Oranje Go Boom: The Dutch Combust at Euro ’96

Posted: June 23, 2021 in International Football, Uncategorized
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It was the gulp heard around Europe. As Patrick Kluivert calmly dinked the ball over the onrushing Pat Bonner, 15 other nations shuffled nervously to their drinks globes and poured themselves a stiff one. The Dutch would be at Euro ’96.

It had been a scintillating performance in the Anfield play-off against the Republic of Ireland, a 2-0 win that brought to an end Jack Charlton’s golden reign as Ireland manager while immediately establishing the Netherlands as one of the heavy favourites for the Euros. It mattered not that they’d only made it via play-off, having contrived to lose to Belarus in qualifying; nor that they’d only avoided finishing third in their group on goal difference. The European Championships were earmarked as the next step towards world domination for the Godenzonen of Ajax, the most exciting club side in Europe.

Carefully nurtured by Louis van Gaal, Ajax’s predominantly youthful side, stewarded by a smattering of old heads such as Danny Blind and Frank Rijkaard, had sashayed to a shock Champions League win in 1995. Only that perennial Dutch nemesis the penalty shoot-out had prevented them retaining the trophy the following year. The club was in essence a conveyor belt churning out the decade’s best footballers in almost every position – van der Sar, the de Boer twins, Davids, Seedorf, Overmars, Kluivert. These were the players who now also formed the backbone of the national side, with players like Cocu, Winter and Bergkamp sprinkled in for good measure – few squads could boast such a depth of talent. Yet, as Leo Beenhakker, who presided over the Oranje’s disastrous Italia ’90 campaign, told David Winner in Brilliant Orange: “Having the best players is less important than having the best team…and that has always been the problem in Holland.”

It didn’t take long for problems to surface. Already deprived of Marc Overmars, who’d torn knee ligaments the previous December, the loss to injury of Frank de Boer just weeks before their first game was arguably an even bigger blow. Then, whispers began to circulate, as they so often do around the Dutch at major tournaments, about dissension in the camp. A photograph was published that appeared to depict a racial divide, with the players of Surinamese origin all seated at one table and the rest of the group at another. The photo was misleading – the players mixed freely and dined together regularly – and was stripped of context; the team chef had prepared European and Surinamese cuisine for the players and the seating was arranged for ease of serving. However, tensions did indeed exist – and they would explode after the Netherlands’ second group game.

Heads, Arses and Pitbulls

After the Dutch laboured to a goalless draw in their first match against Scotland, Guus Hiddink made several changes for the game against the Switzerland, one of which was to drop Edgar Davids. After starting slowly against a smart Swiss side, who’d held the hosts in the competition’s opening contest, they won in relative comfort, goals from Jordi Cruyff and Dennis Bergkamp causing Barry Davies, on commentary for the BBC, to gauchely proclaim “the future is bright, the future is orange,” with the gusto of a man itching to drop a line he’d had under his sleeve for weeks.

It was a Pyrrhic victory, with several players alienated in its wake, the schism blown yet further apart. Clarence Seedorf had been lumbered with an unfamiliar holding role, and, struggling to adapt in the face of early Swiss pressure, picked up a booking and was lucky not to get another minutes later. Hiddink hooked him after just 26 minutes. Furious at this perceived humiliation, Seedorf plonked himself next to an already seething Davids on the bench, the cameras panning to their animated, gesticulating discussion more than once, their discontent made plain. Hiddink was not impressed:

“I looked behind me and saw those two. Gesturing exaggeratedly. Knowing the cameras were on them,” he recalled in his autobiography. “It was disrespectful. It was provocative. Then I thought: You can wait, you’re going to see me.”

Nor, though, were Seedorf and Davids happy with their manager. Seedorf, wounded by public criticism of him from Hiddink and Blind after the draw with Scotland, railed against the dropping of Davids and the abandonment of the planned approach after the Swiss sprang a surprise formation change of their own: “It is appalling what is happening behind the scenes,” he said in a post-match interview. “I know I was brought off because I had already been booked but I should not have been playing in that position. I want to be involved in the build-up, not marking at the back. I was up against a guy who was much bigger than me. It was ridiculous.”

Davids, as one might expect from a player nicknamed ‘The Pitbull’, was even less diplomatic. “This was once, but never again,” he said of his demotion to the bench in an interview with Swiss TV. “The coach should not put his head in the ass of some players.”

It was his last contribution to the tournament. Predictably, the interview ruffled feathers in the camp and back in the Netherlands. Hiddink allowed himself a few days to consider his course of action before coming to the decision to send Davids home. “The team should know I am consistent and cannot be manipulated,” he said of the decision. “They found that out.”

The hosts awaited at Wembley in a game to decide the group winners, with both sides aware that a point would be enough to see both into the quarter finals. “Holland – England is a draw,” new Chelsea manager Ruud Gullit, a pundit for the BBC during the tournament, predicted confidently.

England, however, were not the ideal opponents for an Oranje plunged once again into self-inflicted turmoil. Terry Venables had long been inspired by Dutch football, and was putting their lessons into practice, creating a versatile, tactically flexible side including a number of players comfortable in a range of positions. They were ready for the Dutch.

The extent to which England impressed in their 4-1 win has been the subject of some debate in the intervening years, but there was no hiding from the result – an embarrassment the like of which the KNVB hadn’t experienced for years. They stumbled into a quarter final with France on goal difference, purely by dint of Kluivert’s late consolation goal.

Back at Anfield, scene of their play off triumph against the Irish, the Oranje did now rouse themselves somewhat against Les Bleus, another young side on their own path to greatness. The introduction of Seedorf from the bench threatened to swing the quarter-final in their favour, injecting some invention and incision. It was he who missed a great chance to win the game near the end of normal time, but, with nobody able to break the deadlock, cruelly, he too who would miss the decisive penalty in the shoot-out, bringing the curtain down on a flat, miserable campaign for the Netherlands.

Easy as A,B,C?

So what went wrong? Ultimately, what looked like the Netherlands’ greatest strength – their Ajax core – proved their undoing, as tensions long brewing in Amsterdam followed the squad to England. The Godonzonen were beginning to splinter; Seedorf had left for Sampdoria the previous summer, while Davids and Reiziger had agreed moves to Milan after the tournament, perhaps the highest profile players to benefit from 1995’s Bosman ruling. Meanwhile, issues over pay had been a source of disquiet for some time, with a major disparity in earnings between the senior players and younger players. There were three pay categories at the club, labelled A, B and C. When salaries were leaked to football publication Voetbal International, it was revealed that players in the category A bracket, such as Blind (35) and Ronald de Boer (26) were pulling in around six times more than players like Kluivert (19) and Reiziger (23) were in Category C.

“Alright, so they’d just won the Champions League,” winger Peter Hoekstra told the Bleacher Report, “but it was normal at Ajax for players who had played a little bit longer in the first team…to earn a little bit more.” Yet this was a new Ajax. Van Gaal’s revolution had consigned a lot of the old philosophies and traditions to history. He had little interest in seniority and encouraged all members of his squad, young or older, to chip in with ideas. He was more concerned with who could embrace, enhance and best communicate his approach on the field, irrespective of age. Established stars who couldn’t adapt, such as Bryan Roy and Wim Jonk, were moved on, while starlets who could, like teenagers Kluivert and Nwankwo Kanu, were given starring roles. Amid that universality of opportunity and responsibility, the young players in Category C were well within their rights to question why they were earning six times less than the de Boers.

An already contentious issue was further complicated by the fact that the senior players had a say in the club’s pay structure and who earned what. Blind, as captain, was the main commercial negotiator for the players, and had already fallen out with Seedorf over the midfielder’s decision not to sign a new deal and instead head to Serie A.

These issues were exacerbated in the Dutch camp. When Seedorf sought membership of the committee responsible for arranging player bonuses for the national team, he found his request blocked by the KNVB. Meanwhile Hiddink, who was more of a traditionalist than van Gaal, was more inclined to seek the advice of only the elder statesmen of the group – Blind and Ronald de Boer were widely assumed to be in possession of the “asses” in which Davids accused the coach of having his head. The young players felt ignored and unheard. “I don’t want to be seen as a youth player,” bristled Kluivert, “but as an international”. That feeling was shared by Davids and Seedorf, and lit the fuse that resulted in the post-Switzerland explosion.

Happy Families?

After the usual period of soul-searching and introspection that follows a belly flop at an international tournament, clear-the-air talks were held between coaching staff and playing staff. Hiddink remained in post, and all concerned agreed to put Euro ’96 behind them and focus on the World Cup in France.

Healing was a slow process. When the Oranje won a penalty during a stormy 1997 World Cup qualifier in Turkey, Seedorf immediately snatched the ball and insisted on taking it, keen to exorcise his Anfield ghosts. This irked the de Boers, who turned their backs to him as he took the kick. Seedorf skied it. The Dutch lost 1-0.

Things weren’t running smoothly at Ajax, either. Seemingly failing to learn from the Euro ’96 rows, wannabe-Lineker Blind negotiated a sponsorship deal on behalf of the players with crisp purveyors Croky, to use the their likenesses in a series of pogs. However, he’d done so without consulting all members of the squad. Kluivert, Bogarde and defender John Veldman, miffed at again being left out of the initial discussions, refused to sign the contract, threatening to torpedo the deal. Eventually, ‘the Croky Affair’ was settled, and Fred Grim, like Alf, could be enjoyed in pog form – but Ajax’s fourth-placed finish in 1996-97 was their worst since 1964, and Kluivert, Bogarde, Overmars and van Gaal himself would all depart at the end of that season.

Things would improve for the Oranje, however. They topped their qualifying group for France ’98 in relative comfort, that defeat in Turkey the only one they suffered. Though his exile continued through the qualifiers, Davids was welcomed back to the fold before the World Cup. In France, Hiddink’s stylish side fizzed their way to the semi finals. There were redemptive moments for Davids, scorer of the golden goal in the last 16 against Yugoslavia, and Bergkamp (criticised by the Ajax contingent at Euro ’96 for lacking the work rate of Jari Litmanen in the same role), who despatched Argentina in the quarter finals with one of the all-time great World Cup goals. The Netherlands matched Brazil beat-for-beat in the final four before coming unstuck, once again, from 12 yards – but this was a happier, healthier campaign than two years prior.

Or at least it was for the most part…even in the euphoria of the win over Yugoslavia, cameras caught a heated debate amid the celebrations between van der Sar and Bogarde, ending with the goalkeeper attempting to cuff his centre half around the chops.

In the Dutch camp, is it even a party if nobody’s having a row?

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