Although matches between the Netherlands and Belgium may not possess quite the same level of rivalry as say Dutch-German meetings, there is no doubting that the Derby der Lage Landen/les Pays-Bas is still of vital importance to both sets of supporters. Even more so when the extra incentive of a place at the World Cup finals is added to the mix, as was the case in the Autumn of 1985. The two-legged play-off between the sides would decide which country would be making the trip to Mexico in 1986. Failure for both just wasn't an option.
The Dutch in particular were in desperate need of the right result. Memories of the Total Football era of the 1970s were fast fading, the 1980s arriving to usher in a period of Dutch disappointment. Failure to qualify for the previous World Cup was a wake-up call, yet it looked as if the wrongs had been righted during the
qualification stages of Euro 1984, the Dutch seemingly assured of a spot in France, barring a miracle in the Spain-Malta match which concluded the group, a game which Spain needed to win by eleven goals to deny the Netherlands. Cue miracle. Somehow the Spanish turned a 3-1 half-time scoreline into a barely believable 12-1 victory, qualifying for Euro 84, and prompting raised eyebrows and broken hearts amongst the Dutch faithful.
When your luck is out, it is out. Manager Kees Rijvers, who had introduced the likes of Gullit, Rijkaard and van Basten to international football, and should have led his country to Euro 84, was now under the cosh. An unenviable position was made even worse, when the Netherlands lost their opening match of the 1986 World Cup qualifying campaign at home to Hungary. Rijvers departed shortly after the defeat, the top club coaches in the country, including Leo Beenhakker, managing to persuade the legendary Rinus Michels to return to the post, in order to provide inspiration, stability, and impetus to the struggling national team.
At first the task looked too much even for Michels. A defeat away in Austria left the Dutch pointless after two matches, and with the clock ticking down in Nicosia, a 0-0 draw against Cyprus seemed destined to end any hope of reaching Mexico. But an 84th minute strike from Peter Houtman put the Dutch train back on track, a turning point for the team.
Just as Dutch fortunes looked to have taken a turn for the better, a spanner was thrown into the works when it was revealed that Michels needed heart surgery and would temporarily be standing down from his role. Beenhakker, who had taken Volendam to third in the Dutch top-flight, became caretaker manager, combining both club and country roles for the rest of the season. It didn't do Volendam any good - they were relegated come the end of the 1984/85 season - yet Beenhakker managed to get the Dutch into second place in Group Five, a 1-0 win against the already qualified Hungarians helping to edge out Austria, and to book a place in the European play-off.
In comparison, Belgium had experienced much more fruitful times. Runners-up in the 1980 European Championships, qualification for Spain 82 and a win over reigning champions Argentina in the opening match of the tournament, and narrowly missing out on a semi-final spot at Euro 84, showed clearly that Belgian football was in a healthy state. Players such as Jean-Marie Pfaff, Eric Gerets, Franky Vercauteren, Jan Ceulemans, and a young Enzo Scifo, gave the team star quality, enabling a relatively small nation to regularly punch above their weight under the expert tutelage of the experienced Guy Thys.
However, the Belgians had made qualification for Mexico that much harder, a shock 2-0 loss away in Albania (Albania's only win in the group), meaning that they travelled to Poland in their final match requiring a win to automatically qualify. A 0-0 draw saw the Belgians miss out on goals scored, setting up the derby dates with the Netherlands in order to decide the 22nd team bound for Mexico.
The match in Poland was Gerets' first for his country for almost two years, a consequence of the Standard Liege-Waterschei match fixing scandal at the conclusion of the 1981/82 Belgian league season. Needing a win on the final day to guarantee the title, various Waterschei players were approached by Gerets - with the blessing of Standard's Administrator Roger Petit and manager Raymond Goethals - with the team offered 420,000 Belgian Francs to throw the game and to go easy on Standard's players who had the European Cup Winners' Cup final with Barcelona to come just four days later.
When news of the story broke in February 1984, the national team was hit hard, skipper Gerets given a three-year ban (later reduced to two years, and then rescinded), hardly ideal preparations for the forthcoming European Championships. As Nottingham Forest fans will no doubt recall though, it was not the only case of corruption in Belgian football during this period.
There was a distinct lack of Belgian fair play come the third minute of the first leg of the play-off at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium in Brussels. Franky Vercauteren, using his years of experience, went head-to-head with Wim Kieft, before hitting the deck theatrically, persuading Italian referee Pietro D'Elia to reach for a red card. Vercauteren, who has since admitted to not being proud of his behaviour, would be a marked man come the return leg in Rotterdam, requiring bodyguards to ensure his safety. But that was in the future; for now, Vercauteren had turned the match decisively in favour of Belgium, and with ten men for the majority of the first leg, it would be a long evening for the Dutch.
The mood of the visitors hardly improved, when after twenty minutes Vercauteren himself scored the only goal of the game, cutting in superbly from the right of the area before crashing in a left foot drive past Hans van Breukelen. Although Kieft's dismissal had left the Netherlands at a major disadvantage, the Belgians could not add to Vercauteren's strike, the visitors probably leaving the field the happier of the two teams. Yet Belgium had crucially won the match without conceding an away goal, and with Kieft and van Basten suspended for the second leg - the latter picking up his second yellow card of the qualification stages - it was definitely advantage Belgium as the teams waited almost a month to meet again in Rotterdam.
The second leg on November 20 would be no less dramatic. On a freezing cold night which saw players on both teams sporting tights and tracksuit bottoms, beautiful football was not the order of the day, the hard pitch making this barely possible. In an atmosphere which could have thawed the playing surface, the occasion was set up for a hero to write his name into the history books, or for a villain to emerge who would be linked to this night forever more.
The two central figures of the evening looked on from the bench during a first half in which Belgium created plenty of chances to kill the tie, Ceulemans and Vercauteren spurning the best opportunities. With the match scoreless at half-time, Beenhakker took a gamble, bringing on Utrecht forward John van Loen for his debut in place of defender Michel van de Korput. It would be a decision that would shape the course of the evening and one that would come back to haunt both Beenhakker and the debutant substitute.
Thys reacted instantly, introducing Georges Grun to the action, assigning the centre-half to mark van Loen, and to deal with the increasing number of long balls the Dutch were desperately launching to the target man. Grun coped admirably, winning numerous aerial battles, and with half an hour remaining, anxiety was spreading through the de Kuip stadium.
Yet in a little over ten minutes the complexion of the play-off changed completely. An error in the 60th minute from Gerets let Rob de Wit escape down the left, his high hanging cross headed in at the far post by Houtman, and when de Wit cracked in a left-footed shot on 72 minutes, the stadium exploded. Once the celebrations had ended, the home support joyously began to sing about Mexico, a party atmosphere breaking out, even though the deal had not quite been sealed.
The enormity of the situation seemed to immediately hit both teams. The Netherlands became edgy, Beenhakker switching Gullit to sweeper for extra protection; Thys went on the front foot, moving Grun up front, in search of the crucial away goal which would clinch it for the Belgians. Belgium swarmed towards the Dutch goal, with van Breukelen pulling off save after save, seemingly denying the visitors a goal that their play had merited on the night. With just five minutes left, the Netherlands were almost there.
And then came one of the most famous goals in Belgian football history, and a moment which would define the careers of both Grun and van Loen. From a Gerets cross, Grun easily beat van Loen in the air, his header past van Breukelen and nestling in the net before the keeper could react. Cue delirium in the small section of terracing housing the Belgian support, and silence and numbness throughout the rest of the stadium. The tie had finished 2-2 on aggregate, but Grun's away goal was effectively the winner.
Beenhakker must have wanted a hole to swallow him up. As the final whistle blew, he did in fact disappear down an escape chute, as a camera zoomed in on the lone man walking down a tunnel of despair, as he started to live with the consequences if his half-time decision.
Naturally the Dutch searched for scapegoats, as any sporting hurt always entails. Beenhakker's deployment of van Loen was the main centre of attention, the Utrecht forward the villain of the piece in the eyes of many. A tough thing for anyone to go through, but the strain on a 20-year-old who had only played 45 minutes of international football, must have been suffocating. It would be three years before van Loen would play for his country again.
Conversely, Georges Grun was now a national hero, and still is to this day. His goal enabled a talented Belgian side to qualify for the 1986 World Cup, a run which would only end at the feet of an inspired Diego Maradona in the semi-finals. Grun's header is part of Belgian folklore; the fact that it knocked their local rivals out of the World Cup making it that much sweeter.
It wasn't all bad for the Netherlands though. After the pain and disappointment of this exit, Michels returned to lead Gullit and co to the 1988 European Championships triumph. You have to experience the lows to appreciate the highs, and after the Maltese and Belgian related depressions of the 1980s, that glorious day in Munich in June 1988, must have felt like heaven to a set of supporters and players that had been through their fair share of suffering.