Football: New order meets age concern

FIRST NIGHT: frank rijkaard AND ericH ribbeck: Holland turned to youth, Germany to experience. Andrew Longmore examines the after-effects
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The Independent Online
In the clutter of international fixtures, the first post-World Cup meeting between two great European football nations, both under the guidance of new coaches, holds a particular significance. Franz Beckenbauer once referred to Holland v Germany as "football in its pure form". But there has always been more to the rivalry than a celebration of diverse footballing cultures. "Those matches have cost me years of my life," he added. "They breathed football of class, emotion and unprecedented tension. I wouldn't have missed them for anything."

Some of those qualities were evident in the condemned old Parkstadion in Gelsenkirchen on Wednesday night. But if the class came almost solely from the Dutch, the tension was markedly absent. It is not just the players who seem to be suffering from post-Mondial blues. The Germans are suffering an identity crisis; the Dutch, without Dennis Bergkamp, Ronald de Boer and Edgar Davids, were too busy exploring their own talents. Though the ground, only about 40 kilometres across the Dutch-German border in the heart of the Ruhr, was two-thirds orange, the historic enmity which has too often justified the violent excesses of both sets of supporters was confined to a hearty whistling of the other's anthem. In the footballing cold war between the two countries, during the late Eighties and early Nineties, the Dutch imposed a ban on shirt-swapping. On Wednesday, the fact that most players kept their own shirts at the final whistle was down more to the danger of frostbite than lingering ill-feeling.

Only Lothar Matthaus remains from the old guard and his role as the archetypal Teutonic footballer is more of a walk-on part these days. Mostly, he has a job catching his breath. More than once during a prolonged examination of German resilience, he must have looked across at Frank Rijkaard, the new coach of Holland, sitting snugly on the opposition bench, and wondered whether his decision to postpone international retirement had been wise. At 36, Rijkaard is a year younger than Matthaus. More importantly, he is just over half the age of his opposite number, the greying 61-year- old Erich Ribbeck. True to form, Germany have gone for stolidity, Holland for flair.

The choice of both men was a surprise. Rijkaard was considered too inexperienced; Ribbeck too dog-eared. Ribbeck was dismissed as coach of Bayer Leverkusen two years ago and has been languishing at Tenerife. Rijkaard's sudden elevation into the Dutch coaching hierarchy before the World Cup was widely regarded as a matter of political convenience. Racial divisions had split the Dutch squad in England at the last European Championships and Rijkaard's mixed background - Dutch father and Dutch West Indian mother - allied to his universal popularity made him the ideal go-between for the two factions. Rijkaard certainly took little overt part in Holland's training sessions during the World Cup. Ronald Koeman was the chief cone- gatherer and the more likely successor to the impressive Guus Hiddink. Rijkaard, it was said, had the playing credentials, but lacked the charisma to take on such a high-profile job. Recent stories about his problems with the tax authorities in Italy have already made him more defensive.

"No one is quite sure about Frank," as one Dutch journalist said. "He either has a very strong vision of how he wants the Dutch team to play or no idea at all. It is difficult to tell because he is so quiet and laid back." The true measurement will not come until Holland co-host the European Championships in 2000, though more evidence of the Rijkaard coaching philosophy emerged in Gelsenkirchen. "It's more important to me how our football looks," he said. On style, Holland won hands down. In the more common currency of goals, the score was 1-1.

As someone who rarely confused style and substance in his playing days, the main task for Rijkaard will be to graft a killer instinct on to the Dutch love of a trick. With a goalscorer of Marco van Basten's brilliance, the answer was self- explanatory. Patrick Kluivert's technique and temperament are still unproven and no other natural striker has yet emerged to inherit van Basten's mantle, though Ruud van Nistelrooy of PSV, the leading scorer in the Dutch league, made an eye-catching debut in place of Bergkamp. Hiddink's solution, once Kluivert was suspended, was to play Bergkamp as the furthest forward of a posse of midfielders. The style relied on swift passing and dazzling movement and reached its ultimate expression in the five goals scored against South Korea in Marseilles, each one by a different player.

Bobby Robson, at present in his second spell at PSV, has had a unique insight into the Dutch way of football. "Their football is based on possession," he said. "Possession with a bit of style, that's the formula. But sometimes that means they lack a bit of penetration. They play the ball around when an English player might take a bit more of a chance. They love to show you the superiority of their technique, forgetting sometimes that goals are the only way to show real superiority." Against Germany, Holland should have gone in at half-time with a three-goal lead. Instead, their one goal stemmed from a blunder by Oliver Kahn, the German goalkeeper, who punched a 30-yard shot by Michael Reiziger into his own net.

Within seven minutes of the restart, Germany were level and there they resolutely stayed, though outclassed in almost every aspect. Rijkaard complimented the Germans on their energy, a remark which would once have seemed patronising but betrayed no malice. While forever remembered and, in some quarters, revered for spitting at Rudi Voller during their second- round match at the 1990 World Cup, Rijkaard was never a disciple of the "football as war" school of thought.

If Rijkaard has a little fine- tuning to perform on his Dutch sports car, Ribbeck faces a complete overhaul of the German diesel. It was fitting that the match should be staged as a farewell to the Parkstadion, which is to be replaced by a new all-seater stadium with a retractable roof as part of the bid for the 2006 World Cup, and that the road leading to the stadium should be lined with ageing power stations. There could be no more apt metaphor for the present parlous state of the German team. Defeat by Croatia supposedly banished the old order, yet five of the starting line-up in Gelsenkirchen were thirtysomethings.

One comic passage of play which included a clearance against his own man by Matthaus, a fearful miskick and then a dreadful backpass by Andy Moller brought howls of derision from the Dutch and an embarrassed silence from the small bank of German fans. The players know Germany has lost confidence in its team and Ribbeck is not universally regarded as the right man for the restoration. Christian Worns, who was with Ribbeck at Leverkusen, condemned him as the worst coach he has had in his career.

It is inconceivable that they will not qualify for Euro 2000. But good judges say this is the poorest German side for 40 years and there is not even a Breitner or a Brehme in sight, let alone a Beckenbauer. In the Parkstadion, Rijkaard stayed quietly in the dug-out, a good 20 yards from the action; Ribbeck sat hunched in a plastic seat at the side of the pitch. But there is no doubt which of them has the better long-term view.

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