Dutch aim to add art to aggro once again
Can the Netherlands finally prove they can mix beauty with bruises in an attempt to bounce back from the shame of Johannesburg two years ago
Tournaments used to have clichés. The Germans will come through as smoothly and efficiently as any engine produced by Mercedes. England will perform abjectly until the final match when they will go down heroically. Spain will be humiliated and the Dutch will lose beautifully.
These truisms have come undone. The Germans are thrilling but erratic. England did indeed perform abjectly in South Africa but saved their worst 'til last. Spain are World and European champions and, although the Netherlands lost the World Cup final in Johannesburg, the lasting image was that of Nigel de Jong's boot planted into Xavi Alonso's chest.
That Bert van Marwijk's side reached the final was scarred by the way in which they appeared to want to kick their way to the trophy. Even in their golden years, they could mix it – as anyone who saw them finish the 1976 European Championship semi-final with nine men might testify. But there was always beauty melded in with the bruises.
There used to be another Dutch tradition; they loved to talk, often destructively. However, their press conference before they opened their campaign in Kharkiv lasted a mere eight minutes and Van Marwijk was openly irritated by questions about the racial abuse some of his players had received during an open training session in Krakow on Thursday.
Although it was confirmed as racist by Uefa, the Dutch manager said he had heard nothing untoward and dismissed the question when it was put a second time. The fact the chief complainant was Mark van Bommel, his captain and son-in-law who was sat next to him, made his brusqueness all the starker.
With the exception of Giovanni van Bronckhorst, who announced his retirement on the sound of Howard Webb's final whistle, the players that will face Denmark this evening will be essentially the same that collapsed exhausted to the pitch at Soccer City.
For some, the motivation will be intense. The only way Klaas Jan Huntelaar will come to terms with his omission from a World Cup final will be to seize this moment. For all the giddying estimations of his self-worth that finally repelled Manchester United last summer, Wesley Sneijder has spent a season on the margins as Internazionale worked their way chaotically through three managers. And then there is Arjen Robben.
When at the end of Bayern Munich's titanic semi-final with Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho came into the away dressing room to congratulate Jupp Heynckes' players, Robben was deeply impressed. "There is," he said. "An art to losing."
If so, then Robben is in danger of becoming a Rembrandt. As he sat slumped in his chair during the post-match sponsors banquet that Bayern Munich had somewhat unwisely, somewhat arrogantly, scheduled directly after the European Cup final, he was reflecting on his fourth successive final defeat.
The one in Munich, the "home final" still stings like an ulcer. "The penalty saved by Petr Cech will always be with me," he said. "The disappointment that Bayern suffered is still there. I don't like the fact that people say I fail in finals but it is something that is following me now. This is a chance to put that right."
In contrast to the dressing room that Mourinho entered, the one in the Allianz Arena was in the words of everyone there, entirely silent. Franck Ribéry said he felt broken. Robben, his midfield partner and a man he has come to despise, said there was nothing but emptiness for days afterwards.
The way Van Marwijk's side recovered from the despair of Johannesburg points its own road. They reeled off nine straight victories in qualification, scoring more goals than anyone else. The thrashings handed out to Hungary and Sweden made their own points.
It is likely they will continue to make them. In South Africa, two of Van Marwijk's key players were De Jong and Van Bommel, who between them in Port Elizabeth produced the kind of hard victory over Brazil that might have come from a German side circa 1996.
Now, it is once more the turn of the artists or rather the son of a Rotterdam artist in the shape of Robin van Persie, although the question for Van Marwijk as he settled into the team hotel in what was the most ruined and fought-over city of the Second World War is whether he should play at all.
Van Marwijk favours a single striker with three attacking midfielders behind him – usually Sneijder, Robben and Barcelona's Ibrahim Affellay, who was part of the Feyenoord youth team when Van Marwijk was taking them to the Uefa Cup final.
The choice of centre-forward seems to lie squarely between Van Persie and Huntelaar, the top-scorers in the Premier League and the Bundesliga.
It is a question that Roy Hodgson would want to ponder. Marco van Basten, Van Marwijk's predecessor, has urged him to play them both but this is the archetypal Group of Death and all his instincts would scream at him to trust what has taken him this far. And there is some history to tiptoe around.
Twenty years ago in Gothenburg, Denmark, against every conceivable opinion, denied a forward line of Van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp a place in a European Championship final that the Dutch side of 1992 appeared pre-destined to win.
Instead, in the Ullevi Stadium, they found themselves frustrated by a side that had not even properly qualified and eventually went down in a shoot-out where Van Basten, whose goal had won them the tournament four years before, missed. They had lost and lost beautifully. They were denied by a goalkeeper named Schmeichel and tonight they face his son.
1974 World Cup Johan Cruyff's 'Total Football' side lost in the final to West Germany despite leading early.
1976 Euros Lost to Czechoslovakia in semi-finals after extra-time.
1978 World Cup The Oranje again lost out in extra-time, falling to a 3-1 defeat to Argentina in the final.
1992 Euros Went down to champions Denmark on penalties in semi-finals.
1998 World Cup Again lost on spot-kicks in last four, going out to Brazil.
2000 Euros For the third time in eight years, the Dutch lost on penalties, going out to Italy in the semis after missing two penalties in the match.
2004 Euros After finally succeeding from the spot in the quarter-finals against Sweden, the Dutch went down 2-1 to Portugal in the last four.
2010 World Cup Spain prevailed in extra-time in the final.
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