22:05 (local time)
The Netherlands are leading Portugal by one goal to nil in Kharkiv and as far as those of us back in the UK are aware, some eight hundred kilometres away the other final Group B match between Denmark and Germany in Lviv is still goalless, with nineteen minutes played in both matches. Eight minutes ago the Oranje had taken the lead; Arjen Robben gathered serious momentum for probably the first time in the tournament, purposefully driving down the right and checking inside Fabio Coentrao on the corner of the penalty area, with a trademark drop of the shoulder that took him inside the Real Madrid left-back and across the face of the area. When almost immediately faced with Miguel Veloso the Bayern winger laid the ball off to Rafael Van Der Vaart with the outside of his left foot, who took a cushioned touch to his left to set himself and caressed a curling left-footed effort from just outside of the box that found the bottom left corner, guiding the ball around the giant frame of Bruno Alves stationed just inside the area. Our reaction to this goal is perhaps more subdued than you might expect; although a truly beautiful strike that has given the Netherlands the lead, we are aware that not only does that lead still needs to be doubled but that Germany also have to find one over Denmark in order for the Oranje to get out of the group. So although this happened in the eleventh minute, over ten minutes later we still do not yet feel that our Euro 2012 has been reignited, although unknown to us it has been by events elsewhere.
By ten o’clock this evening, unless nature decides again that it hates football and unleashes more bolts of lightning across the Ukrainian skies, we will know whether or not the Netherlands have achieved the impossible. No team has ever qualified from the group stages of a major tournament having lost their first two matches and although statistically the chances of the Oranje becoming the first are slim, the results that are required to satisfy this outcome are not entirely outside the realms of possibility. All that is required to see Holland through is a two-goal victory over Portugal in Kharkiv, while we must hope that Denmark lose to Germany in Lviv.
Ever since Kettering Town took to the pitch against Bath City on 24 January 1976 with “Kettering Tyres” emblazoned across the front of their shirts, sharp men in sharper suits have been trying to concoct ingenious new schemes through which to capitalise on the popularity of the game. While some have been more successful than others (Blackpool’s 2011/12 sponsorship deal with Wonga.com was worth a measly £500k, ironically about the yearly interest on a loan of a tenner from that particular website) there has been ever-increasing opportunities to do so; with the advent of Sky Sports in 1990, the birth of the FA Premier League two years later and the reinvention of the European Cup as the UEFA Champions League, advertising agencies everywhere lost their shit at the prospect of interrupting our pre-match build-up and half-time analysis with aspirational interpretations of the game, designed to trick grown men into thinking a £150 pair of boots will make them play like Zinedine Zidane, or at least Roy Makaay. It certainly worked on myself as a fourteen year-old and after many, many Saturdays working for Pete/dad I was the proud owner of a pair of the beauties below; I just wish that the advert had warned me that by wearing a pair of white football boots worth over a hundred pounds I had condemned myself to three years of hurdling knee-high challenges and abuse from the parents of opposing centre-backs. At least I learned some new words, I suppose.
The two words that every football supporter is in equal measure loathed and grateful to hear. It generally means: “We can still go through/stay up/qualify, although we probably don’t deserve to.”
But this is where we are, following a turbulent five days in which we have gone from genuinely believing that the Oranje will be thereabouts when the champions of Europe are crowned on July 1st, to standing on the brink of elimination without a single point. It is odd to think that on Saturday morning we were looking ahead to the latter weeks of June and the first couple days of July, and now we are simply staring into the abyss.
Simon Poulsen gathers the ball in the final third. Although gathering pace, the Danish left-back appears to be heading down a blind alley covered by two Dutch players and as a last resort attempts a desperate low cross by the corner flag that is easily covered by Gregory Van Der Wiel. The ball ricochets harmlessly off the heel of the Ajax right-back and lands at the feet of Michael Krohn-Dehli. With plenty of Oranje shirts ahead of him the Brondby midfielder would appear to pose little threat however on the edge of the penalty area, just left of centre, he shapes to shoot on his right foot and with a twist of the hips sells a sublime dummy that in a single touch renders Johnny Heintinga, Mark Van Bommel and Ron Vlaar helpless and takes the former Ajax player towards the left side of the six yard box. With only Stekelenburg to beat, Krohn-Dehli fires the ball through the legs of the advancing Roma goalkeeper.
The far corner of the net ripples. A sinking feeling forms in the pit of the stomach. With twenty-five minutes played in Kharkiv and two games sooner than expected, the Netherlands’ Euro 2012 just became a knock-out competition.
With each day that has passed since the draw for the finals took place in early December of last year at the Ukraine Palace of Arts in Kiev, the anxious excitement and nervous anticipation within our small cabal of Dutch exiles has been gradually increasing. Over the fortnight just passed, as the Oranje have been preparing for the tournament with warm-up matches in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, a training camp in Hoenderloo and a long journey to the team base in the Polish city of Krakow, we too have been readying ourselves for the coming weeks; flags have been hung from windows, balconies and ceilings beams, days have been tactically booked off work, potential venues at which to view games have been sought out and new shirts have been procured. Like Bert Van Marwijk, we have been Making Plans For Nigel.
At the beginning of May, Bert Van Marwijk named thirty-six players in an enormous provisional squad that would travel to the tiny rural village of Hoenderloo to participate in a pre-tournament training camp upon the conclusion of the domestic and European competition. During the camp and the weeks that followed this squad was trimmed to twenty-seven players and on Saturday 26th May, hours before the Netherlands faced Bulgaria in the first of three warm-up matches and three days before deadline (Van Marwijk is something of a maverick, you see, a renegade.) the Dutch head coach named his final squad for Euro 2012. Vernon Anita, Adam Maher, Jeremain Lens and Siem de Jong were the four players that narrowly missed out; below are the twenty-three that would follow Van Marwijk off the plane that touched down in Krakow on June 4th.