Category Archives: Netherlands

Preview 18 – Holland

Some years ago I was returning to Dublin from the UK, and stood in a queue at Stansted Airport waiting to board my flight. A few places behind me in the line was a tall non-dreadlocked man in a shiny grey suit who I instantly recognised as the former Holland and AC Milan player Ruud Gullit.

Who wouldn’t look up to Ruud Gullit? Well, plenty of people, based on the catastrophic management career that took him from Chelsea to Terek Grozny in fifteen years. The highlight of that period of his career perhaps being leaving Duncan Ferguson and Alan Shearer on the bench in a Tyne and Wear derby that Newcastle lost 2-1.

But time makes fools of us all, especially ex-footballers. The Gullit that I, and I’d venture most people, remember is the dreadlocked icon of Euro ’88, a tournament that seemed to confirm that Holland – total football, Cruyff, Johnny Rep, etc – had finally arrived. Gullit, Van Basten – and Rijkaard before he spat in Rudy Voller’s shaggy mullet.

(Of course, for Ireland Euro ’88 was consciousness raising – the team’s first appearance at a tournament was a win against England. But Irish fans also were able to look at international tournaments as something the team could actually compete in and even beat perennial nailed-on, this-year-we’re-definitely-going-to-do-it-mate, tournament favourites like England. Italia ’90 reinforced this feeling, although since then it’s been pretty rough.)

After Euro ’88, Holland have basically done fuck all, of course, but the raising of expectations that comes with a tournament win is often catastrophic for a country. Football is generally about what might have been, not the actualisation of potential. Once a trophy is won, the result sits there mocking future teams – how did we do that? Can we ever do it again? – or, if success is repeated, it becomes a repetitive exercise in alienation – we won another trophy? So we’re in the Champions League again?

Gullit’s success as a player stood in sharp contrast to his dodgy managerial career, but as I stood in the queue at Stansted near him, I thought of his successes, not his failures. But I also knew he was probably schlepping around trying to find pundit work on RTE, hoping to sit alongside Kenny Cunningham or Ray Houghton during that network’s interminable football coverage.

Since their success in ’88, Holland have settled into perennial also rans, although their rampaging ultraviolent approach to World Cup 2010 – where Van Bommell’s approach to the game seemed inspired by the giant ants that rip people apart in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers – excited that minority of fans who think international football should revert to people hitting each other while standing quite near a football. It paid dividends too, propelling them to the final before they blew themselves up like James Cagney at the end of White Heat.

It seems unlikely that Holland will elect to repeat their 2010 approach, which was as refreshingly different from total football as you can get – channelling instead an alternative model from the same era, that of Dirty Leeds. (Although Nigel De Jong’s presence in the World Cup squad gives one hope.) Instead, what’s most interesting about Holland is their relatively young squad – just under half of whom are under 25. Aside from that, the grizzled veterans such as Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin Van Persie will be there. But perhaps the key forward will be Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, whose scoring record for Holland is excellent, but who as yet has only scored two goals for his country in international competitions. If he can carry over his excellent club form for Schalke in the second half of this season then Holland have a good chance of progressing.

It’s clear at this point that Holland’s chances of winning anything are seen as hopeless, in much the same way that France’s biennial implosions have seen them written off. This raises the question of how much time a previously successful team needs to spend in the shadows, perennially underrated and burdened by unrealizable expectations, before it can actually shake itself free from the desperate state of the nation-inflected anguish that surrounds such carnivals of world football and concentrate on ‘the game’.

Despite the constant, near idealist, emphasis on ‘the game’ to the exclusion of everything else by its commentators (I’m thinking of Mark Lawrenson’s admirably blinkered ‘fuck the world’ attitude to anything outside the magic rectangle of the pitch) it seems to me that international football is so tied up with national identity, global capitalism and selling chips that the only way for it to actually attain the kind of stripped down purity it strains towards is for all games to be played by androids on a specially built platform in space. And even then, Holland could well find it difficult. But we’ll always have Euro ’88.

Posted by Karl Whitney.

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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The Lost Art of (Defensive) Midfielding

Yesterday, while watching an entertaining collection of mostly off-the-ball incidents involving Danish former Everton and Real Madrid midfielder Thomas Gravesen, I began to consider the importance of controlled aggression in football. It became clear to me that Gravesen, in his both his physical and ‘banteresque’ exchanges with other players, was involved in a strategy of shadow throwing and exaggeration that one is more familiar with in wrestling or pantomime than in modern football. That evening, the Netherlands struggled against Germany, but failed to reach the violent nadir of their performances in World Cup 2010 – especially the final when the inarguably talented but weirdly boring Spain team ground out a win in a game reminiscent of some Christians trying to play keepie-uppie against a team of extremely hungry and irate lions with a penchant for self-loathing.One persuasive narrative to emerge from that night: the Netherlands were seen as anti-footballing villains while Spain were conquering heroes.

There’s little doubt that a rare strain of ultraviolence was embodied by that Holland team, but was that final really the night when, symbolically at least, a non-contact, packed-midfield brand of tiki-taka football was crowned? And, if so, where does this leave the defensively-minded midfielder who’s motivated not only by a desire to turn defence into attack by breaking play up through tackling and distribution, but also – see Gravesen – to turn the course of a game through psychological jostling, cumulative pressure and, yes, the occasional physical attack?

The growing aestheticisation of football, fed by a speed-reading of Barcelona’s fluidity crossed with fantasies of a Harlem Globetrotters-like touch of anti-gravity showiness (Krusty the Klown: ‘they were using a freaking ladder for gods’ sakes’) has perhaps blinded many to the successes of teams more fundamentally grounded in supposedly traditional footballing strategy: put a big lad up front, get it out to the wings and kick anyone who goes towards your goal. For some reason, Real Madrid and Stoke City spring to mind. Barçelona’s efforts to experiment with these ‘sorts of players’ haven’t been hugely successful: Ibrahimovic was a notable failure while Mascherano came in an aggressive, hard-tackling midfield mentalcase but is now someone who slots into defence when one or other of the favoured centre-backs is crocked. The logic of Barça under Guardiola dictated that the target man and the hard-man defensive midfielder must be tamed and domesticated in order to play within the system.

Where’s a defensively-minded midfielder (with a penchant for controlled aggression) to go, though? Strange that such a player, who offers a bulwark for defence, a certain kind of gonzo leadership and, at his best, a hub from which the spokes of successful counterattacking play can project, now finds himself unfashionable and unloved. But, then again, these players are always the least praised, and frequently demonised for their excesses: Roy Keane for his career-ending tackle on Alf-Inge Haaland, Gennaro Gattuso for his headbutt on Joe Jordan – Lee Cattermole for, well, practically everything he does whenever he gets on the pitch. (And then there’s obviously Van Bommel, whose reputation precedes him to the degree that when he fails to hack someone down, he resembles Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, nervously picking around the laboratory in fear of turning into the enormous green anger monster.) To jump away from strictly defensive midfield for a moment, such vilification puts one in mind of another midfielder, though admittedly in a different galaxy from everyone else – both in terms of the quality of the player and the near-operatic tragedy of the excessive event – Zinédine Zidane’s ‘chestbutt’ on Marco Matterrazi in the 2006 World Cup final.

One of the disappointments of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parenno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was its relative silence – Zinédine barely spoke apart from (according to my recollection) telling the ref to go fuck himself at one point. If that film presents the art of midfielding as one of quiet contemplation occasionally punctuated by success, failure and inexplicable violence, the Youtube footage of Gravesen (mostly from his time with Real Madrid and set to broad parpy comedy music) shows the industry with which one goes about creating the sort of legend that leads others – both on and off the field – to refer to a footballer as ‘that psycho’.

Posted by Karl Whitney

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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Violence, Misery and the the Paradox of the Netherlands

It became visible, arguably, in the 2006 World Cup and that mad match with Portugal, and it seemed to have reached its greatest intensity in the modus operandi employed by the Netherlands to counter tiki-taka four years later in Johannesburg. Last night against Germany, however, the Dutch national side offered the greatest example to date of how their tradition of fluid, disinhibited football isn’t so much contradicted by an occasional resort to spoiling tactics and backroom squabbling as it is, conversely, sustained by those things according to a logic that’s weirdly similar to that of Slavoj Žižek’s notion of ‘objective violence’. That’s to say that Total Football is like so many other apparently progressive formulations of the sixties and seventies: the promise of openness, the vaunted dissolution of rigid positionalism into a semiotic free market of identifications, in fact opened the door to a different kind of deregulation premised surreptitiously on division and depression.

When there’s a spanner in the works with the Netherlands – when, for whatever reason, the fluency is arrested – a ‘true’ nature beyond the pseudoliberated football of Cruyff and Gullit is revealed. People talk about the Dutch tendency to ‘self-destruct’ as if it’s a mystery, but there’s also a good argument for saying that this occurs with such regularity precisely because of the pressure exerted upon them to be free and easy, to perform as hedonists. In Brilliant Orange, David Winner points out that the flair the great Netherlands sides are recalled for was actually always enforced – there’s a Jaap Stam behind every Dennis Bergkamp – but doesn’t, in his celebratory talk of the relationship between Total Football and postmodernist architecture, arrive at the realisation that there’s an absolute correlation between the giddy rush of decenteredness and the maintenance of hegemony.

In 2010, there was an element of self-loathing in the violence the Netherlands exerted in their efforts to claim the World Cup. This could be thought of as similar to the ethical ‘dilemma’ of the rebooted Bond movies with Daniel Craig: the kicking and shirt-pulling, the nudging and bodychecking, was all a means to achieve victory on behalf of the ‘better’ aesthetic of Total Football, just as Craig’s tormented Bond tortures and murders in the service of the conceptually-associated virtues of love and neoliberal ‘freedom’. It isn’t really them, but the content of that them can only be delivered through recourse to its opposite.

Last night, as in the dreadful perfomances they delivered in England in 1996, the other component of the occult part of the Netherlands’ footballing identity could be seen. Although Mark van Bommel and Jetro Willems both tried to invoke the niggling spirit of Johannesburg, the defeat to the Germans was more indicative of the incoherence – with its consequences of isolation and depression – that can emerge when an ideology is so heavily based around the release of the individual from restrictive systems. Wesley Sneijder’s pre-game statements of intent regarding bringing malcontent colleagues into line were rather undermined by the fact that, as is so often the case, he played much of the match in a Gerrard-like mindset dominated by the anticipation of reliving personal achievements. Every crack at goal seemed to be motivated by a desire to be able to spend a future looking back on heroics, rather than ability to provide for the team in the present of the match. Robin van Persie, meanwhile, played with his usual brand of troubled careerist aestheticism: once again, his talent seemed to be compromised by an overwhelming desire for its recognition.

In all likelihood, the Netherlands will go home at the end of the group stage. They face Portugal, a nation with a reasonably similar footballing identity, in a game they must win while hoping that Germany ease up against Denmark. Even if that does happen, they’ll need a swing in goal difference too, something which the resignation on Dutch faces come the final whistle last like suggests is unlikely. Once again, it feels like a contradiction, but their probably failure in the Ukraine is of exactly the same substance as many of their most admired triumphs.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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Group B: Raconteurs Reconvene

Almost exactly one hundred and ninety-six years ago, a good forty-seven non-seasons before the codification of the Laws of the Game, Percy and Mary Shelley were staying with their friend Lord Byron and physician John Polidori in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. Due to the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the previous year, 1816 was, to all extents and purposes, summerless. With the dismal weather making it impossible to hike or sail, the companions took to sitting around listlessly indoors, occasionally easing their frustration by reading aloud to one another. One night, inspired by excerpts from Tales of the Dead, they decided to hold a competition to see who could write the best horror story over the next few weeks. Reconvening eventually on an appropriately dark and stormy night, Mary dazzled the men with the skeleton of Frankenstein, and Byron told a tale about a vampire which – thanks to an act of gratuitous plagiarism by Polidori – evolved throughout the nineteenth century to become Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And Shelley? Well, according to the version I’ve heard, Shelley started telling a story about a woman who had eyes where her nipples should have been, then ran screaming from the room having frightened himself too much.

You’ve probably guessed from the title that this preamble is a slightly convoluted analogy for Group B. In a tournament arguably overstuffed with the competing football narratives of various nations, the Group of Death perhaps stands out in its surfeit of modern-day sporting mythologies. Germany, as SM pointed out at the weekend, come to Ukraine seeking to convince the world that its new story – of how the ugly winners of old deserve to become the world’s second team – has currency beyond the borders of the Bundesrepublik. Amongst other motivations, Portugal are desperate to demonstrate both that there is life beyond their (slightly staggered) Golden Generation and that Cristiano Ronaldo won’t become yet another of those great players who fail to claim a major international trophy. The Dutch want to correct the image of themselves the World Cup final of 2010 imprinted on the world’s footballing imagination and, as ever, need to add another successful instalment to their long-running saga with Germany. Denmark, as in every competition they’ve reached the finals of since 1992, unsettle opponents with their none-more improbale underdog tale.

After the weekend’s opening games, there’s a real chance that tonight could see eliminations in Group B. With this in mind, I feel I can stretch my metaphor a bit further. Germany are the Mary Shelley of the party. Youngest and with the best long-term prospects, their story is all about an internal antagonism between technocracy and expressiveness, and seeks some form of synthesis to its dialectic of science and nature. This resolution seemed some way off against Portugal, as a much-fancied team laboured to produce the aggressive counter-attack expected of them. In that match, there was something Byronic in the Portuguese performance – a moody railing against history overcast somehow with imtimations of the inevitability of doom. Harold Bloom would have been proud of them but it feels right now as if their story is destined to be heard only by its first audience.

Who, then, are Portugal’s Polidori? Denmark seem the obvious candidate. When the groups were drawn, it seemed as if they’d be the ones sitting in the corner, watching and taking notes as their more talented friends battled to create the perfect Märchen. However, there’s a good chance that the Danes could take those notes and produce something with far more longevity than the Portuguese fragment or the Dutch…well. The Dutch are Shelley, aren’t they? Not for the first time, they bring some spectacular talent to the tournament, but seem to have spooked themselves somewhere along the way. Given the number of chances they made on Saturday against Denmark, their failure to score is scarcely believable, and there’s now enormous psychological pressure on them to perform against their old rivals in Kharkiv tonight. Sadly for Van Persie and co, there appears to be a good chance that they’ll be the ones running out screaming.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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Dispatch from Poznań — A More Panoramic view than Panorama

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There was no sign of any trouble in Poznan on our first night here. Far from it — the town square was packed with Poles, Irish and Croatians mingling and singing long through the night. I was told that riot police moved in on Friday night, nervous at the first sign of mixing of fans but they quickly stepped back. The Poles have been great hosts, entering into the party spirit with gusto and seizing on a great opportunity to showcase their country. Most visiting fans have most likely adopted Poland as their second team and the crucial match against Russia on Tuesday should be a cracker.

The football so far has been excellent, with the hosts and the Greeks giving great battle in the opening match. The Poles will be disappointed they didn’t make more of their first-half possession but it all could have been much worse if Przemyslaw Tyton didn’t save a penalty with his first touch of the ball. The performance of the tournament so far was the Russians, a brilliantly fluid and sophisticated display with Dzagoev and Arshavin in particular excellent. How good they are is hard to gauge, as the Czechs were quite poor but it will cause Dick Advocaat some alarm that the Russians surrendered the initiative for 15 minutes early in the second half to a reshaped Czech formation. Poland and Greece will have taken comfort from that.

The group of death has just got even deathlier. The Netherlands are now in a precarious position having to beat both Germany and Portugal to be sure of going through. They actually played quite well against Denmark although their defensive shortcomings were badly exposed on several occasions, including when Michael Krohn-Delhi cut inside Gregory van der Viel far too easily for the goal. The Dutch will also be aggrieved that they weren’t awarded a penalty at the end for handball but you have to doff your cap to the Danes, who turned in a superb defensive performance. Going forward, they were much less confident and the final ball was often found wanting. Three points on the board is more than anyone expected of them after the first game but getting out of the group will still be a huge task, as four points will quite likely not be enough.

Germany were as we have come to expect — solid in attack, much less so in defence where Philip Lahm and Jerome Boateng bailing out Badstuber and Hummels more than once. The winner was courtesy of a splendid Mario Gomez header, the first time he’s ever looked the part in a tournament match. It’s a bad start for the Portuguese but they’ll probably be thankful the second game is against the Danes and not the Dutch, even if Denmark did defeat them 2-1 in qualifying in Copenhagen last October.

Today is Ireland’s big day and the green army are feeling confident. I don’t expect to see a very expansive game even though Slaven Bilić is threatening an attacking approach to get points in the bag first off. It could well be the tournament’s first scoreless draw but I am keeping my fingers crossed for an Irish win by the narrowest of margins. The other match could be the one that gives an insight into Spain’s chances of completing that elusive three tournaments in a row. I don’t think they’ll beat Italy and they may even be on the back foot by eight o’clock local time tonight.

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