James Lawton: Beware the heirs of Cruyff and Bergkamp

The Dutch can wake up in the morning disliking the hotel decor and go on strike

It says a lot for the enduring genius of Dutch football that atonement for atrocious deeds and sometimes near unbelievable anarchy is never too far around the corner.

However badly they stain a brilliant if frustrating tradition – and nothing could have been worse than their thuggish attempt to neutralise Spanish brilliance in the last World Cup final – they carry always the means of redemption.

Tonight at Wembley, for example, England's besieged caretaker Stuart Pearce may have to pay a crushing price after days of scavenging for players who might not be automatically dwarfed by a call to share the field with such as Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben.

As a harbinger of possibilities at this summer's European Championship, tonight's game might have little relevance, no more than England's friendly match wins over Spain and Sweden, but the odds are we will at least glimpse something long enshrined in the records of international football. It is that the Netherlands, from the dazzling appearance of the young Johan Cruyff and through such masters as Neeskens, Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard and Bergkamp, retain a quality to threaten the world.

But for the 1988 European Championship, it has remained a threat, a promise of another football planet, and the accumulation of failed ambition had that soul-destroying denouement in the Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg when Bert van Marwijk's team produced a Doomsday version of the old concept of total football.

Yet if Dutch stock has slipped since then, with a 3-0 thrashing by young Germany pushing them into third place in the list of favourites for Euro 2012, they are never a team to discount. They are too ornery for that, too perverse in their judgement of when to play and when not. The history of Dutch football is riddled with such inconsistency and it was never more so than in Euro 96 when they came to play England at Wembley in a state of civil war.

"You never know with the Dutch," said one old pro after England's 4-1 victory and brilliant performances from Teddy Sheringham and Alan Shearer. "They can wake up in the morning disliking the hotel decor and then go on strike."

Two years later, they seemed to have the World Cup at their mercy after a superb victory over Argentina and a goal from Dennis Bergkamp that carried the game into the realm of fantasy. Yet before the semi-final with Brazil, Johan Neeskens, now an assistant coach, confided to a Dutch journalist: "Everything depends on whether Bergkamp plays." The startled hack said that he was unaware that Bergkamp was injured. "He isn't," said Neeskens. "I said it depends on whether he plays, really plays."

He didn't and Brazil were beaten in the final by Zinedine Zidane in the Stade de France.

The biggest pratfall, of course, came in Munich in 1974 when the great West German team of Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller were run ragged by an exultant Cruyff before the Dutch decided that victory was not enough – they also had to humiliate their bitter foes. They paid with the first of three World Cup final defeats.

Yet three years later, on their way to the 1978 World Cup final against Argentina in Buenos Aires, the Netherlands showed precisely why the world crown would have sat so easily on their shoulders. They did it with their only victory at Wembley – the score was a mere 2-0 but long before the end most everybody, and not least the ill-fated England manager Don Revie, tired of measuring the distance between the teams.

On the same night Cruyff's Barcelona had scheduled a prestige friendly with Paris St-Germain and demanded compensation for the money they would lose by releasing the Golden Dutchman. The payment, of around £30,000, delivered one of the finest exhibitions ever seen in the great stadium.

At the Nou Camp three days earlier Cruyff's dismissal from a league match with Malaga provoked a riot – and the surreal sight of a large man on crutches leading the charge on to the field and in pursuit of the referee. At the climactic moment, the assailant brought back his arm and released one of his crutches. He then slowly toppled on to his back.

As the riot reached a peak – and television vans were burnt – Cruyff shrugged and assured the English public that he would present himself at Wembley.

Jan Peters, who would prove a peripheral figure in the Dutch team, scoring four goals in 31 appearances, scored twice at Wembley but it would always be Cruyff's game. He barely crossed the halfway line but he pulled every string. It was a performance of astonishing vision and touch. It was Dutch football at its most sublime, rising from the perversity and the flames.

It was reason enough for forgiveness – as we may be reminded tonight.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine