Holland

World Cup 2010 – the post-tournament void beckons…

Well done Spain. In spite of my pre-tournament hopes for Holland, the better team won on the night, with Spain’s skillful passing game finally overcoming the more prosaic, combative Dutch style in the dying minutes of extra time.

I was disappointed for Holland, even though their first half exhibition of the more physical side of the game (ahem) was probably not to everyone’s liking. They made the most of what they had and, for me, helped make the Final a thoroughly absorbing game until John Heitinga was sent off ten minutes from the end. Although the Dutch can have few complaints about Howard Webb’s decision, I still feel a childlike wonder at how Heitinga can find himself sent off for a relatively minor offence when Mark van Bommel managed to stay on the pitch for the entire duration in spite of a selection of, at times, agricultural challenges on the Spanish players.

For a time it looked as though Spain would allow themselves to be rattled by van Bommel and the lucky-to-still-be-on-the-field Nigel de Jong, but their quality came through in the end with Iniesta’s well-worked late goal. They are worthy winners.

South Africa proved their condescending doubters wrong and organised a hitch-free tournament which gave those millions of us watching on television a sense of the country’s flavour and passion for the game of football. I even grew to love the all-conquering buzz of the vuvuzelas. If only some of the football could have lived up to the character and optimism of the tournament’s hosts.

So now it’s the post-World Cup void stretching out ahead. This is always the worst part of a World Cup year (even though South Africa 2010 was unexceptional at best, at least in terms of quality) as the standard, effort-free conversation-opener will no longer be available for use at the pub, chores can no longer be put off, and wife and family can no longer be ignored. Still, never mind – it’s an Ashes winter this year…

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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!