lose to anyone, but you just cannot lose to Germany," said Dutch fan Ivo Frank, who had come to cheer the team at its training camp in southern Poland with a group of friends all in their 20s.
"Or better put: beating anyone is sweet, beating Germany is sweeter," he said. "This is like Manchester United versus City. There is nothing like it."
Even though the Netherlands vs. Germany series stretches back over a century now, it became especially intense when the Dutch became almost as good at the game as their neighbors under the command of Johan Cruyff in the 1970s.
At the time, the Dutch earned the moniker "the greatest team never to win the World Cup," and they can blame then-West Germany for that.
In the bitterly fought 1974 final rife with penalty incidents and disputed calls, Franz Beckenbauer's team came out on top 2-1 and the stage was set for bruising and often nasty encounters.
Germany won with a disputed penalty after Bernd Hoelzenbein went down in the area in what the Dutch still see as the best and biggest dive in soccer history. At the time, World War II had ended less than a generation earlier and anti-German feelings still ran high.
Dutch fans would revisit the days when the Nazis impounded Dutch bicycles and melted them down to make weapons. A popular shout from the stands was: "I want my bike back!"
It provided an added zest to the rivalry.
Now Germany and the Netherlands are among the closest allies in the European Union, standing shoulder to shoulder during the financial crisis. Both defend rigorous budgetary policies in the face of countries that seek more public spending.
They were no such friends yet in 1988, when the Dutch came to Germany and relied on a late strike from Marco van Basten to beat the hosts in Hamburg's semifinal. It was an equally bitter duel that spilled over into the streets during the hooligan days of soccer.
Then, two years later at the 1990 World Cup, German striker Rudi Voeller and Dutchman Frank Rijkaard were famously involved in a spitting flare-up after both were ejected. Germany won the game and went on to earn its third World Cup. It also did not endear fans to each other.
Years later, Rijkaard and Voeller came together and made a goodwill advertisement together.
It is also the way the rivalry has gone. The matches may be competitive, but that rarely spills over the edge anymore.