Euro Day 10: Agent Oranje

What do Portugal, the Netherlands, and Denmark all have in common?  They were all beaten by Germany at Euro 2012.

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I have a love/hate relationship with the last round of the group stages of international tournaments.  These are the most exciting matches of the early round because so much is at stake (conversely, they are also the dullest matches of the tournament when very little is at stake, which, mercifully, is not the case at this year’s Euro).  On the other hand when, like me, you don’t have two televisions, a DVR, or a way to stream the second match on your computer, then you are missing half the excitement.  Even if you do record the other match, there is little point in watching it as the announcers will update you on the score.  The players know in real-time, so you should too.  And flipping between the matches is a good way to induce nausea.

Holding the two matches at the same time is a necessary evil, and the history of football is full of cautionary tales.  Blame West Germany and Austria or Argentina and Peru.  Even if those infamous incidents had not occurred, holding the final matches at the same time is just common sense–which is probably why is took such blatant acts of cheating before FIFA recognized this as sound policy.

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Football is full of truisms: a game of two halves, a game resistant to statistics, the beautiful game, etc.  The most potent and perhaps deceitful of these truisms are national stereotypes.  For example we have all heard about stolid Germany, flopping Italy, beautiful/fun/samba Brazil, tiki taka Spain, rough and tumble England, Americans who don’t know what a football looks like (and why do they call it “soccer” anyway?!?), etc., etc.  These stereotypes are largely a product of television, specifically the earliest years of the live, in color, worldwide broadcast, and despite now being decades beyond that, these stereotypes are nearly impossible to kill.  For example, Brazil have not played O Jogo Bonito in decades, yet every World Cup time we are reminded by a lazy sports media that Brazil play beautiful, attacking, samba football–all visual evidence to the contrary.

One of the most potent of all outdated stereotypes is Total Football of the Netherlands, an ethos which has shadowed and haunted all subsequent Dutch team since the great team of 1974.  Without fail, at any major tournament some ignorant journalist will write about the Dutch Total Football style without realizing that Total Football was outdated by the late 1970’s if not earlier.  That’s why the 2010 World Cup final was so shocking; it was undeniable evidence that Total Football was well and truly dead and the Dutch team no longer cared about artistry.

The reason the world loves to talk about Total Football still is because there is something so romantic about it.  Here was a style that touched something in the intelligentsia and cognoscenti as well as the average fan.  Everything about it was flamboyant and radical, from the method of play to the bright orange kits to the personalities of the players: foremost among them Johan Cruyff.  The fact that Total Football came from Amsterdam, a once European backwater that in the decade before refashioned itself into the world’s hippest city, only added to the mystique.  (Who besides Jonathan Wilson remembers Valeriy Lobanovskyi, the great coach of Dynamo Kiev, who independently fashioned a similar method of play–only with a Soviet focus of the collective rather than the Dutch focus on the individual?)

The fact that the greatest of all Dutch teams failed in spectacular fashion (in the final match of the World Cup after going up a goal before the West Germans even touched the ball) only added to the romance of Total Football.  The equally successful Dutch sides of 1978 and 2010 and the more successful 1988 Euro winners cannot dislodge the place of the 1974 team.  Their loss affirmed one of the great truths of the sport: fairness has no place in football (if it did, the debate over the best World Cup winning team ever would be between 1954 Hungary, 1970 Brazil, 1974 Netherlands, 1982 Brazil, and possibly 1934 Austria).  The 1974 loss was so collectively traumatic, especially for the Dutch people, that we forget that West Germany too played an exciting and creative game.  Because of who they beat, we remember the 1974 West Germany team as the dull but effective spoilers.

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There is however, one Dutch stereotype that seems to actually be true: the Dutch propensity to implode.  The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.  Players on Dutch teams fight and argue and let their disagreements become public.  Occasionally you will get a strong figure who quiets the dueling personalities: Rinus Michels, Guus Hiddink, Bert van Marwijk.  But that is only a temporary bandage for a gaping wound, sure enough, the personalities reassert themselves and overcome the strongman.

Whatever has gone on in the Dutch locker room this summer has led to a flameout of spectacular and unprecedented fashion.  During van Marwijk’s stewardship at the World Cup, it appeared that the Dutch had finally gotten themselves together.  Granted this meant playing a brutal and ugly style, a betrayal of the Total Football heritage, but it also worked.  (Dutch fans were openly ambivalent about supporting the 2010 World Cup runners-up because of how awful their play was.  Cruyff flat-out stated he was rooting for Spain.  Compare that to the Irish fans, the supposed “world’s best fans” who serenaded their team after crashing out of this Euro in a most limp and pathetic fashion.)  However the van Marwijk magic has worn off, and the tournament went very wrong very quickly.

First there was the 1-0 loss to Denmark, a loss that shocked the superior Netherlands side (superior in that they had better players and more possession).  Then the Germans, the ancient enemy, inflicted national trauma by destroying the Dutch in a 2-1 match that was not nearly as close as the score indicated.  Today the Dutch lost to Portugal 2-1 despite taking an early lead (Germany beat Denmark 2-1, so the Portuguese advance to meet the Czech Republic and Germany will take on Greece.  Let the Eurozone comparisons commence.)  This is the first time that the Dutch have lost all three group games.  This is a team with so much talent that they were expected to compete with Spain and Germany for the title.  To my mind the Dutch wipe out is the story of the tournament.  What, if anything, does this say about the future of the Dutch National Team?  Is this a temporary setback or the beginning of a journey that will leave them alongside Scotland, Hungary, and Austria–former powers whose best days belong to history, never to return?

Whatever it says for the future, Euro 2012 was an example of the Dutch team doing what Dutch teams do best (aside from playing breathtaking football).  They argue and they fight and they choke and then they implode.

And we wouldn’t love them as much as we do if they were any different.

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