When Scorsese, after years of failure at the Oscars, finally won Best Director with The Departed, some commentators criticised the decision to present him the long overdue award. Sure, it was a good movie, but how could it win when Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas all had not? That’s the problem with being known as a glorious loser: you’re likely to capture the hearts of the crowd but, when you do finally win, they’re going to expect something pretty special.
Dutch football has a similar problem. Known primarily for the outstanding teams of the late 1970s, teams that twice made it to the World Cup Final playing football that inspired all those that watched, they are the honourable martyrs of international football, twice denied the greatest crown of all due to an inability to play anything less than the beautiful game.
In 1974 they introduced “Total Football” to the world, but were halted whilst attempting to enact footballing revenge in a final against bitter rivals West Germany. Four years later the same team without star Johann Cruyff came up against host nation Argentina in a hostile Buenos Aires final, Rob Rensenbrink being only millimetres away from snatching victory in the final minutes of normal time, before Argentina went on to win their first ever trophy. And again, as recently as in 1998 and the European Championships in 2008, the Dutch have cemented their reputation as the team who win our hearts, but rarely any trophies.
Baring a European Championships victory in 1988, it is a rich history of footballing brilliance but ultimate disappointment. Now, on the eve of the Netherland’s first World Cup final since the late seventies, there is a genuine suggestion that victory for this ‘dull’ Dutch side, one based on footballing discipline rather than unchecked flair, would not do justice to the honourable teams that have failed before.
It is a statement based on two glaring misconceptions. First that this side are somehow dull, and secondly that Dutch football has always been based on flair and ‘Total Football’. A staggering run of 14 competitive wins, starting with a 2-1 qualification victory over Macedonia in 2008 and including a stunning defeat of Brazil, to get to this stage shows the first point to be ridiculous. The second, as so often the case in international football, is an outdated stereotype. Dutch football has long mixed the sublime with the ugly; for every Cruyff turn, there has been a Rikjaard spit; for every Bergkamp wonder-goal, a Battle of Nuremberg and for every Ruud Gullit, an Edgar Davids.
Yet there is a little doubt that this side has a simplicity and resilience rarely seen in recent years, and with that a certain dislikeable quality that we are not that used to in the Dutch. Marco van Bommel’s tackles so far this tournament earned him a less than favourable reputation, while players such as Boulahrouz, De Jong and Kuyt perhaps lack the glamour and creativity of past Oranje stars. Big name Robin van Persie has failed to bring his early season form to South Africa, and the Dutch have relied heavily on Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben to provide their creativity, the latter also unpopular due to his penchant for diving.
Yet this Netherlands team, with its pragmatic, direct and cohesive approach are arguably the best equipped in the nation’s history to cope with the challenge that faces them on Sunday evening – the challenge of beating a Spain team that are on the verge of being the greatest in a generation. One can imagine the Cruyff 1974 team, who so famously fell victim to complacency against the then European champions in their World Cup final, being outwitted and outclassed against opponents known for their ability to out-football all those that come before them.
Perhaps like Germany, fresh from destroying England and Argentina in two displays of footballing brilliance, they would have found themselves stunned by the relentless flow of the Spanish midfield and it’s two chief artists: Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. Sir Alex Ferguson, after watching Manchester United crumble against a Barcelona side that contained seven of Spain’s starting eleven last Wednesday, called it a “passing carousel”, and in recent years it has, for both club and country, bewitched all those that come before it.
Against Germany that carousel worked to perfection for the first time in the tournament. Germany came into the game with the idea of taking the punches and demonstrating their ability to hit cleanly on the counter, playing on Spain’s two obvious weaknesses – their tendency to overplay and a reliance on David Villa in front of goal. Yet within the opening ten minutes it had become clear that they were entirely overawed by the occasion. Perhaps showing their inexperience for the first time this tournament, they sat there like rabbits in the headlights, entirely baffled as the magic midfield relentlessly poured forward. Puyol’s goal was not beautiful but it was inevitable, and there would have been a second before the end had Pedro later chosen to pass to an open Fernando Torres.
The Dutch, due to their experience and strength in midfield are likely to cope with this better, and they will be helped by the fact that they contain in their ranks one man who has overcome these opponents before. Wesley Sneijder’s rise from the bench of Real Madrid to being the star of this tournament has become a footballing fairytale, and during his successful year at Internazionale he was part of a midfield that over two Champions League games, managed something that no other team has done in the last two years – it rode the carousel and survived. Should Xavi and Iniesta work their magic on Sunday, no man would arguably be more experienced to cope with their threat, finishing an unprecedented year of individual success in the process.
There is a strong argument that this Spanish team is the greatest footballing side since those Dutch heroes of 1974 and there is certainly no doubt that it is one been strongly influenced by the ‘Total Football’ philosophy. Holland must realise that the mantle has been passed on, and that the only way to beat Spain is to play them in the way that their opponents did to their Dutch predecessors throughout the seventies. The tables have been turned; they are now the West Germany of 1974, the plucky underdogs against a footballing giant, and would do well to take inspiration from their bitter rivals as well as from their countrymen. That is because, as glorious as failure can be, one thing is always sure: history remembers the winners.