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.

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape