By Paul Gardner
From being a fervent admirer of Dutch soccer -- back in the 1970s, the days of "total soccer" -- I have passed through the stages of being just an admirer, sliding down to a grudging admirer, and now that of occasional admirer.
Total soccer was, definitely, exciting. More, it placed the emphasis on attacking soccer at a time in soccer’s development when defensive play was beginning to cast its blight on the sport. Player movement was emphasized, the ball was mostly on the ground, speeding swiftly from one player to another with dizzying speed and accuracy. And of course the ball control of the players, all of them it seemed, was immaculate.
That figured because we were told that all of them must be able to switch positions rapidly, that a fullback should be able, without hesitation, to become a goalscoring center forward, that winger must be able to defend. The overall effect of watching the Dutch in 1974 was so dazzling, that all of that hype seemed to be the truth of their style. I was among those who felt that the Dutch were the better team in the 1974 World Cup final against West Germany.
Four years later I was in Argentina for the 1978 World Cup, and I made a point of watching the Dutch as often as possible. This was not the Dutch of 1974, even though most of the players were the same. But there was one, great, absentee: Johan Cruyff, who had refused to play in the tournament.
Disappointing that, but we all knew that one man did not make a team, so all should be well. Except that, in this case, one man did make the team. Cruyff was so surpassingly good that he enabled the Dutch to approach each game with the certainty of winning. With Cruyff on the field, ball possession was guaranteed, goalscoring always seemed to be just one brilliant pass away.
Without him in Argentina, another side of Dutch play was immediately apparent. Powerful physical play, amounting to intimidation. In 1974 the sheer physicality of the ever-present duo of Wim Rijsbergen and Johan Neeskens had always been there, but it was nicely submerged in the smooth Cruyff-led team play -- in fact it was rarely evident, just not necessary.
In 1978 things were different. This was a much less certain Dutch team. Rijsbergen and Neeskens were still there, but the ever-present duo was now the van der Kerkhof brothers, Rene and Willy. The Argentine journalists did not like what they saw, and referred to the brothers as “rugby players.” It was not a totally unfair judgment. Roughness and reckless tackling seemed built into their game. This time I was not disappointed to see the Netherlands lose in the final.
My admiration was tempered, but there was no denying that Dutch soccer was up there with the world’s best, with that of Brazil. There seemed to be constant supply of skillful players, and the reckless play aspect was kept under control. Of course, the Netherlands didn’t win anything until 1988, when they took the European Championship.
But any thought of returning to my unabashed liking for Dutch soccer was ruined by their performance in the 2006 World Cup, particularly in a brutal performance against Portugal.
Anyone who remembers that game will have been saddened, but not surprised, by the disgraceful way that the Dutch played in this year’s World Cup final against Spain. Disgraceful -- and perplexing. Why did the Dutch choose to play that way? Surely they had enough talent on their team to play a skilled game? One would think so. After all, they were coming off a splendid win against the tournament favorites Brazil, a win that had been accomplished without resorting to outright belligerence.
When a team plays with obvious malicious intention right from the first whistle -- as the Dutch did in both the 2006 game and the 2010 final -- the accusing finger must, inevitably, point at the coach. In 2006 it was, incredibly, Marco van Basten, a marvelous player whose own career had been cut short by the constant fouling of his opponents. This year it was Bert van Marwijk, and what on earth can one make of his tergiversations?
Going into the World Cup, van Marwijk obviously knew that his midfielder Nigel de Jong was a rough-house player. He had seen him break Stuart Holden’s leg, and even commented at the time that de Jong needed to calm things down.
But that did not stop van Marwijk from selecting de Jong and using him as a starter in six of seven games in South Africa (De Jong was suspended for the semifinal against Uruguay). After the final, after De Jong’s appalling foul on Xabi Alonso, not a word was heard from van Marwijk.
Now, as a result of De Jong’s shuddering tackle that broke the leg of French winger Hatem Ben Arfa this past weekend, van Marwijk has dropped him from the team. I don’t want to belittle van Marwijk’s move, because it is something that rarely happens in the sport -- for a coach to ban one of his own players for playing dirty. Even so, “better late than never” seems to me an appropriate response. What makes van Marwijk’s belated action highly suspicious though, what makes it look like nothing much more than a reluctant PR move, is that his Dutch team is now captained by Mark van Bommel, a player of unbridled pugnacity.
Van Marwijk has had nothing to say about him. But van Bommel has of course had his say on De Jong, leaping in with all studs showing to defend him. Just listen: “It's very unfortunate that Nigel has broken an opponent's leg twice within only six months, but I know that he's a nice guy. He never has the intention to hurt his opponent. He just wants to win as many duels as possible.” The sheer insensitivity of that word “unfortunate” is breath-taking.
It seems that this streak of violent play runs deep in Dutch soccer, and surely van Bommel is defending it and criticizing his coach, van Marwijk, when he asserts: “Nigel shouldn't change his style of play, though. We need him the way he is.” After all, what matter a few more unfortunate incidents, eh?