Moments transcends everything in sport and none more so than in football especially the good ones. Welcome to 'Throwback Thursday', where we take a look at a moment in time, and in this week’s edition, we look at the 1998 World Cup quarter-final and a moment that Netherlands fans will never forget.
It’s the 4th of July 1998 and nothing is more chaotic than the Stade Velodrome in Marseille at that moment in time with the world watching on. This is, after all, a World Cup quarter-finals contested by two of the favourites outside Brazil and France with it being a fixture jam-packed with history. The stadium is still, shocked even and Frank de Boer has the ball at his feet with not an Argentina player in sight allowing the defender to stroll out of his comfort zone.
This is the Netherlands, so everyone’s comfort zone is everywhere on the field, and out walks with the ball at his feet, time ticking down and the referee takes a quick peek at his watch. There will be extra time but as for normal time, this might be it. The final kick of the ball and De Boer continues to inch closer towards the half-line. He stops and is about to fire what can only be called a hail-mary of a pass down field but this is the Netherlands, so every move is calculated. His targets are Patrick Kluivert, Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars and Philip Cocu.
Argentina are still wondering what will happen next but have their entire team inside their own half, so they are happy with De Boer strolling out with the ball. Time has now stopped but before we dive into the climax and reach the end, let’s roll it back and figure out how we got here in the first place. Because as luck would have it, the Netherlands were not supposed to be here in a World Cup quarter-finals although that would apply to the Argentines’ as well.
However, for the Dutch, a ruthless case could be made about their terribleness in the opening stages of the World Cup as they laboured out of the group stages. Somehow despite having Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert, the De Boer twins, Dennis Bergkamp, a young Clarence Seedorf and Edwin van Der Sar amongst others, they struggled. The Dutch had managed just one win in their group stages game and that came in a 5-0 drubbing of South Korea. They would, however, draw against both Belgium and Mexico although with others struggling as well, they finished top of their group based solely on goal difference. That earned them a clash against Group F’s second-seeded Yugoslavia and even that needed Edgar Davids to fire a late hope-for-the-best shot to save the games and take the Euro 1988 winners into the quarter-finals.
Their opponents, on the night, happened to be Argentina and the Albiceleste had a much better time of their games so far. They strolled through the group stages with three wins out of three including handing Jamaica a 5-0 thrashing and beating Davor Suker’s Croatia 1-0. But their round of 16 clash against England was a tale for another day, with Glenn Hoddle’s side magnificent and yet everything seemed to go Argentina’s way. In the end, two missed penalties from England’s Paul Ince and David Batty ensured that Gabriel Batistuta would continue to show off his glorious abilities in France.
That meant the English were supporting the Netherlands and Yugoslavia, for reasons to come, would be supporting Argentina although history was on the Albiceleste’s side. They’ve done this before against the Dutch, the last time the two faced each other in a World Cup. That stage happened to be a World Cup final set in Buenos Aries in a game mired in controversy although the talking point, and a moment that still haunted the Netherlands was Rob Rensenbrink’s miss in the 90th minute. With a clean chance to hand the Dutch their first-ever World Cup, Rensenbrink’s shot cannons off the post.
The Argentines score twice in extra and send the Dutch into a deep depression as they failed to make the next two World Cups before getting knocked out in the round of 16 and the quarter-finals at the 1990 and the 1994 World Cups respectively. But for Dennis Bergkamp, watching Rob Rensenbrink miss his chance in the 1978 World Cup was one of his first footballing memories. The Dutchman admits as much in an interview that has now disappeared in the chaos that is the interweb but believe for it is true and that weighed heavily on him. You see, the soon to be Arsenal legend walked into the tournament as one of the best players in the world alongside fellow Arsenal and Netherlands forward Marc Overmars.
The two had played a key part in the Gunners doing the Double over Manchester United with the North London side lifting their first Premier League title in over seven years. Bergkamp would finish the season with 20 goals and 11 assists in all competitions, form that Netherlands’ boss Frank Rijkaard hoped he would take into the 1998 World Cup. And he would with goals and assists against South Korea, Mexico and Yugoslavia but his impact was waning across the field and this game defined that rather brilliantly. Although technically, Bergkamp shouldn’t even have been playing this game after his antics against Yugoslavia.
The Dutchman, in a moment that shocked fans, Bergkamp stamped on Sinisa Mihajlovic five days before the clash against Argentina which should have seen him sent off. But the referee thought otherwise and the forward stayed on the field, finished the game and would go onto the play the clash against Argentina. Yet, problems started with Marc Overmars unable to start after he tweaked his hamstring and thus the game began with Bergkamp and Patrick Kluivert playing as the two forwards with Cocu and Ronald de Boer on either side.
However, the first half was cagey and beyond boring with neither side getting off to a great start before Ronald de Boer, dances past a couple of challenges and pings a 25-yard pass towards Bergkamp inside the box. The Dutchman then, in one of the assists in football history, slices open Argentina’s defense with a deftly taken header to allow Kluivert to smash home the opener. And that was all Bergkamp did for the game with him struggling to impose himself although the same couldn’t be said about Argentina. They equalised minutes later via Claudio Lopez meaning that the game was level.
Not for a lack of chances, however, with both sides getting their fair opportunities. Ortega smashed the post just before half time, Diego Simeone hit the sky a couple of times and Wim Jonk had a few pops at Carlos Roa in the Argentina goal but the breakthrough simply wouldn’t come. The second half arrives and it’s more of the same, chances for both sides but neither taking it although a flurry of yellow cards for Argentina certainly livens up the game. So does Marc Overmars’ appearance and Bergkamp still can’t find his way into the game with the mercurial Dutchman struggling to do much with the ball.
He’s given it away more than a few times and then the Dutch were sent down to ten men. Numan was off for a second bookable offense and Bergkamp’s game goes from bad to worse. The Dutchman touches the ball thrice in the next eleven minutes with the first one conceding a throw-in. His second one launches an Argentina counter which sees Ariel Ortega sent off for an intentional headbutt on Van der Sar. The game moves on, after protest and Bergkamp’s third touch creates another Argentina break. The Dutch win the ball back, Rijkaard looks like he’s considering removing Bergkamp from the field and Frank de Boer has the ball.
The centre-back has been his usual solid self during this game with him creating more than a few chances with a few long balls forward, which is probably why Argentina are sitting inside their own half. De Boer is allowed to stride out with two men in Albiceleste blue behind him although neither seem too interested in pressing the defender. There are three more Argentina players in front of him but again nobody is interested in pressing him and we’re into the 90th minute of this game with extra-time beckoning. De Boer looks up and just like that, time stops as he swings his boot and fires a hail-mary downfield.
But this is the Netherlands, a team build upon the dreams of Johan Cryuff, so no pass is every created in a hurry or in a moment of panic. It’s perfectly orchestrated down to the slightest detail and never more so in a World Cup quarter-finals. Welcome to a moment in history.