** Success at national team level had proved strangely elusive – until now – for Holland. After finishing luckless World Cup runners-up in 1974 and 1978 the Dutch finally secured the major prize which their international pre-eminence had long since earned.
Holland’s victory over the Soviet Union in the 1988 Final in Munich’s Olympiastadion was serious evidence in favour of the Dutch approach to youth coaching and to all aspects of general football intelligence.
For the first event in three, the format was not changed. A qualifying section of mini-leagues was climaxed by two four-team groups in the finals, two direct elimination semi-finals and then the Final itself. In the qualifying round Italy, the Soviet Union, England and Holland swept all before then in their respective groups. Spain, Denmark and the Republic of Ireland – qualifying for the finals of a major tournament for the first time – all won through after a tight scrap.
The only hitch in the qualifying process occurred in Holland’s home match against Cyprus on October 28, 1987. The Dutch won 8-0 but the result was later declared invalid by UEFA because a firework thrown from the crowd struck Cyprus goalkeeper Andreas Charitou. A replay was ordered which Holland also won, this time 4-0.
Years later arguments still continued among Dutch soccer statisticians as to whether details from the first match should be credited to players’ international records. The man with most at stake in terms of the history books was Dutch striker John Bosman. He scored five of Holland’s eight goals in the first match but “only” a hat-trick in the replay.
England arrived in West Germany for the finals with the best record of any of the qualifiers, having won five and drawn one match, scoring 19 goals and conceding just one. But it appeared they had peaked too early and lost all three of their group matches. It started with a 1–0 setback against the Irish Republic newcomers and continuing with a devastating match against Holland, for whom Marco Van Basten scored a hat-trick. The Soviet Union completed their misery, winning 3–1.
Van Basten had been uncertain of his place with the Dutch at the start of the finals. It took the words of his friend and mentor Johan Cruyff to persuade him to stay with the squad. When, however, Van Basten was substituted towards the end of the England game, he shook hands with veteran coach Rinus Michels as he left the pitch. That handshake came to symbolize the new-found unit of spirit which carried the Dutch to ultimate victory.
West Germany topped the other group without appearing convincing – Italy were runners-up – and led Holland in their semi-final in Hamburg, thanks to a Lothar Matthäus penalty after a foul on Jürgen Klinsmann. Holland hit back immediately with Ronald Koeman firing home a penalty their own and Van Basten snatched a late winner. The Soviet Union continuied their fine record in the Championships with 2–0 victory over Italy in the other semi-final.
In the final, Holland met a Soviet side missing the significant defensive presence of Oleg Kuznetsov through suspension. Even Kuznetsov, however, would not have been able to control the attacking flair of Van Basten and skipper Ruud Gullit in the Dutch attack. Gullit scored the first goal and Van Basten the second – volleying home from Arnold Muhren’s cross one of the greatest individual goals ever seen in any major international event.
The Soviet Union had a great chance to come back into the match when goalkeeper Hans Van Breukelen carelessly conceded a penalty midway through the second half. But he redeemed himself by saving Igor Belanov’s spot-kick, and Holland were rarely troubled thereafter.
Nobody could have foreseen that this would be the Soviet Union’s swan-song in these championships.