KHARKIV, Ukraine – Asking a question about the heated rivalry between Germany and the Netherlands, a Belgian journalist brought up Rinus Michels’ famous phrase, “Football is war.”
Fierce battles have indeed been played out between the nations, pitting the likes of Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard against Franz Beckenbauer, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Rudi Voller and Berti Vogts at various stages over the last four decades.
But rather than playing up the past bitterness ahead of the teams’ crunch meeting in Kharkiv on Wednesday, German coach Joachim Low did the opposite. He wanted no part of it, and neither did a Dutch reporter who made it clear to Low at the end of the news conference the Dutch had moved on from Michels’ statement.
“I think comments like that are miles away,” Low said Tuesday. “We would not even say something like that. It will be very intense and I think technically will be a good game, but with such phrases or words like, ‘war,’ I don’t want to say anything like that. A lot of players from the Netherlands play in Germany, and I think the respect between our players and the players from the Netherlands is very good.”
Besides, with so much at stake for the Dutch, the Oranje will be focusing on trying to earn three points instead of dwelling on what happened many generations ago. Touted as strong contenders -- if not favorites -- behind Spain and Germany for Euro 2012, Bert van Marwijk's side is now focused on a more humble goal: simply trying to avoid elimination. A loss coupled with a Danish victory against Portugal in the early kickoff Wednesday would give the ‘Oranje’ the blues and a humiliating early exit. Germany would advance.
But there are positives for the Dutch to draw upon. Its free-flowing football created numerous opportunities against Denmark on Saturday, yet the end product was lacking. Surprisingly, Robin van Persie blew at least two golden chances. Not as surprisingly, given his showing in the Champions League final against Chelsea, Arjen Robben also flubbed several opportunities.
With the defeat, whispers of malcontent within the Dutch camp naturally began to surface. Unusually, the squad had been getting along swimmingly since 2010. Creative midfielder Rafael van der Vaart, approaching 100 caps, made it clear he was displeased at starting on the bench. Midfield destroyer Nigel de Jong reportedly felt his fellow holding midfielder, Mark van Bommel, should have been substituted, not him, with the Netherlands chasing the game in the second half.
Some in the Dutch press were also quick to point out van Bommel, 35, stayed on because he’s coach van Marwijk’s son in-law. All that drama needs to be put to the side if the mighty Germans are to be beaten.
“Ahead of a game like this, and surely after a defeat, tensions rise,” the stern van Marwijk said. “For us, likely at home, too, and among all our discerning followers. It sometimes can create irritants. That’s OK. Happens to me, too. But you have to make sure it motivates you even more.”
Low knows the Dutch have the firepower to cruise against any opponent but played down the importance of November’s 3-0 friendly win in Hamburg and continued to say all the right things.
“The way they play are at the absolute top level in the world and have been for many, many years,” Low said. “In a football sense they are a fantastic team. We have to see if we can qualify, so (the pressure on the Dutch) is not really important for us. We have the chance to make the second step, and that’s what we want to do.”
Germany didn’t exactly blow past the Portuguese, mind you, relying on a late goal from Mario Gomez to sink Cristiano Ronaldo and company. Steady for most of the game, Portugal piled on the pressure in the final 15 minutes as it sought an equalizer. Midfield ace Bastian Schweinsteiger has had better games, which he acknowledged as he flanked Low sporting tape on his neck – it was nothing serious – on Wednesday. His season was blighted by a shoulder injury that kept him out for three months, although Schweinsteiger put in a commanding performance in the Champions League final.
“I’m very healthy,” Schweinsteiger said. “I know I have played better, but that comes with the games. I know I will get to my top form. When? I don’t know. But I feel good.”
Managers have been known to bluff before, but given Schweinsteiger’s appearance in the news conference, he likely won’t be dropped in favor of Toni Kroos. Despite the goal, Low hinted after the Portugal game he might start Miroslav Klose and not Gomez. Klose scored one and set up another in November.
Van Marwijk tinkers less, but with the pressure mounting, will he drop van Persie, or play van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar together up front? Will he again start two defensive midfielders? The answer to the latter is probably yes, since the Germans possess more firepower in midfield than Denmark. In good news for van Marwijk, he said Joris Mathijsen would probably return to the center of defense.
Also, the fact that Robben will face several of his Bayern Munich teammates – to start with, three of the back four, plus keeper Manuel Neuer suit up for Bayern – makes for an intriguing subplot.
“Of course we have contact,” Schweinsteiger said. “I often have contact with Arjen and (French midfielder) Franck Ribery.”
Schweinsteiger and Robben were disconsolate when upset by Chelsea in Munich. One will be happier Wednesday.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.