By Paul Gardner
So the Dutch played anti-soccer in the World Cup final? That’s the opinion of the greatest of all Dutch players, Johan Cruyff. Is he right?
First of all, to get the irrelevant out of the way. A debate has arisen over what anti-soccer means. Frankly, who cares what name is given to the negative, roughhouse tactics employed by the Dutch?
Call it what you will, one clear fact remains: that it does not respect the rules of the game. Anti-soccer (I shall use the term, for the moment anyway) is, from the start, a ploy to get away with constant fouling of opponents.
I don’t see how that can be reconciled with either the rules of the game or the spirit of the game. So you have a cynical scheme to beat an opponent by refusing to abide by the rules. The way this was done by the Dutch (and, let’s be clear, the same tactics have been employed plenty of times by others) leaves no room for excuses ... in particular, the one that they had no alternative but to play that way, that it was their only hope of beating Spain.
As they never tried any other way, we shall never know. But what the above makes clear is that the notion of beating the Spanish by both wearing them down and beating them up was preconceived. This was not a response that was, so to speak, forced on the Dutch by the circumstances of the game -- though I would in any case strongly dispute that any response that involved flouting the rules is acceptable.
The Dutch anti-soccer was, then, quite deliberate. The idea that it can be excused on the “no alternative” argument is utterly feeble. It gets even more feeble when you look at the Dutch team. A team that had won all six of its previous games, and had scored a total of 12 goals. A team with experienced players, a team with two highly skilled players in Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben. A team that had deservedly beaten Brazil -- without having to resort to anti-soccer play. A team that must have been high on confidence.
Closer inspection does, of course, reveal that players like Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel always play physically, at the very limits of the rules. And none of the Dutch defenders strikes me as being averse to fouling, to put it charitably. There is, as -- to my mind -- there always has been in Dutch soccer, a barely hidden ingredient of overtly physical intimidation. It was not so noticeable as long as Cruyff was on the team in the early 1970s. It was not needed. Cruyff dominated the team, and opponents, with his skill.
But as soon as Cruyff departed, the hard men seized their moment. During the 1978 World Cup the Argentine journalists took a look at the van der Kerkhof brothers, Rene and Willy, and quickly labeled them rugby players. It was not an inaccurate description. The level of physicality was not exactly reduced by Johan Neeskens and Wim Rijsbergen (both of whom later gave us ample opportunity to study their style while with the Cosmos).
The Dutch won the European Championship in 1988 and won it well with good soccer. But the dark side had not gone away. It resurfaced with a vengeance four years ago when Marco van Basten’s team took the field in the 2006 World Cup against Portugal, intent only on mayhem. Cristiano Ronaldo was the target -- he was forced out of the game in the first half after a series of dangerous fouls.
An impossible game for referee Valentin Ivanov. What was he supposed to do? Ignore this blatant anti-soccer from the Dutch, and the Portuguese retaliation? Was he supposed to suspend the rules for 90 minutes?
The same problem confronted England’s Howard Webb on Sunday. But this was much more calculated from the Dutch. Not so much in the physical sense, though that was bad enough. But in the psychological sense. What referee is going to red card a player, or players, in the first half of the World Cup final? Not Howard Webb, obviously, though he could well have done. I’m not blaming Webb for this.
He is not, never has been, my favorite referee, but I think he did, in this game, as good a job as it was possible to do. The key word there is “possible” -- because, frankly, this was an impossible task.
Made impossible by the Dutch. Are we expected to believe that the Dutch did not know, did not methodically play on, the fact that Webb would be under great self-imposed pressure not to red card players -- not to “ruin the game,” as the saying goes?
Of course they did. They could even look for guidance to the very same Cruyff who was so critical of their performance. After he had received a first half yellow card in the 1974 World Cup final, Cruyff was seen arguing heatedly with the English referee Jack Taylor as the teams left the field. He was asked later why he took that risk, surely he could easily have been given a second yellow? Cruyff scoffed at the idea -- “You’re not going to get a second yellow in the World Cup final, not for arguing.”
Precisely. This was not just any old game, this was the big one. That is what makes the Dutch performance so utterly contemptible. To pressure Webb into a very difficult position, and then to criticize him for not making the calls they wanted . . . that is a shameful performance. Even so, they inevitably got away with far too much. They must surely realize that they were lucky beyond all bounds when de Jong received only a yellow for his first half mugging of Xabi Alonso.
Whatever kind of sport do we have in which a team that quite deliberately sets out, from the opening whistle, to ride roughshod over the rules of the game, to physically rough up its opponents, and -- despite a valiant attempt by the referee to punish them adequately -- comes close to winning the game?
For the umpteenth time, I repeat: in a well-structured sport, where the governing body is paying attention to the developments, both good and bad, within the game, that simply would not happen. Changes would be introduced to make sure that players play by the rules. What an onerous thing to have to ask! Please, respect the rules!
But that’s where we are. The Dutch showed no respect at all for either the letter or the spirit of the rules. They lost the game. But, it seems, their appalling attitude, their total lack of sportsmanship, their abjuration of FIFA’s treasured “Fair Play,” not only doesn’t matter ... it is to be honored. On its return to the Netherlands, the team was feted by 200,000 fans in the Museumplein in Amsterdam. Coach Bert van Marwijk received a special commendation from Queen Beatrix, and Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende weighed in with the sort of nauseating patriotic tripe that one would like to see outlawed from all sports: “This Holland was a team in balance. A strong team, both mentally and physically. It was a tight and harmonious unit. Disciplined. On a mission, with resilience, power and confidence.”
And so the deplorable Dutch, having despoiled soccer’s gala occasion, went home to a heroes’ welcome -- with their cleats, rather than their heads, held high.