Once upon a time, there was a Netherlands side that was full of brilliant players, played beautiful football and was widely considered the best team at their World Cup, yet failed to win it. And no, we’re not talking about the 1974 team…
While that side, led by Johan Cruyff, was undoubtedly the greatest the Dutch have ever fielded, which one is second to them is very much open to debate.
Many would say it’s the one that, without Cruyff, reached the World Cup final again four years later and came within literal inches of winning it.
Others would argue for the European Championship-winning 1988 team; after all, they’re the only one that won something.
And some would claim that the class of 1998 was better than both of them, and with good reason.
Looking at the squad that manager Guus Hiddink was taking to France for that year’s World Cup, it was clear to see that Oranje had the quality to go far.
Frank de Boer and Jaap Stam formed a formidable pairing in front of Edwin van der Sar, the midfield options included Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Phillip Cocu and Marc Overmars, and they had two of the best strikers around in Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Kluivert.
While they were one of the strongest nations on paper though, expectations weren’t particularly high with serious doubts about their attitude and unity.
After all, at the European Championships just two years earlier, Hiddink had sent Davids home as something of a civil war erupted in the camp with The Pitbull, Seedorf and Kluivert feeling unappreciated and disrespected by their manager.
Most felt they could perhaps reach the quarter-finals but not any further, and their opening match against Belgium only reinforced such beliefs.
Their neighbours, far weaker then than they are these days, managed to hold them to a 0-0 draw, and Kluivert was sent off with 10 minutes left after elbowing Lorenzo Staelens in a moment of madness.
In the second match against South Korea though, things started to click.
The Dutch dominated from the off, playing some beautiful stuff, and Cocu – playing up front in place of Kluivert – broke the deadlock after 37 minutes with a great strike from the edge of the box, kickstarting their tournament.
Just four minutes later, Overmars doubled the lead, skipping past a defender on the left and firing into the near corner with his right foot to finish off a rapid counter-attack. The floodgates had opened.
They completely controlled the match for the entirety of the second half and went 3-0 up 25 minutes into it courtesy of Bergkamp.
The Arsenal man collected the ball on the edge of the box with his back to goal, turned beautifully to get past one defender, produced a stunning piece of skill to avoid another, and toe-poked past the keeper.
He was then subbed off and his replacement, Pierre van Hoojdonk, got in on the act with his third touch, heading in an Overmars cross, before Ronald de Boer made it five with seven minutes to go.
It was the joint-biggest win of the tournament, and one of the most impressive performances. Hiddink’s boys were up and running.
“I feel the Netherlands were invincible tonight,” said South Korea boss Cha Bum Kun afterwards.
“They kept the ball in the second half and scored excellent goals.
“The Dutch are a very strong team and if they continue playing like they did tonight, I believe they can win the final.”
They picked up where they left off in the final group stage game against Mexico, the team ranked fourth in the world at the time.
Cocu gave them the lead after just four minutes, making no mistake after being played in by an absolutely gorgeous pass from Bergkamp, and De Boer scored his second goal of the tournament 14 minutes later.
They went on to dominate for most of the game but, knowing even a draw would see them top the group, they took their foot off the gas in the latter stages and ended up conceding two goals to draw 2-2. Still, it was a decent display nonetheless.
Next up was Yugoslavia, a team that, with plenty of players from top European clubs, were fancied by many to make a splash in their first major tournament – The New York Times even tipped them to reach the semi-finals.
Nevertheless, the Netherlands were a class above them in the first half and got their reward after 38 minutes when Bergkamp, emerging as one of the tournament’s stars, shrugged off a defender to win a long ball from Frank de Boer and gave his nation the lead.
However, their opponents flew out of the blocks in the second half, equalising after three minutes before missing a penalty straight afterwards.
Oranje regrouped after that and took back control of proceedings, but couldn’t get back ahead, having a goal disallowed. And then a hero came along.
In the 92nd minute, a corner was played to Davids on the edge of the box and, after taking two touches, he rifled it into the bottom corner to set up a heavyweight clash with Argentina.
Gabriel Batistuta and co had beaten England on penalties after topping their group with ease, winning every match – if the Dutch wanted to progress, they’d have to put in their best performance yet, and boy did they.
On a sunny, sweltering evening in Marseille, Kluivert made a dream return from suspension, making no mistake 12 minutes in after being put through on goal by a gorgeous cushioned header from Bergkamp.
Argentina hit back almost immediately though with Claudio Lopez springing the offside trap and firing past Van der Sar.
The pendulum swung back and forth for the rest of the first half with both teams playing good stuff, having their chances but neither finding a second goal. The second half though, was a different story.
From the start of it, the Dutch were simply dazzling, upping the tempo despite the stifling heat and keeping the ball inside Argentina’s half. This was a very good side they were up against, and they were outplaying them.
Like so many Netherlands sides before them though, for all their style they lacked substance, failing to convert their dominance into goals, and it looked like they’d pay the price when Arthur Numan was given a second yellow card with 15 minutes to go.
However, they held out and were very much favourites heading into extra time when Ariel Ortega made it 10 v 10 after headbutting Van der Sar with three minutes to go.
“The Netherlands are going to reach the semi-final, I suddenly have the feeling that we will reach the semi-final,” said Dutch commentator Jack van Gelder, and the rest, as they say, is history.
With the ball at his feet in his own half, Frank de Boer played a 70-yard pass over the top of the Argentina defence into the path of Bergkamp.
The forward plucked it out of the sky with an absolutely astonishing touch, got past the defender with another one and poked the ball into the back of the net to win the match.
It was arguably the greatest goal the Netherlands have ever scored – rivalled only by Marco van Basten’s in the Euro 1988 final – and one of their best performances.
So impressive was it that many now fancied them to go on and become World Champions, even with pre-tournament favourites up next.
The Dutch edged a goalless first half but went behind at the start of the second when Ronaldo, the best player in the world at the time, scored his fourth goal of the tournament.
Asides from that moment though, Hiddink’s side managed to keep him at bay thanks in large part to some stunning interventions from De Boer and Davids, and were the more threatening side for the rest of the match.
Kluivert missed a number of the chances they created but made amends when he headed in a late deserved equaliser to take the game to extra time.
In the 30 minutes that followed, neither side could find a winner, and Brazil would go on to win the shoot-out that followed, with Cocu and Ronald de Boer missing.
It was a heartbreaking end to a glorious week in which they’d gone toe-to-toe with the South American heavyweights and been the better team against both.
Just how good were they is perhaps best shown by the relief the French felt when Brazil made it through.
“I heard after we were knocked out from France players like Marcel Desailly that they thought they were really lucky that we lost to Brazil, so France could avoid playing us in the final,” said Frank de Boer at a later date.
“France thought that we were the strongest team there, along with them.”
24 years on, the view of Desailly is one shared by many, and that’s something to be proud of.
Cruyff once said of the great 1974 side: “Maybe we were the real winners in the end. I think the world remembers our team more.”
In that sense, the team that followed his 24 years later can be considered winners too.
After all, from a summer full of magical moments, few images have endured as much as that of Dennis Bergkamp, floating in the air, about to secure his side’s place in history.