Euro 1988 is remembered by most football fans for many different reasons. The magnificent French side of 1984, led by a footballing genius Michel Platini, became only the third team in the history of the European Championship to fail to even attempt to defend their crown, as Les Bleus failed to qualify for the 1988 edition held in West Germany.
After missing the last three major tournaments, the Netherlands had made their long-awaited return with a team very similar to the dream team of Johan Cruijff in the 1970s. This time it was the best footballer in Europe at the time, Marco van Basten, who took over the baton from his legendary compatriot, seeking to end the Oranje’s title drought at the fourth attempt. A competitive comeback by the Dutch was also expected to revive the deep-rooted rivalry between them and West Germany, with the latter seen as clear favorites to win the Euros.
The 1988 tournament also marked the end of the existence of several footballing superpowers that had been part of football’s historical map for decades. In the late 1980s, Europe was on the verge of major political changes that would lead to a re-division of geographical regions a few years later. Consequently, Euro 1988 was the last international tournament in which the national teams of West Germany, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia took part, as the reunification of Germany and the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia wiped out these national teams in the early 1990s.
After changes were made for the 1984 tournament in France, the eighth edition of the competition retained its format of four years ago due to its success. The eight teams that made it to the final tournament were divided into two groups of four, with the top two finishers in each group advancing to the Semi-Finals. Only the host country West Germany, Denmark and Spain had qualified for the second European Championship in a row, with the remaining five teams absent from France ‘84.
Rinus Michels, the coach who almost led the Oranje to World Cup glory in 1974, had made his return for Euro 1988. The inventor of a famous style of play known as “Total Football”, Michels had an equally talented group of players at his disposal compared to when he was in charge of the Dutch national team at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany.
Ronald Koeman and the Milan trio Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten were the household names of this Dutch team. However, the likes of Hans van Breukelen and Berry van Aerle, who had just won the European Cup with PSV Eindhoven a few weeks before Euro 88, and the Ajax trio Jan Wouters, John van ‘t Schip and Arnold Muhren were also indispensable for the Netherlands to achieve what they had set out to prior to the tournament.
The Oranje began their Euro 1988 campaign with a game against the Soviet Union, which was the Soviets first tournament appearance since 1972. Although West Germany were considered clear favorites to win the European Championship title, the Dutch were unable to escape the hype that surrounded them before the tournament, which certainly had a negative effect on their performance against the Soviets. The 1960 European Champions managed to successfully shut down the offensive efforts from the Dutch and secured a narrow 1-0 victory thanks to Vasyl Rats’ goal in the early minutes of the second half.
The opening day defeat meant there was no turning back for Michels’ side in their second group game against England. The Three Lions had also suffered an unexpected defeat in their opening match against tournament debutant Ireland, making England versus the Netherlands a decisive clash. After an uneventful performance against the Soviets, the Dutch needed their big guns to deliver on biggest stage. Up stepped Van Basten, as the Milan star netted his first international hat-trick for the Oranje to send the English home.
However, the Dutch had immediately come to realization that their spectacular victory over England would mean nothing if they failed to overcome the Irish challenge in the final group game. The European Championship debutant had secured an impressive one-all draw against the Soviets, giving them a one-point lead over the Dutch ahead of their head-to-head clash in Gelsenkirchen. The Irish were eight minutes away from causing one of the biggest shocks in European Championship history, but the PSV Eindhoven striker Wim Kieft ensured the Netherlands’ second ever semi-final appearance with his only goal of the tournament.
By contrast, the battles in Group 1 were far less dramatic, with both the 1980 European Champions West Germany and the 1982 World Cup winners Italy qualifying for the semi-finals with little trouble. The opening group match between the two football superpowers ended in a 1-1 draw, which put Spain in a favorable position following their 3-2 win over Denmark. Nonetheless, the Spaniards had a tough time in yet another major tournament as they lost the next two crucial matches against West Germany and Italy, who ended up sharing the top two spots in the group.
Fourteen years later, albeit in the Semi Finals, the Dutch finally had a chance to get revenge on West Germans for their painful 1974 World Cup final defeat. Franz Beckenbauer’s side were considered the clear favorite for the tournament, led by the best front two in the world at the time in Rudi Voller and Jurgen Klinsmann. But neither Voller nor Klinsmann took center stage in Hamburg on 21 June – Europe’s golden boy Van Basten stunned the 50,000-plus crowd when his goal two minutes from time sent the Dutch into their first ever European Championship Final.
The first 45 minutes saw both teams involved in some on-field altercations between players, as the severe tension of the game prevented the Germans and Dutch from showing their true ability. The breakthrough came ten minutes into the second half though when Frank Rijkaard committed a foul on Jurgen Klinsmann inside the box, and the referee pointed to the spot. Lothar Matthaus confidently converted the first and only penalty of the tournament, putting West Germany in the driving seat.
Twenty minutes later, the Netherlands were again involved in a penalty incident, but this time on the opposite end. Jurgen Kohler and Van Basten both went for the ball inside the penalty area, with the German defender just barely touching the Dutch striker, prompting the referee to blow his whistle and point to the spot for the second time in the match. Up stepped the set-piece specialist Koeman, making it 1-1.
Just when it looked like the game was heading into extra time, Van Basten decided otherwise. Jan Wouters, the Dutch midfield commander, picked up the ball inside West Germany’s half and slipped it through to the Milan superstar. Van Basten unleashed a slow but well-placed shot into the bottom right corner that saw go past Eike Immel. The home crowd was stunned as the Dutch finally got their long-awaited revenge.
After defeating West Germany in the Semi-Finals, the Netherlands had to face the Soviet Union – who had comfortably topped Italy in their Semi by 2-0 – for the second time in the tournament. Fourteen years after the Dutch dream team, led by Cruijff, was beaten by West Germany in Munich’s Olympiastadion, the Dutch managed to cure their deep wounds of old in the Final at the same venue.
In the 33rd minute of the game, the Netherlands took the lead through a brilliant header by captain Ruud Gullit. Then, nine minutes into the second half, one of the most memorable moments in football history was to follow. Arnold Muehren’s ball seemed too long for Van Basten, but the Milan superstar decided to take his cross on the volley. From an almost impossible angle, he managed to beat Rinat Dasayev, who was perhaps the world’s best goalkeeper at the time. Partly because of its significance, Van Basten ‘s goal is still considered one of the finest ever scored.
Shortly after the Dutch doubled their lead, Hans van Breukelen committed a careless foul inside the Netherlands’ penalty box, leaving the French referee with no choice but to award a penalty to the Soviets. However, the PSV Eindhoven keeper immediately redeemed himself by stopping Igor Belanov’s spot kick, after which the Soviets practically hung out the white flag. The Dutch lifted their first and only major international trophy to date.
With five goals, Van Basten became the top scorer of Euro 1988. The flying Dutchman also won the Ballon d’Or that year for his successes with Milan and the national team.
Read the previous episodes of our History of the UEFA Euro:
1960, The Humble Beginnings
1964, Spain’s Forgotten Glory
1968, A Year of Firsts and Lasts
1972, Dream Debut for West Germany
1976, The Year of The Panenka
1980, The Belgium Challenge
1984, Platini’s Edition to Remember