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The first thing you notice re-watching a soccer game from 22 years ago is how slow it is. How much space there is. How unskilled some of the most technical players of their age looked at times – the heavy touches, mishit passes, wayward crosses.
Granted, the Argentina-Netherlands quarterfinal at the 1998 World Cup was played on July 4 in Marseille, in the dead of the southern French summer, inexplicably kicking off at 4.30 p.m. with the mid-afternoon heat still searing, even though the other game that day wouldn’t kick off until 9 p.m.
All the same, this game holds up as a World Cup classic. Because it had everything. Two talented teams with perfectly juxtaposed stylistic sensibilities. A packed, heaving Stade Velodrome with 55,000 clad in orange or white and baby blue. A bounty of scoring chances. Three shots off the post. A wondergoal. Two red cards. A late winner.
And here’s a thing that will surprise you – it astounded me, anyway. This rematch of the 1978 World Cup final – suspiciously won, in the eyes of this Dutchman, in extra-time by the Argentine home team, which pretty much had to win to keep the Videla regime in power amid ongoing protests against its many cruelties, and was consequently afforded all manner of advantages to accomplish this – happened closer to that fateful game than the present day.
Another remarkable tidbit: This was only the fifth Dutch appearance at a World Cup. Oranje didn’t make its debut until 1974, Total Footballing its way right to the final, where it lost to the hosts West Germany. Four years later, it again lost the final to the hosts.
But the Dutch missed the 1982 and 1986 World Cups. They stranded in the round of 16 in Italy in 1990 and the quarterfinals at USA ’94. After going out in the quarterfinals of Euro ’96 – to France on penalties – as well, there was talk of a “quarterfinal complex.”
Argentina, for its part, was a global superpower, winning the World Cup in ’78 and ’86 and reaching a third final in four editions in 1990, while winning Copa America in 1991 and ‘93. But at the 1998 World Cup, it barely scraped through to the quarterfinals after arch rivals England took them to penalty kicks, in spite of David Beckham’s red card early in the second half for kicking out.
As such, manager Daniel Passarella’s side had played 30 more minutes than Guus Hiddink’s and had one less day of rest. The Dutch had been spared extra time by Edgar Davids’ 92nd-minute winner over Yugoslavia in the round of 16 – after he’d begged to be substituted because of cramps but was ignored.
But then the Argentines, who mostly played their club soccer in Italy, were far more accustomed to playing in the heat than the Dutch. The Netherlands also couldn’t start the injured Marc Overmars, the speedster winger who’d been replaced – controversially, but more on that in a little – by Patrick Kluivert, while Clarence Seedorf was benched in favor of Wim Jonk. In spite of a mere three days of rest, on the back of a long club season, Argentina made just one switch: Roberto Sensini for Nelson Vivas in the back line.
Setting the tone for a scintillating game, Jonk hit the post in the midst of a flurry of Dutch chances in the Argentine box in just the fifth minute. And then the first goal was scored in the 12th. Ronald de Boer juked through several Argentines in the midfield and whipped a low cross at Dennis Bergkamp, who delicately headed the ball into the path of Kluivert for him to dink it past Carlos Roa with a single touch.
A note here on Kluivert: While he’d grow into one of the best strikers of his generation at FC Barcelona, it wasn’t at all clear yet that he’d ever deliver on his vast potential in the summer of 1998. He’d just endured a miserable first (and only) season at AC Milan after joining from Ajax. And earlier that year, prosecutors had dropped a case brought against Kluivert and three friends for raping a woman. Just two years before that, Kluivert had caused a traffic accident that killed another driver. He was, then, persona non grata to a lot of people in the Netherlands, who were none too happy to see him in the national team.
At any rate, Juan Veron came within inches of redirecting in the equalizer for Argentina. But on the very next play, the Dutch offside trap broke down when Jaap Stam stepped late on Claudio Lopez, who was through all alone on Edwin van der Sar. Lopez calmly faked and faked again, and then rolled the ball through the goalkeeper’s legs to equalize in the 17th minute.
While the Dutch took control of the match, Ariel Ortega and Gabriel Batistuta ripped shots off the Dutch post either side of halftime, while Oranje came close on a series of headers, setting up a spectacular finale.
A tipping point seemed to arrive after 75 minutes, when Dutch defender Arthur Numan clattered through Diego Simeone and got his second yellow card. That’s when the Albiceleste finally seemed to seize the initiative, pushing for a winner. But the numbers were evened again in the 87th minute. Van der Sar rushed out to confront Ortega for diving on Stam’s challenge in the box. Ortega then violently headbutted van der Sar in the chin as he stood up and was sent off as well.
And, in the 90th minute, it happened. That’s when, after an hour and a half of fevered anticipation, the soccer gods gave us one of their finest creations. With time running out, Frank de Boer sauntered up the field and casually dispatched a pinpoint long ball into the path of Dennis Bergkamp, who’d had a fairly anonymous game.
Bergkamp cushioned the ball with the tip of his toes, cut inside Roberto Ayala and curled past Roa with the outside of his right foot. Running away, he covered his face in disbelief at what he’d just done, the genius he’d summoned, in that one of all moments.
And so ended my favorite game.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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