Holland's Final Betrayal

“This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style, yes it served the Dutch to unsettle Spain. If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they ended up losing. They were playing anti-football.”
Johan Cruyff

Whether it’s called Total Football or Sexy Football the Dutch have always had a particular vision of how the sport should be played. Bursting onto the international football scene in the 1970s, the Dutch pioneered a new way of playing football that not only produced the finest football of the era but completely changed how the world looked at football. Traditionally football had been like other team sports where players were defined by their position and its responsibilities on the pitch. Formations were usually rigid with little scope for spontaneous variation from the players. First with Ajax and then with the national side the Dutch overthrew this limiting mindset, arguing that players shouldn’t be defenders or forwards but true footballers. Instead of playing in a tactical straightjacket Total Football argued that footballers should be free to seize the initiative even if that means moving out of position as one of their team members can move to cover the vacated space.

This radical approach would win the hearts of neutral fans, with the Dutch being seen as the best side at both the 1974 and 1978 World Cups. Despite making the final at both tournaments they would twice return home without the trophy but the Dutch continued to stay true to a tradition of positive football played with tactical intelligence and flexibility. They would return to international prominence by winning the 1988 European Championships and as semi-finalists would play the best football at both the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championships. Such was the admiration for their rich tradition of attacking football that few would argue that Holland was the greatest nation to never win the World Cup.

But something was happening within Holland that would eventually eat away at this admiration and cause them to desperately betray their glorious traditions. Having dominated tournaments and produced several generations of gifted players the Dutch were acutely aware of their failure to convert excellence into success and increasingly blamed their style of play for this underachievement. It was argued that the Dutch had not been glorious in previous tournaments but tactically naïve, with less gifted but more determined teams taking advantage of their attacking instincts. This nonsense not only ignored the multitude of other reasons why gifted Dutch teams had failed to clinch victory such as frequent arguments within squads, negative opponents marking their best players out of games and the misfortune to play two determined host nations in their World Cup Final appearances, but also dismissed the success that Dutch sides such as Ajax had achieved using the same basic approach.

Ironically, this vision of a ‘less naïve’ Holland was first adopted by the lost prince of Dutch football Marco Van Basten, a gifted forward who dominated both the 1988 European Championships and the turn of the decade club game before injuries sustained during years of being kicked out of games by desperate defenders forced his retirement at the tragically young age of 28. The Holland side that he managed in 2006 World Cup was a desperately dour side that scraped through the group stage having scored only four goals and exiting the competition in a bad-tempered second match against Portugal. Called ‘The Battle of Nuremberg’ the game saw a record sixteen yellow cards given and both teams reduced to 9-men.

The failure of Van Basten’s negative approach saw the Dutch return to their attacking best, exciting in the early rounds of the 2008 European Champions and threatening to peak at the right moment this year, scoring twelve goals en route to defeating Mexico, Ghana and Hungary in their three warm-up games for this year’s World Cup. Unfortunately talisman Arjen Robben was injured in the game against Hungary and the absence of the Bayern Munich winger robbed the Dutch of much of their fluency. While never quite hitting top gear they performed admirably particularly in the second half against Brazil.

Having booked their place in the Final by defeating Uruguay, the old neurosis returned. Despite having gone unbeaten for two years Holland were quickly made the underdogs against European Champions Spain and the question was not whether the Dutch could win but simply how they could remain competitive. With the exception of a rare slip-up against Switzerland, Spain’s tika-taka passing game had allowed them to apply a stranglehold on the opposition despite the Spanish lacking the penetration they possessed in the European Championships when a fully fit Fernando Torres provided them with a superior cutting edge.

There was an cruel irony in the Dutch struggling to find a way to overcome the passing game of Vincent Del Bosque’s team, namely that the Spanish team was in many ways the product of the uniquely close relationship between the two countries. When Johan Cruyff moved to Barcelona first as a player in the second half of the seventies and then more importantly as manager in the early nineties he would impose a style of play on the club that would proudly display its ‘Dutch influence’ with his ‘Dream Team’ playing with a flair that recalled his glory days at both Ajax and Holland. Today, the successor to the Total Football that Cruyff espoused in the seventies is the football played by Barcelona, managed by his former captain Pep Guardiola. And it is the excellence of Barcelona upon which this Spanish national side has been built, with seven of the players that started the final coming from the Catalan side.

Ideally, Sunday’s final would have been an expression of the shared tradition of that the two glorious underachievers had long shared. But desperation and fear got the better of the Dutch who spent 120minutes trying their best to kick the Spanish out of the game, using persistent fouling to disrupt Spain’s passing rhythm. In this they were shamefully aided by lax referring, with the referee setting the tone in the first-half by refusing to properly punish the reckless two-footed lunge of Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong’s dangerous kick to the chest of Xabi Alonso.

Holland’s negative and cynical tactics successfully destroyed what should have been football’s showpiece event. When Andres Iniesta scored the winner it was a victory not just for a dominant Spanish side but also a victory for football. The Spanish may not have reached their full potential at this World Cup but unlike Holland they at least always tried to play football in a way that was true to the best of their traditions. It would’ve been a travesty if the likes of Van Bommel and Van Bronckhorst had been able to kick their way to winning the prize that had always eluded better, more principled Dutch sides. The reputation for attractive, positive football that took generations to build was trashed in just 120minutes by a team who’s cynicism betrayed their desperation.

Follow Will Cooling on Twitter at twitter.com/willcooling

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