Iconic image of Italia 90 involves a real mouthful

Clash between Rudi Völler and Frank Rijkaard in World Cup second round game concludes with an unjust sending off of the German and spit by the Dutch defender

 

A sort of photographic antithesis of Bobby Moore’s post shirt-swap embrace with Pelé in 1970, it is one of the iconic World Cup images. Four years after the photograph was taken, it was further seared on the collective football consciousness when the author and journalist Simon Kuper used it to illustrate the cover of his award-winning bestseller Football Against The Enemy.

The snap in question? Rudi Völler standing in thoughtful meditation with his hands on his hips in the immediate aftermath of one of the most unjust dismissals in World Cup history, while over his right shoulder, his Dutch rival Frank Rijkaard looks to be inspecting the massive golly he had just violently expectorated and left dangling from the back of the German striker’s perm like a Christmas tree bauble.

“If I spit they will take my spit and frame it as great art,” Pablo Picasso once said. Rijkaard’s gob into Völler’s head may have been a masterpiece of a fairly unpleasant genre but was never heralded as great art. It did, however, contrive to make global headlines, earning the defender the nickname “Llama” in honour of the South American camelid’s prodigious ability for hurling projectiles manufactured from saliva.

Apologised It was an uncharacteristically vile act performed by a man almost universally held in the highest of regard and one for which he later apologised. Völler accepted Rijkaard’s mea culpa and the incident was later put to bed when the pair agreed to break bread – and spread butter – together for a TV commercial.

The rivalry between the Netherlands and West Germany, as they were then known, was and remains notoriously fierce. The mutual loathing of both teams and sets of fans intensified after “The Mother of all Defeats”, when the Germans famously triumphed over the Dutch in the 1974 World Cup final.

At the 1980 European Championships, German goalkeeper Toni Schumacher was assaulted by Huub Stevens in another German victory, while the Dutch exacted some measure of revenge eight years later, when Marco van Basten sent them through to the final at Germany’s expense on a night when Ronald Koeman enraged German sensibilities by pretending to wipe his backside with Olaf Thon’s shirt. One did not need to be a rune-reader to predict their meeting in the second round of Italia 90 was likely to be spicy. Like most matches between the sides it was a bad-tempered affair.

“I’m just finding it in a way a little bit disappointing that Frank Rijkaard, who is also such a talented player, seems today to have such a negative role, just looking after [Jürgen] Klinsmann,” said the ITV commentator Brian Moore, as the clock ticked towards the 20-minute mark. A moment later the subject of Moore’s disappointment “looked after” Klinsmann’s strike partner Völler, putting a stop to the striker’s gallop with a scything challenge.

The challenge earned Rijkaard a booking from the Argentinian referee, Juan Carlos Loustau. It was his second of the tournament and meant he would miss the quarter-final should they progress.

Maddened by his entirely deserved punishment, Rijkaard was enveloped in red mist and, as he jogged past Völler to take up his position for Andy Brehme’s free-kick, he spat in the German’s carefully coiffured mullet. Verbals between the pair ensued, at which point Loustau booked Völler, ignoring the German’s incredulity and accompanying invitation to examine the gobbet of spittle that had recently been deposited in his hair.

With order of a sort restored, Völler appeared to explain to his strike partner Klinsmann that he had been spat at, then took up his position for the free.

Floated into the area by Brehme, the ball was nodded towards the edge of the six-yard box, where the goalkeeper Hans van Breuckelen grabbed it, having dashed off his line to do so.

Having followed in to contest the ball, Völler appeared to do all he could to avoid clattering Van Breuckelen in mid-air but an incensed Rijkaard attempted to drag Völler to his feet by the ear, then stamped on his foot, prompting the German to fall to the ground.

With Van Breuckelen and Klinsmann valiantly attempting to act as peace-makers, Loustau promptly brandished his red card in the direction of Rijkaard, before turning and showing it to Völler too. The hard done by German could scarcely have looked more appalled and to this day remains mystified by the official’s decision to issue him with his marching orders. ‘Problematic’ “Of course it wasn’t nice what Frank Rijkaard did but the match should have continued for me,” he said years later in an interview with FourFourTwo magazine. “I still can’t understand why the ref sent me off and I guess he will take it to his grave. He wanted to make an example of both of us so that the situation would calm down – which did work. There was some venom before between other players but, you know, it’s always problematic between Germany and the Netherlands.”

With Völler standing there stoically pondering the injustice of it all, Rijkaard was lurking in the background, studiously clearing his mucous membranes by hoiking up the mother of all grollies. As he walked past Völler en route to the dressing room, he casually turned his head and flobbed the mouthful of slimy gloop he had just harvested from his nasal turbinate straight into his rival’s hair.

Völler’s head snapped to the right as he glared at his opponent, then rubbed his hand through his curls in an attempt to locate the offending phlegm, which could be seen dangling from the back of his head.

As Rijkaard was being escorted up the touchline towards the dressing rooms by a Dutch team official, Völler broke into a jog, looking for all the world as if he might attack his saliva-spewing assailant and prompt all hell to break loose. Rather disappointingly he chose to be the bigger man and merely cantered past his rival without even a sideways look. Electronic pen On RTÉ the incident was replayed time and again, mainly for yuks and giggles. As Bill O’Herlihy tut-tutted in a fatherly and faux po-faced fashion, Eamon Dunphy got to work with his new toy, an electronic pen with which he could enhance and illustrate his analysis by drawing white lines, circles, arrows and squiggles on a monitor after pausing the VT with an often aggressive roar of “Stop it there!” at some unseen flunkie in the production suite.

Dunphy’s analysis of the incident was peerless and priceless. “Rijkaard launches the spit from here, now stop it there,” he observed, before getting to work with his magic pen and charting the trajectory of the offending gully with an illustrative squiggle. “There it is, Bill. It’s hitting his head there and that’s bad news for Rudi Völler and even worse news for his hairdresser!”

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