|ESPN.com: Off the Ball Blog||[Print without images]|
|Arjen Robben and his Dutch teammates have a history of not getting along.|
So a re-enactment of World War II has been averted. Germany's elimination Wednesday means Sunday's Spain-Netherlands final lacks a conveniently fresh conflict for bad-taste puns and analogies in the run up to the game. The Eighty Years' War from 1568 to 1648 -- you know, the one that led to the overthrow of Philip II of Spain and the creation of the Dutch Republic -- just doesn't cut it. Which means the two teams will have to rely on their own spectacular yet imperfect soccer histories for prematch fighting talk.
When it comes to World Cups, Spain and the Netherlands have been glorious although not victorious. Their performances traditionally have followed a pattern: start flamboyantly only to evaporate. Spain melted as soon as it entered the spotlight. The Dutch preferred to turn on each other, in-fight and self-combust.
While both teams have steadily improved as this tournament has progressed, neither has consistently played statement-making football. The Spanish crave possession, shuffling short, sharp, zigzagging passes in all areas of the pitch. The Dutch have mothballed their traditional high-octane, ABA-style, all-out offense, prioritizing a defensive rigor and relying on the individuality of their world-class forwards to plunder the required number of goals from surprisingly few chances.
The Netherlands' style has been clinical and effective, yet not recognizably Dutch. As a soccer nation, the Netherlands traditionally has preferred to live and die by the spirit of individualism. Writer David Winner described this phenomenon in his articulate analysis of Dutch football culture, "Brilliant Orange," suggesting its roots lie in Calvinism, which promoted order and tradition even while encouraging devotees to ignore their priests and study the Bible to form their own conclusions. These values created a society in which authority was always questioned, leading directly to a soccer team on which, as the cliché goes, there are always 12 coaches.
Dutch football has long been this way. Gaunt, rakish Johan Cruyff, the Jedi-like fulcrum of 1974's Total Football team, challenged authority everywhere he found it, famously demanding a tailor-made Dutch uniform with just two stripes instead of three, because he was sponsored by Puma and the jerseys were made by adidas. In 1994, ESPN's own Ruud Gullit ditched the team after arguing with his coach about the appropriate strategies to cope with the blazing heat of summer in the United States. The side's 1996 Euro campaign was famously undermined when a leaked photograph shockingly revealed all but one of the team's black players ate at a separate table.
The Dutch story always has been one of preternatural talent meshed with petulance and arrogance, and you do not have to probe too deeply to see it in this 2010 squad. Case in point: Giovanni van Bronckhorst's stonking 42-yard drive that set the Dutch on their way to semifinal glory. As the replays savored the shot from every angle, Michael Davies, my partner in blog and pod, honed in on superstar Arjen Robben, who was hovering in front of the Dutch captain as he lined up to shoot. In the time the ball traveled from boot to net, the bald speed merchant's face portrayed a panoply of emotions ranging from "Pass ... pass ... I'm open" as Gio initially jogged forward to "Who the hell do you think you are, disobeying my orders?" as he prepared to fire. We moved quickly through "Do you know who I am?" to "Just wait 'til we get back to the hotel and the wedgies are doled out!" to an astonished "Bloody hell! Good for you for learning from me in training" as the ball crossed the line.
And so the Dutch will have had four long days to prepare for the final, 96 hours in which to confront the glory that might lie ahead and the self-inflicted failure that has plagued them. Coach Bert van Marwijk has admitted his players are "not the best of friends." Preserving their team spirit until the final whistle might prove as great a challenge as the Spanish possession game or the ruthless finishing of David Villa. If voices are raised and street-fighting sounds break out in the Dutch team hotel, check the hotel rooms in this order:
Robin Van Persie versus Wesley Sneijder
If soccer players didn't train, the world would be a much more peaceful place. In the run up to Euro 2008, Van Persie leveled Sneijder with the kind of studs-up challenge English commentators affectionately refer to as "a reducer." Then-coach Marco van Basten attempted to throw the Dutch media off the scent, laughing off reports of any incident and questioning the motivation to fabricate such a story -- until the media gave him the URL to Sneijder's personal website on which the incident was meticulously detailed.
A simmering feud was born, one that was guaranteed to reignite whenever the team regrouped, always around the most grave, global issues like who would take free kicks. And who should be removed late in the game -- see the Slovakia game, in which a frustrated and substituted Van Persie publicly berated van Marwijk and demanded Sneijder be yanked in his stead.
Sneijder has made it clear to the players and the media that all free kicks within scoring range are his personal chattels, although Dutch Kremlinologists were shocked to see him permit Van Persie to line one up against Uruguay. Perhaps he should not have been so generous. Van Persie proceeded to thrash it against the wall.
Mark van Bommel versus Mark van Bommel
There are few more incendiary characters currently in world soccer than this destructive midfielder, a self-confessed "vulture" who has mastered the art of running into players and maiming them whilst acting innocently (here, a glorious elbow to Lionel Messi's head), as well as the subtle variation of running into players and getting them booked. One of the many marvels of this Dutch campaign is how van Bommel has been able to foul so many players so cynically yet escape yellow cards. The solitary caution he received thus far was at the end of the semifinal for the innocuous act of booting the ball away in injury time, when, like many in the stadium, he believed the final whistle had just blown. But van Bommel always has had a short fuse and perpetually seems to be playing a game within a game -- one in which only he knows the rules -- revolving around subtle snubs, perceived slights and scores to be settled. Watch him in the final: studs up, elbows sharpened, ready for a battle of attrition or an all-out war, one moment of madness away from a red card and leaving his side with 10 men.
Dirk Kuyt versus Robin Van Persie
Poor Dirk Kuyt, undoubtedly the Beaker of this Dutch football squad. Energetic, well-intentioned, functional, selfless, desperate to be loved. A stiff who has come to personify the grafter personality of this effective Dutch side.
Before a Jabulani had been kicked in anger, he found himself dropped from the team. Not by van Marwijk but by the strong-headed Van Persie, who had the bright idea of announcing his personal preferred starting XI to the Dutch media, a lineup that included Robben, Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart, but no Kuyt. It was an act akin to bullying the schoolyard weakling.
Cue media sensation forcing the vulnerable, defenseless Kuyt to stammer feebly, "Everyone is entitled to an opinion. That's good. Dutch players like to think and talk about football. But at the end of the day, the team manager decides."
No sooner had these words left Kuyt's lips than he undoubtedly left the news conference and signed up as a charter member of Team Sneijder in the divided Dutch dressing room.
Arjen Robben versus the world
I rarely turn on naturally bald athletes. Our kind have to stick together. But Arjen Robben has tested the patience of teammates, opponents and American first-time viewers to the limits at this World Cup. Plenty of players dive. Robben leaps, flings and bounds. These momentum-breaking theatrics have haunted his past (he once promised the media, "Next year you won't write about me diving again") and have inhibited his play at this tournament to such an extent that his coach was forced to make this unconvincing statement: "He doesn't do it deliberately. Arjen is incredibly fast and creative. He faces up to opponents, and you do fall or get pushed. Maybe he has done things in the past that he shouldn't but he has learned and doesn't do it anymore."
Can the Dutch keep it chill? Here's some unsolicited advice for coach van Marwijk: Make sure this feel-good smash hit is faintly audible all over the team hotel. It's a 1984 musical sensation recorded by a Dutchman so talented ESPN hired him.