My World Cup: Dutch Depart with their Cleats Held High

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.

19 comments about "My World Cup: Dutch Depart with their Cleats Held High".
  1. Ken Morris, July 15, 2010 at 12:21 a.m.

    It's all semantics to me. You can call it anti-soccer if you want, but it was simply disgraceful to me. The Dutch played beneath they're talent. They disrespected the game, their country and the history of Dutch soccer.

    The referees exist to, essentially, apply tough love to the players on the field. If they do their jobs correctly, a violent team will change its tactics in real-time. That is, it will discontinue its violent ways or it will play short-handed. All teams do two things: 1) They take whatever the opposing team will give them, and; 2) They will take whatever the referees will give them.

    In the final, if the referee had any guts whatsoever, he would have red carded DeJong, VanBommel and Robben. Instead, he displayed an obvious reluctance to enforce the rules of the game. The Dutch sniffed this out and took what the ref gave them. Simple as that.

    Obviously, the lion's share of blame for the Netherlands' pathetic tactic of hacking the Spanish is, indeed, the Dutch themselves. That said, if they choose to play violently the referee can almost single-handedly rectify the situation by simply enforcing the rules. When will we see this?

    Illegal throw-ins, uncalled violence during corner kicks, unrecognized "dives" all over the field, looser standards for second yellow cards than first yellows. These are just a few areas in which referees and governing bodies have compromised the rules. Give a guy a second yellow card (red) for diving and I guarantee we'll see less diving over-all. Rule this way for all of soccer's laws and we'll soon see better soccer and less b.s.

  2. Patrick Gomes, July 15, 2010 at 1:10 a.m.

    Excellent analysis, Mr Gardner. You're right-- the irony is that the Dutch, with enough quality in the midfield and world-class strikers in Robben and Van Persie, and with 12 goals coming in to the Finals, didn't NEED to play dirty footy.

    And yet you had pre-match comments from the likes of none other than Robben, (to the effect) that it didn't matter if they didn't play pretty football, as long as they won.

    Part of the refreeing related problems would easily go away if the sport allowed television replay-assisted decisions. There would be little for players to dispute when adjutication is based on the kind camerawork we have around these days. But we all know the ludicrous objection Blatter and co. have to the use of technology -- that it would stop the flow of the game (Hello!?) and that the game should be governed by the same "rules" at every level. (Why!?!?)

    We can lament the ugly spectale that football (hey, I'm Pakistani, so I'll call it that) often is, but, without the incorporation of technology, this kinda stuff will always be around.

  3. Steven SIegel, July 15, 2010 at 1:34 a.m.

    Maybe, just maybe if Webb had given van Persie a yellow in the first moments of the game for the boot to the back of the knee, then that would have been an early warning. I can only hope that Webb missed seeing the whole of the de Jong kick to Xabi Alonso, because as soon as I saw it I was sure a red would come out. I too would have been reluctant to red card a player in the Final, but that was well beyond any reasonable limits.

  4. Tim King, July 15, 2010 at 1:37 a.m.

    I challenge you Mr. Gardner to demonstrate any difference in play in the Netherlands v Spain Final and any other match at the World Cup. Show me why the Dutch were the World Cup villians you make them out to be against any other team. I can show you fouls and hard play in nearly every match. I can show you where cards were given for nothing and cards were not pulled for horrible fouls. Yes, the Dutch played beneath their skill level - and they still had Spain against the wall for over 90 minutes. You and many others have demonized this Netherlands
    team for very little when you compare them to all 32 teams at the World Cup. So I ask, is it the DeJong kung foo kick that pisses you off and you blast an entire teams worth for? Or is it simply that you are bias for the pretty, pretty Spainish who are damn lucky they even scored? I for one believe this witch hunt is pathetic and if you are sincere in your hunt then start at the source: the mafia that is FIFA.

  5. John Doe, July 15, 2010 at 1:48 a.m.

    What a disingenuous serving of balderdash. This one-sided slanting of the Dutch team and writing off their accomplishments just shows your shallow knowledge of the game and your tendency to meekly hop on the band wagon of the English press, copying and pasting together opinions and adopting them as your own, for lack of having your own valid and true insight into the game. I'm really getting tired of all this feigned indignation about a sudden rediscovery of two proven tactics that are as old as the game itself. The Dutch did indeed make some fouls, but so did the Spanish. But these are opportunistically forgotten to embolden the hollow point you're trying to make. I suggest doing some research into the history of the game and see how the game has been played and what tactics and counter tactics were used. You can, obviously, choose to just highlight the Dutch fouls -and only the Dutch fouls- and make those the theme of your one-sided and shallow tirade. But then you'd be failing miserably at the 'game' of journalism, my friend.

  6. Kenneth Elliott, July 15, 2010 at 6:27 a.m.

    Everyone has points worth considering here, although I disagree with Mr. Gomes that technology would eradicate thuggery in the game. The essence of what's wrong is the unwillingness of officials at the professional level to call the game correctly. Game in and game out players get away with pulling shirts, using arm blocks, stomping on players' ankles, shins, calves, etc., and going full bore into tackles that may or may not result in a clean take away of the ball. FIFA needs to impose a moratorium on the acceptance of this sort of play and ensure that officials start calling every violation. Yes, it would interrupt the flow of the game. For awhile. But if the officials could be brave and consistent and call all obvious violations as soon as they occur, whether inside the box or out, or whether in a World Cup Final or Copa Libertadtores Final, soon we would have players playing the game as it is meant to be played, and true flow would begin to occur. We would find after just a few weeks around the world that there would be less whistle blowing and more game play. Go back and watch the match in this past World Cup in which the Germans lost to Serbia, the one in which the Spanish referee began handing out cards early and often. Of course he was derided and castigated for it, but in the second half of that game there was a beautiful flow by both teams.

  7. John Toutkaldjian, July 15, 2010 at 7:24 a.m.

    It would never get to the point of having to send players off in the WC final if the rules were applied and if changes were made to the consequences of players' actions if the rules were abused. If earlier in the tournament, these changes were incorporated ... no, if earlier in the league competition, cup competition, qualifying matches, etc., the WC final would be everything we want it to be and feature all the best players of both teams because the consequences would be too frightful to deny. Let me explain my thinking.

    For a caution offense, the player retires to the sideline for ten minutes.

    For a player being sent off, the player is replaced but is suspended from the next four games of that competition. If a player is sent off in the second half of a game, the player is not replaced.

    If the game is stopped due to a player injury, the injured player retires to the sideline for three minutes.

    These changes do not require the referee to change how he officiates a game because the players would make his job easier by behaving themselves. Why, because the penalties are more severe and illicit actions would have dire consequences to his team and to his career.

  8. predrag borna, July 15, 2010 at 8:06 a.m.

    I am more and more convinced that after all, there is some unknown power that equalize bad and good.1966 England won WCup by bad call over Germany.This year Germany strikes back and kick English ass by bad call(Who knows what would be after 2-2?)1986 Argentina wins("Gods hand") but 1990 "unknown power realizes that would be to much".Because this year Dutch team was kinder garden compared with Argentinian butchers 1990.That is why fair team like Germans won.Henry s handball allowed French to go WCup but take a look what they have done.Etc.Of course Dutch side could win this year but it would be really unfair at least from my point of view...If they have done that, my deepest belief is that this would be memorized somewhere and one day paid off to the Spanish side.Even in random world some(thing)one make notes and keep things in balance.Do not be very surprised if in a near future Dutch team win something big with a great aid of.... who knows what.

  9. Jennifer Hoskins, July 15, 2010 at 8:07 a.m.

    You will never have true flow of the game till you start giving out yellow cards for dives. There was more acting on the part of the Spanish players than were true fouls. Spain must have hired a really good drama coach. Yes the Dutch did have a few card worthy fouls, but 80% of them were acting on their part. I am sick of watching grown men act like babies.

  10. Miriam Hickey, July 15, 2010 at 8:45 a.m.

    Bla bla bla

    There is a reason I delete the email from Soccer America as soon as I see Paul Gardner. Biased antics....

    Hopefully not for much longer right? You got to be getting up there in age.

    There has got to be better soccer journalist out there that can describe the issues of our great sport from more than one angle.

  11. Marc Silverstein, July 15, 2010 at 8:54 a.m.

    I will never except the free pass that Howard Webb is getting from just about everyone. He was in position to control events in the game. That he chose not to deal with them appropriately is entirely on him. Could the Dutch have changed tactic if Webb had tightened up? That is open to discussion. OTOH, letting Webb slide because he didn't do anything more than normal is a complete glossing over of the fact that he was not up to the task of controlling this match.

  12. Joe Linzner, July 15, 2010 at 9 a.m.

    It is a parody that anyone who ever has played this game would even consider justifying the tactics and the run of this game from the very beginning??.. There is absolutely no excuse for the constant and consistent intent to either injure or demoralize the Spanish players with such blatant mayhem. It wasn't merely that hack DeJong but also Van Bommel and nearly the entire 11 that played UGLY. Then I read that the Spanish were diving and one may ask, if you were constantly being fouled what would you do? How would you react?? Yes you are correct , you too would fall to the ground as soon as a Dutch lumberjack approached you. Any contact justifies an implied trip or kick. I know I would have done exactly that and have after having swollen ankles and bone bruised ribs and shins I still have scars on my ankles and ridges on my ribs from such skilled hacking.
    It is a sad testament that the Dutch resorted to such a display for they were a team much more talented than that. Capable of beautiful, flowing play their hacking whacking slapping kicking display is sadly now a part of their football history.
    There was also some creative air displayed by Robben and V. Bommel and even V. Persie did a fair share of airs above ground so to accuse the Spanish of ground effects is plain silly. For that matter the Spanish had an excuse whereas the Dutch did not.
    Sadly, I had the Dutch picked to win this World Cup but I must honestly say that the deserving eleven won this match.

  13. Gus Keri, July 15, 2010 at 9:25 a.m.

    The term "ruining the game" is ironic. The referees and FIFA don't want to "ruin the game" by sending a player or two off, but they would rather "ruin the game" by allowing anti-soccer tactics to go on. History is filled with such teams who would rather resort to anti-soccer. The Argentina of the 60s and Uruguay of the 80s and now, we have the Dutch of the new millenium. But what upset me the most is Alexi Lalas's picks for best 11 of the world cup. He picked 11 violent and aggressive bone-breakers. Is this the kind of soccer that we want to be promoting here in the USA? This is soccer and not American football. Lalas needs to understand that he is advising the wrong type of defending. There are a lot of examples of good defending, Lalas. Watch how Switzerland and the USA defended against Spain and take a notice.

  14. Brian Something, July 15, 2010 at 11:36 a.m.

    Paul, I appreciate your point of view and you're right. But how many times do you have to write the same column?

  15. David V, July 15, 2010 at 11:42 a.m.

    Mr. Gardner, you only got half right...

    the first commenter, nailed it correctly. See his comments here: Ken Morris
    commented on: July 15, 2010 at 12:21 a.m.

    Ken's comments are applicable at all levels.

    Admittedly, the Spanish have been on tops of the soccer world for the past 4 years (2 defeats in four years), two #1 FIFA rankings, prior to this last tournament, tying the longest unbeaten streak, and they'd beaten top teams along the way (Italy 2x, England 2x, Argentina, Germany 2x...).... but were the Spanish that much better than Brazil... better, yes, but that much better... I watched Spain disintegrate since Xmas 2009 with multiple injuries.... Villa with a shoulder (he was not at his top form in this cup, though tied for top goal scorer), Iniesta with hamstring and other injuries all last season not fully recovered to his form of 18 months ago, Torres' surgery - how could he ever be sharp within 2 weeks of returning to train?, with Cesc and his surgery, and with Xavi - comin into this World Cup with a partially torn calf muscle... how could the Dutch team not seen that Spain had come down from lofty heights into the mix of the top 5 teams? They should have made a game of it, and tootball would have been better off... and I would have too, I was robbed of a beautiful final.

  16. James Froehlich, July 15, 2010 at noon

    I empathize with the vehemence with which PG attacks the Dutch. Before the game I was quite ambivalent about who to root for since I have always had a high regard for Dutch skill and style. However it soon became apparent that the Dutch were intent on systematically disrupting the Spanish game through constant physical challenges and fouls. Our little group of fans was soon unanimous in its support of Spain. While I'm can't say that I share PG's vehemence I do fill betrayed by the Dutch since I know that they were capable of much better. Given the uniformity of the Dutch approach, I would have to lay the blame on the coach. Fouls can be (1) mistakes, (2) spur of the moment decisions to prevent an advantage to an opponent, or (3) a systematic attempt at intimidating an opponent. The nature and number of these fouls points overwhelmingly to the latter. Regarding the accusations that the Spanish were egregious divers, my first --emotional-- reaction is that you are obviously blinded by your support for the Dutch team and possible aversion to the Spanish style (love to discuss THAT at length). My second reaction is to ask for a definition of "diving" because in my mind there are two distinct versions of this practice. The first and most obvious is where NO contact was made. I would call this the "Ronaldo". The second type is the "embellishment" where the contact was real and therefore punishable but maybe not sufficient to affect the sensibilities of the match referee. In this case the player may decide to make the impact more obvious. If there was any excessive diving (which I categorically deny) it would have been of the latter "embellishment" variety and based on the constant kicks, nicks, and trips administered by the Dutch, I would say that whatever "diving " occurred it was totally justified!!

  17. Patrick Gomes, July 16, 2010 at 2:03 a.m.

    re. James Froehlich post above:

    James, I'd put my last rupee on that your feelings and observations are shared by over 90% of neturals.

    For the posters attacking the author's "biased" stance, can I interest you with some Cruyff?

    "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."

  18. Steven SIegel, July 16, 2010 at 9:22 a.m.

    The Dutch were clearly out to run very hard at the Spaniards in a reckless manner, even if they weren't going to get the ball. It's one thing to challenge a fifty-fifty ball, and quite another to charge hard at a ball you are not going to win. The first thirty minutes saw two cynical tackles from behind (not to mention the others) and deJong's despicable cleats in the chest of Alonso. The Spaniards did a fairly good job of dancing around many of the other brazen attempts when most teams might have gone for the contact and flopped. But this strategy also caused the Spaniards to lose the ball. As the game wore on, they stopped avoiding and went more for the contact.

    Just an anecdote, I started off rooting for the Dutch - but after the deJong incident, I hoped they would lose. It was just plain bad soccer with clumsy, reckless challenges.

  19. Brian Something, July 16, 2010 at 10:34 a.m.

    You might be interested in the following blog entry by Jeff Tipping, technical director of the NSCAA. My disgusted comments are on the bottom of the entry.

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