Sport

In praise of the Dutch

I love the Dutch (occasional flirtations with ultra-right-wing politicians aside). I’ve spent many happy times in the Netherlands over the years, enjoying their culture, their modern outlook on the world, their warm hospitality and the under-rated beauty of their countryside. And I’ve always been a big fan of their football team, so I’m delighted that they have quietly slipped under the World Cup radar to reach the semis.

The era of Rinus Michels, Johann Cruyff and ‘Total Football‘ was slightly before my time, but my earliest memory of the game is the 1978 World Cup Final between the hosts, Argentina, and Holland. I don’t remember a terrific amount about the match itself apart from my Dad telling me that I should be supporting the Dutch. Ever the loyal son (and, to be honest, quite taken with the orange shirts) I took the Old Man’s advice and I’ve had a soft spot for Holland ever since.

Over the years I’ve had that affection reinforced in a number of ways, not least by some of the great players who have performed in the famous ‘Oranje’ – Gullit, Van Basten, Bergkamp, to name just three. As I’ve said, I’m also a fan of the country itself – its quirkiness, its beauty, its open-mindedness – but most of all I absolutely adore the enthusiasm that the Dutch fans bring to a World Cup – from the madness of ‘Hup Holland Hup’ to the sheer drenching of tournament stadia in orange.

Not for the Dutch the England football fans affliction of grossly-inflated expectation. Holland have never won the World Cup, although many would contend they should have at least once, but they have at times set the competition alight with the astonishing flair of their football (see the grainy old clip below). The Dutch World Cup experience has tended to be one of promise defeated either by pragmatic opponents or personality clashes within the dressing room, and their fantastic, exuberant support seem to be able to live with that.

This time around things look a little different. The 2010 Dutch team seem more pragmatic and less flamboyant than their predecessors, but also less riven with in-fighting and more of a unit. There is little weight of expectation on this team, yet they are now unbeaten since 2008 and have a realistic chance of making the Final.

Standing in the way are arguably the tournament’s surprise package, Uruguay, before a potential meeting in the Final with either Spain (the modern answer to ‘Total Football’) or a stunning German team who have swatted England and Argentina aside in the knockout rounds.

The Dutch are nowhere near favourites to win this year’s World Cup, but no nation could bring more colour to the Final in Johannesburg than the Dutch. Hup Holland Hup!

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Time for goal-line technology? No, not really

Prepare yourself for a round of deep scorn, flagellation and recrimination from the tabloids as the inquest into the England football team’s well-deserved World Cup humiliation at the hands of ‘The Old Enemy’, Germany, gets under way from tomorrow. The wise-after-the-event will be dusting off their professional outrage in the traditional quadrennial inquest into the failings of the national game. Part and parcel of that process will be an inevitable debate about goal-line technology following the incident where the match officials missed what would have been an equaliser for England.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to attempt to analyse the woes of Fabio Capello’s team – others will be able to summon far greater hysteria for that purpose, and besides, (unlike its cricketing counterpart) I can’t work myself into a lather over the England football team at the best of times. But as someone who nevertheless loves the game, the sport’s attitude to technology is something that does interest me. Shouldn’t there be a fast and easy mechanism to inform the match officials that the ball has crossed the line?

The arguments in favour are clear and highly persuasive: it doesn’t hold the game up too much, the technology required is fairly simple, and it would have the (very hard to argue against) benefit of making sure teams like England wouldn’t be denied a perfectly legitimate goal (or that teams like West Germany weren’t penalised needlessly in World Cup Finals at Wembley, for that matter). But who said the debate over technology had to be a rational one?

Football is a game which raises the temperatures of those who follow it. Its disagreements and differences of interpretation are among the reasons people read the sports pages and talk about it in pubs and workplaces all over the world. For example, today’s other game (between Argentina and Mexico) saw a controversial opener by a player who was in an offside position when he scored. The goal shouldn’t have stood and all hell broke loose at half time between players, officials and coaching staff on the touchline – and it was great fun to watch.

Controversy is part of the appeal, and there will surely be more before the tournament is over. There are no end of people who will tell you that football has lost something since ‘the old days’ and perhaps they are right. Goal-line technology would take away something else – the talking point – and I think, however irrationally, that the game would be a poorer spectacle for it. It is, after all, meant to be entertainment, and what could be more entertaining than seeing, just to pick a random example, Spurs denied a certain winner at Old Trafford (below) purely because of the glorious incompetence of the match officials? Reason enough to leave things well alone.

ITV Sport, lost goals and Clive Tyldesley

I don’t own an HD TV, and when ITV Sport pull another missing-a-goal-through-cramming-in-an-extra-advert masterpiece purely for the benefit of their High Definition viewers, I have little reason to muster any envy for those who do.

I can’t say I’m a fan of ITV Sport. They appear to have an unhappy knack of making any sporting event, no matter how prestigious, somehow seem cheap and just a little bit, well, crap really. And so it proved once again for the World Cup group match between England and the USA, with HD viewers missing Steven Gerrard’s early false dawn for England while ITV broadcast an advert instead.

No doubt it was an honest mistake, but it started me thinking that perhaps HD viewers were the lucky ones – they had an extra couple of minutes without that most grating of living room intrusions: the condescending, skull-drilling squeal of a commentary delivered by ITV’s rambling, hysterical super-irritant, Clive Tyldesley. Tyldesley just about sums up ITV Sport for me: overly portentous, lacking subtlety and obsessed with Manchester United. He tries too hard to make a name and carve a niche for himself, and instead he ends up as the amateurish embarrassment one has to accommodate in order to watch a football match.

And it’s not as if ITV have only recently become rubbish either. Everton fans will tell you that ITV Sport have previous when it comes to missing goals, but long before that we’ve cringed our way through Elton Welsby and The Big Match, (the at times truly bizarre) World Of Sport and – unforgettably – Saint chortling away at Greavsie’s latest ‘witty’ Italia ’90 t-shirts (example: “Gullit’s Bullets vs Voller’s Volleys – Rudi will rule Ruud”).

Even their F1 coverage, which was often recognised as being innovative and surprisingly in-depth, was in no way lamented when the broadcast rights transferred to the BBC in 2009. In fact, quite the reverse. The BBC kept the bits that ITV did well (Martin Brundle and Ted Kravitz), lost all the stuff they did badly (commercial breaks during the crucial closing stages of races, being suckered into covering team sponsor’s promotional events as filler in the race build-up, Jim Rosenthal) and brought back Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ as the theme tune. There was only ever going to be one winner.

And so it will be with ITV’s World Cup coverage. They try to compete (periodically poaching BBC anchormen – think Lynam, Ryder and now Chiles) but most armchair fans will always prefer the BBC’s more unobtrusive approach to match coverage, as will be clearly demonstrated when both broadcasters go head-to-head on the Final. (The BBC tend to win these ratings battles by a margin of four to one.)

I must, of course, give ITV Sport credit for one thing at least – the late Brian Moore’s now legendary commentary of Arsenal’s last gasp title win at Anfield in 1989. Enjoy the 21 year old clip, and try not to think of the almost total absence of anything comparable from ITV Sport in the two decades since.

To be honest, I couldn’t care less about England’s World Cup

I love the World Cup. I love the skill, the passion and the excitement of watching the world’s best players compete to win the greatest prize in the world’s most popular sport, and I love the fans who travel thousands of miles to support their national side, even though most of them will return home disappointed.

I appreciate that football isn’t everyone’s game, and that the next four weeks will see an even greater television saturation of the sport than we have become accustomed to throughout the Premier League era. But for those of us who love this most beautiful of games, the first World Cup in Africa can’t come around quickly enough.

What I can’t buy into is the interminable and predictable hype about the current England squad. It is, of course, now traditional for our tabloid newspapers to ask the question “Is this England’s year?” as a precursor to seemingly endless wall-to-wall speculation about the team’s chances, alongside meaningless examinations of “injury worries”, off-field controversies, and the spending habits of ‘The WAGS’.

I have to be honest, I couldn’t really care less about the England team’s chances in South Africa this year. If you offered me a choice between an England World Cup win or an end to Arsenal’s five-year trophy drought, then I’d start dusting out the silverware cabinet at Ashburton Grove. Club football is what I watch week in week out, and the standard is higher than anything produced by the England national side. Add to that the unlovely Cole/Terry/Lampard element to the side and I find it difficult to see myself rooting for them as my all-conquering heroes.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not anti-English, nor am I a Cornish/Welsh/Scottish/Irish nationalist. As it happens, I think historical nationalism is just about the most pointless exercise anyone can engage in. I don’t care what your bit of land is called, or who did what to it several hundred years ago, and I’m not expecting any apologies from anyone for the brutal acts of long-dead kings that may or may not have affected the corner of the world I happened to be born in. Cultural nationalism – the preservation of identity through language, the arts and so on – is a different beast entirely, and is yet another attraction of the World Cup (and one of the reasons I normally end up rooting for the bright orange flash of Holland as the tournament progresses).

There are all manner of reasons why England probably won’t win the World Cup, foremost of which is the fact that there are around half a dozen other teams who quite simply have better players. Wayne Rooney is certainly the best player England have, but is that really going to be enough to overcome the challenges presented by Fernando Torres, Cristiano Ronaldo, Cesc Fabregas, Lionel Messi and so on? England will probably do what they normally do: outperform the fairly average talent within the squad, reach the quarter-finals, be knocked out on penalties by a team which has actually bothered to practice spot-kicks, and slink home to a kicking from the tabloids (all of whom built the team up way too far in the first place).

I will be in the happy position of not being the least bit surprised about such an outcome. I will also (probably) have the pleasure of watching the continuing involvement of Argentina, Brazil, France, Spain and – here’s hoping – Holland. I can’t wait.

Love him or hate him, Lewis Hamilton is one of the greats

Red Bull Racing’s act of self-destruction in today’s Formula 1 Turkish Grand Prix, when both their drivers managed to take each other out of contention from a winning position, allowed Lewis Hamilton, perhaps motor racing’s most acquired taste, through for his first victory of the year.

Having been a follower of the McLaren team since i started watching motor racing back in the days of Niki Lauda, I’m a big fan of Lewis Hamilton. I appreciate that many others don’t necessarily share my enthusiasm. Hamilton can be petulent, hot-headed and arrogant, he appears to be unloved by his peers and strangely feels that a dodgy ear-piercing is a quantum leap up the fashion ladder. (I’m saying nothing about Pussycat Dolls.)

But, and here’s the point, he is arguably the most outrageously talented driver currently in Formula 1. I grew up on a diet of British sportsmen who were nice guys but had the ‘Heroic Failure’ market sewn up (think Jeremy Bates, Gary Lineker and so on). Sure we had Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill, but you always had the impression that their successes (fleeting as they were) were almost entirely dependent on the fact that they happened to be driving the best cars in the sport at the time.

Hamilton offers something a little bit different. Like all the great F1 drivers, he can wring something extra out of a car that otherwise wouldn’t compete. Last year’s McLaren was universally recognised as a dog of a car, among the worst the team had ever produced, and this was demonstrated by Heikki Kovalainen’s noticeably poor season as Hamilton’s team-mate. Hamilton on the other hand consistently scored points with the car, ending the season as the clear form driver in the sport.

He is exciting to watch, a driver who doesn’t see overtaking as one of the great sins of the sport, and someone who can seriously consider himself a contender for the Drivers’ Championship at the start of each season. (Contrast that with the perfectly charming David Coulthard who always seemed to be going through the motions when he talked up his own title pretensions.)

Hamilton may not win the Drivers’ crown this year. The Red Bull team and their drivers, Sebastien Vettel and Mark Webber look to have the best car this season, and Hamilton’s team-mate, Jenson Button, has taken to McLaren better than anyone imagined. But all of that is just the sort of challenge that brings the best out of Lewis Hamilton. On the track he always seems to be at his most potent when he’s chasing a lost cause and so it may prove with this year’s championship contest.

There are a number of supremely talented drivers in Formula 1 (don’t believe the cynics – it’s anything but boring) and it’s always a pleasure to see them at their best. But nothing makes me smile more than seeing Lewis Hamilton look down on his critics from the top step of the podium.

F1’s sparkling return to form

Fans of Formula One will have heaved a huge sigh of relief at the sport’s return to form at this morning’s Australian Grand Prix. After the crushing tedium of the season opener in Bahrain, Melbourne delivered an altogether different slice of entertainment.

F1 isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course. Most will complain that it is too processional, that it’s all about the car, and that you will see more overtaking in Moto GP, Nascar, Indy Racing etc, etc, etc. All of that is quite often true, but Formula One is not supposed to be like other forms of motor racing. F1 is a technical formula, more so than any other type of racing, and a large part of the challenge is to find a technological solution in order to win races. There is less passing than in many of the alternatives, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Overtaking in F1 is hard, that’s what makes a successful pass more exciting, more of an achievement. Mika Hakkinen’s relentless pursuit of Michael Schumacher at Spa in 2000 was far more exciting for me than watching the lead change hands half a dozen times each lap in other forms of racing.

For the F1 fan, the Australian Grand Prix was (mercifully) a wonderful advertisement for the sport. There was plenty of overtaking, the teams faced the technical challenge of adapting to uncertain conditions and the drivers had to use all their skill to deal with a slippery track. There were also scrapes, spins and the odd tantrum over the radio link.

Jenson Button put in a majestic drive to win the race comfortably in his McLaren. I’ve previously speculated that Button might struggle in the shadow of his team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, but there were no signs of that in Melbourne. Admittedly Hamilton’s race was hampered by a poor strategy call from McLaren and a driving error from Red Bull’s Mark Webber, but his mini-rant over the radio to his engineer betrayed signs that perhaps he was more than slightly fazed by the performance and strategy of his cool-as-a-cucumber team-mate. It will be very interesting to see how he responds over the coming races.

Sebastien Vettel’s early-season run of poor luck continues, but I still believe he is a really special talent with a wonderful future in Formula One. Michael Schumacher and the Mercedes team still look short of sharpness but it would be foolish to write off a pairing (with Ross Brawn) who delivered seven Driver’s titles in their heyday.

And (I’ll show my bias here) it was lovely to see Ferrari not having everything their own way today. Formula One has much going for it but it only ever works as a competitive spectacle when the teams are closely matched. Many feared the worst after Bahrain, with everything pointing to a season of Ferrari dominance, but Australia has demonstrated that there are three teams (McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari) who look very competitive with Mercedes and Renault not that far behind. More of the same please, Formula One.

No surprises at the Bridge

I couldn’t honestly say that Arsenal’s defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge today came as a terrific surprise – it hasn’t been a good week or two for Arsene Wenger’s team.

What was billed as the defining period of the season (Premier League matches against Aston Villa, Manchester United and Chelsea, and a Fourth Round FA Cup tie at Stoke) has yielded one point and the end of Arsenal’s Wembley dream for another season. Anyone with a passing interest in today’s fixture could have predicted the Gunners might yet again suffer at the hands of Didier Drogba, and indeed the Ivorian managed to hit Arsenal where it hurts with two killer goals within the first half hour.

Funnily enough for most of the game Arsenal looked the better side at Stamford Bridge (in stark contrast to the desperate non-performance against Manchester United at the Emirates) but yet again there were those well-documented frailties where the team looked naive in defence, highly vulnerable to the counter-attack and seemed to be carrying a goalkeeper whose confidence looks to be completely shot. In spite of what the manager will say, Arsenal’s title challenge is certainly over now. Four games against the other title contenders, four defeats. Enough said.

But before we get into too much of an Arsenal downer it’s probably worth remembering what was predicted for the Gunners before the season started. If the media were to be believed the top three was going to consist of Man United, Chelsea and Liverpool (whatever happened to them?) and Arsenal were going to do well to roll in sixth behind Man City and Tottenham. While I don’t think third place should be the summit of Arsenal’s ambition, the club has definitely made progress since last year, but the question still has to be: how much longer can the team be an exciting project awaiting fruition?

We have, in Cesc Fabregas, unquestionably one of the finest midfielders in the world. His loyalty and commitment to Arsenal have been more than impressive and he never looks like he’s angling for a move to sunnier climes, but who could blame him if he succumbed to this summer’s inevitable advances from Barcelona? Arsenal haven’t won anything since the FA Cup in 2005 and players of his calibre can’t be expected to simply settle for Champions League qualification every year. The Gunners need to win something, and soon.

Don’t be in any doubt that Arsene Wenger has a rather better idea about what he’s doing than any of his critics, and I certainly wouldn’t want to see anyone else in charge of the team, but the Champions League is now the last hope of silverware this season. If Arsenal are unable to surpass the top teams from Spain, Italy and the UK to lift this year’s trophy then the club will inevitably find itself at a crossroads in the summer. Will Fabregas stay? Will Wenger make a significant move in the transfer market? Will next season be more of the same?