The Last Word: Why I'll be backing Netherlands to paint the World Cup orange
Saturday 05 June 2010
Just who do we think we are – with our 44 years of hurt, our gimcrack "golden generations", our self-pity and entitlement? There is only one merit in entering the World Cup with such a mindset. And that is in choosing a sentimental alternative to England, so as to retain an interest after the quarter-finals. Some of us, admittedly, are fortunate enough to owe a genetic allegiance to the Germans. (Sorry. But there it is. Thanks, Mum.) All those whose neutrality is inflected only by considerations of equity and poetry, however, will surely be unanimous in getting behind the Dutch.
How many England teams since 1966 have had the slightest pretension to leaving an indelible stamp of greatness on the global game? The unrequited World Cup craving of the Netherlands, on the other hand, is nourished by a legacy for all creeds and colours. And, looking around those who might be considered its trustees today, it is perhaps not too much to hope that the Dutch can swiftly redress the asphyxiation of Barcelona – and, come to that, a Bayern Munich team supervised by a Dutchman – by a less rhapsodic type of genius.
The one spark plug in the remorseless Internazionale engine, of course, was Wesley Sneijder. Together with his fellow Bernabeu reject, Arjen Robben, Sneijder gave the elite European season a vibrant orange hue. In the process, conceivably, both men may have discovered a winning mentality. And with Robin van Persie finding a silver lining of freshness, to the injury that clouded Arsenal's season, and a dazing depth of offensive options besides, the Netherlands perhaps have the most frightening attack in the tournament bar Spain.
Admittedly, the defence still hankers for Jaap Stam, though John Heitinga has just had an immense season with Everton, and Greg van der Wiel offers youthful verve at right-back. At 35, Giovanni van Bronckhorst will need all the short cuts he has learnt in 98 caps. With Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel baring their teeth in front, however, the Dutch conceded only two goals in an immaculate qualifying campaign.
Now the cyclical nature of the World Cup experience can be misleading. Yes, it means you already dread the moment, as the credits roll after the final, when the rest of your life stretches out meaninglessly before you. But it does not mean that the Clockwork Oranje will inevitably be unravelled by the various neuroses – the fragile egos, the failures of nerve – that have confounded them in the past.
On the face of it, there is a case for saying that this ostensible imbalance, in the 2010 generation, conforms obediently to type. Style, in other words, but not substance. On the same basis, no doubt, everyone will expect the Dutch to disintegrate in the usual factions, tantrums and cowardice. In their last international tournament, after all, they cantered past the French and Italians in what had been billed as the Group of Death, only to freeze in the knockout environment.
Only lazy caricatures of this type, however, can account for the bookmakers' readiness to lay the Dutch at double-figure odds. For their recent record – not only in qualifying, but in such auspicious rehearsals as a 4-1 thrashing of Ghana the other day – implies a new coherence of spirit and purpose since the appointment of Bert van Marwijk as coach.
His predecessor, Marco van Basten, distilled both the glamour and delicacy of the national game. But Van Marwijk, little known beyond Feyenoord, has introduced an understated, pragmatic style. And his sense of organisation and discipline seems to have created corresponding harmony within the camp.
He represents a rich tradition in Dutch management, itself a logical corollary of the Cruyff revolution, which was unabashed in its intellectualism. Totaalvoetbal reflected the 1970s zeitgeist, prizing freedom of expression, no less than the liberal social culture of Amsterdam.
It seems offensive to every principle of natural justice that their exuberance – on the pitch and in the stands – should have been stifled by the psychological rigours of a penalty shoot-out four times between 1992 and 2000, three times to eventual winners. They should certainly have seen off Brazil, in the 1998 World Cup semi-final, while they only lost the 1974 and 1978 finals to the hosts.
As Jose Mourinho is reminding everyone, it can be brutally effective to smash flair teams on the bulwarks of teamwork and resilience. That is how Italy won the last World Cup, and how the Germans have proved so formidable. On their way to winning that ghastly final in 1990, they beat the Dutch in a match remembered primarily for Frank Rijkaard spitting at Rudi Völler's perm.
Too often, it has been a case of "Holland expectorates" , rather than "Holland expects". But perhaps the time has finally come for the orange flag to be restored to the Cape colony. This time, moreover, as though in compensation for past depredations, it would extend a dominion that might be embraced in all lands, by all peoples. Hup Holland!
Nervous Navas must find the nomad in him
There was only one thing more frightening than the team of galacticos watching from the bench when Spain played South Korea in Innsbruck on Thursday. And that was the marauding right winger Jesus Navas, who hardly needed to decorate his performance with a late winner from 25 yards to identify himself as man of the match. If this is the sort of creature they can't fit into the first XI, then there will not be much sleep for Ashley Cole in the next month.
But there is a heart-breaking paradox. Navas himself has a chronic history of anxiety attacks, and has sometimes fled international training camps in a misery of homesickness. It first happened with the Under-21 squad in Murcia, fully 269 miles from his hometown, Seville. Whatever else he might owe to his Romani genes – something he shares with Eric Cantona, among others – he certainly did not inherit a nomadic instinct.
At 24, he hopes that all the therapy will now pay off, and that he can see out this adventure to another hemisphere. The liberation that suffuses his play might then permeate the rest of his life – and take any humane observer of the game to uplifting new horizons, as well.
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