No-Van’s Land

No sooner has the the final whistle sounded in the final of a major international tournament than PTD (also known as “Post-Tournament Depression”) sets in. If indeed each World Cup or European Championships is a fiery summer romance between game and fan, then the following twenty-four months is akin to a long distance relationship; despite the comforting prospect of forthcoming domestic seasons across Europe and the familiar routine that accompanies them, they lack the intensity that we experience for those few weeks of every summer during years ending in even digits. However just like a holiday romance, paradoxically it is their transience that makes them so appealing – it is those moments that are the most brief that we desire more of, yet to attain more of them would in turn make them less desirable.

I believe that this is another key reason why we have chosen to follow the Oranje. When we were small children, before the advent of Sky Sports, social media or even the internet, information regarding the footballers of our domestic leagues and national teams was hard to come by. If you wanted to see a team play you had to go and watch them in person or (if you were lucky) wait for the one or two occassions each season in which they might appear on television, perhaps in an FA Cup Final or the latter stages of the Champions League. Maybe if they were in the FA Premier League you could wait until gone midnight on a Saturday night to see brief highlights of their game on “Match Of The Day”. (I remember plenty of these, when my brother and I would make it through the whole of “That’s Life” with Esther Rantzen, eyes drooping, only to finally succumb to sleep seconds before Des Lynam introduced highlights of our team.) To know more about your team it was necessary to mail order the Rothman’s Football Yearbook or write to the club for information, which you would recieve in the form of a ‘fact sheet’ printed in size 12 Times New Roman on a single piece of A4 paper. (Such was the scarcity of information, I used to read my Merlin Premier League sticker albums in bed by torchlight. Before I had even placed any stickers in them.)

In this digital, post-internet society, however, we are spoilt for choice; we bear witness to every thought and action of the players via Twitter and the tabloids. Each news story, interview or goal (no matter how insignificant) is conveyed almost instantly to us by Sky Sports News or a plethora of football websites and only half of a name need be typed into Google or YouTube before we are confronted with an abundance of images, statistics and videos regarding the player or club in question. It seems like these vast resources of information are surely a blessing that has given football another dimension, but they have also destroyed an invaluable part of our game that we perhaps could not identify when it was present and as a result have not even noticed has gone missing – the enigma. (This is possibly why players such as Paolo Di Canio, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Mario Balotelli have become so loved in recent years, despite their largely unpopular characteristics and propensity for petulance, controversy and violence; they display a fallibility that is recognisable in ourselves and are harder classify than the typically homogenous modern player.) In this case football again acts as a metaphor for the rest of society; as the quantity of information available to us has risen exponentially, the value and reliability of that information has followed a negative correlation.

By comparison the Dutch domestic leagues are still a relatively unknown quantity and although the likes of Wesley Sneijder and Robin Van Persie made it out of the lowlands and have become as familiar to us as Ashley Cole or John Terry, how much do you really know about Stijn Schaars or Ron Vlaar? Right now you are probably asking why you would want to know much about them, and that is exactly my point. We do not need to know too much about a footballer, beyond whether or not they can play football. Sure there are plenty of interesting anecdotes, philosophical quotes and hilarious clips of footage, but for every one of these there are a thousand tedious interviews, ludicrous rumours or banal facts, and there are no longer the financial and technological barriers in place that filter these on behalf of the fan. However due to the Eredivisie’s lack of marketability, obvious language barriers and the relatively introverted Dutch mentality, even with SSN playing in the background and a Google search open there are areas of Dutch football that remain unattainable, that are unreachable to those of us on the opposite side of the North Sea and therefore retain that idiosyncratic depth of the past. We can indulge every impulse to find information to the Nth degree and still barely scratch the surface; ergo following the Oranje makes us feel that compound of excitement and surprise, that mixture of curiosity and innocence that has been worn away over those years separating childhood from maturity, just as a holiday romance does. With English football it is as if we have invited the girl we met on holiday to move in with us.

(I am not saying unequivocally that this increased exposure has been a bad thing, I merely feel that it is valid to question whether it is necessary. Football is an addiction of sorts and the amount of football that has been made available to us is a little like providing white russians on the NHS – we know that we would be healthier without it or at least that we would surely enjoy it more in moderation but if it is handed to us, we’ll take it. And whereas I appreciate that this huge volume of information has enabled me to follow my club team from afar almost as if I were a season ticket holder, no amount of live broadcasts can fabricate that experience and by contrast I welcome the opportunity when an international break comes around to take a step into the unknown, to break the routine of the domestic season and to preoccupy myself with a more mysterious entity.)

And so aside from a short spell of several days every few months, we have been starved of the prolonged exposure to our beloved Oranje that we perhaps took for granted during that brief summer of 2010. Such occassions have been spent straining our eyes at internet streams so pixelated that Dirk Kuyt and Wesley Sneijder appear to be twins, refreshing text commentary on our phones when we really should be paying better attention to that important conversation, overdue assignment or oncoming HGV, and trying to figure out exactly who the hell Ricky Van Wolfswinkel is. Were I to plot a line graph cross-referencing occassions in which I have stubbed my toe in the last two years, there would be notable spikes around 12th October 2010 and 6th September of the following year. Although separated by the North Sea, the Dutch have never been far from our minds.

And thus is the story of qualification. As the Oranje were busy qualifying for Poland-Ukraine, we were busy qualifying as Oranje; if we graduated from the World Cup with a degree in De Jong then throughout qualification we were studying towards a PhD in Van Persie. Their passage to the finals was of course much more eventful than our own and frequently far less stressful; drawn in Group E along with the Scandinavian pairing of Sweden and Finland, a resurgent Hungary, the always unpredictable Moldova and perennial minnows San Marino, the Oranje began their campaign in the tiny enclave in Northern Italy. Dirk Kuyt opened the scoring in a low-key manner befitting of the qualification rounds, casually slotting home a penalty after quarter of an hour, and a routine win was wrapped up a minute from time by veteran striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy with a trademark finish from close range, either side of a clinical Klaas-Jan Huntelaar hat-trick.

Victory was somewhat less emphatic four days later when Nederland met Finland at De Kuip, the Rotterdam home of Feyenoord. Despite dominating the game the Oranje squeezed past the Finns due to a Huntelaar brace, the first a header from a delicately floated Sneijder cross after the alert Inter midfielder had collected a short corner quickly taken by Rafael Van Der Vaart on the right. This was followed barely ten minutes later by a dubious penalty, which Huntelaar stroked into the bottom left corner after Mark Van Bommel had tumbled inside the box and, although the Finns grabbed a lifeline through Mikael Forssell halfway through the first half, this proved to be enough. Huntelaar was again the difference a month later in Chisinau as the Dutch scraped past Moldova, the Schalke 04 centre-forward firing the only goal of the game across the goalkeeper and in off the foot of the left post from an acute angle just inside the penalty area.

The first real test came in the form of Sweden the following Tuesday; potentially a group decider even at such an early stage, the game had added zest due to the ongoing feud between Rafael Van Der Vaart and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. During a summer friendly between the two nations way back in 2004, Ibrahimovic injured his then Ajax Amsterdam team-mate with a reckless challenge that Van Der Vaart later claimed was intentional. It has since been rumoured that this was the reason behind the sudden sale of Ibrahimovic to Juventus only weeks after the incident and eight years on, despite admissions from the Swede that “I was a savage, a lunatic and I couldn’t control my temper” in his recent autobiography, the pair are still seizing every opportunity to pick at the wound.

It was Van Der Vaart who drew first blood after just four minutes in their former home of Amsterdam, playing in another Ajax old boy with a deft pass just outside the penalty area. Huntelaar’s clever run to stay onside and neatly disguised finish was then added to by Ibrahim Afellay, who collected a perfectly weighted pass from Sneijder shortly before half-time and hared into the left side of the area, from where he calmly placed a side-footed finish beyond Andreas Isaksson before the Swedish goalkeeper could set himself. After a first half that provided a goal after four minutes, the second then provided two within four minutes; shortly before the hour mark recent Barcelona signing Afellay set off on a meandering run and delivered an inch-perfect cross that set up Huntelaar with his second, a stooping header from the edge of the six yard box. Huntelaar repaid the favour minutes later, breaking free of the Swedish back four down the left channel and squaring for the winger who fired into the roof of the net from the opposite corner of the box. Sweden snatched a consolation ten minutes later through Andreas Granqvist, a defender who at the time played his club football in the Eredivisie with Groningen, although his cleanly-struck volley from a well-worked Swedish set piece proved to be just that and the Oranje duly claimed pole position in the group.

In late March, after the winter break from international football, the Oranje began 2011 where they had left off in 2010, putting four past Hungary in Budapest. Van Der Vaart opened the scoring at the Stadium Ferensc Puskas, collecting Sneijder’s threaded pass and drilling home when faced with only the goalkeeper, and Afellay scored his third in two games with a similar effort on the stroke of half time. Kuyt and Van Persie added two more in the second half, both side-footed efforts into an open goal, as the Netherlands reached the halfway stage in the group with a one hundred percent record.

Several days later the two teams met again in the reverse fixture at the Arena, the Dutch again coming out on top with a 5-3 victory, although the match was admittedly nowhere near as comfortable as the scoreline suggests. Holland took the lead on twelve minutes, Sneijder’s corner falling to Van Persie at the far post, where the Arsenal forward took a touch and thumped home from eight yards. The lead remained intact until a minute into the second half, when a deflected long-range effort pulled the Hungarians level and the anxiety of the Amsterdam crowd turned to disbelief minutes later as Zoltan Gera gave them the lead with an incredible volley from just inside the penalty area. Sneijder restored parity on the hour mark, chipping a cute finish over the advancing Hungarian goalkeeper, and with fifteen minutes remaining substitute Van Nistelrooy put the Oranje into the lead with a driven effort from eighteen yards. Once again though the Hungarians drew level, Gera side-footing an excellent finish into the top left corner that curled away from the approaching Stekelenburg and left the Roma goalkeeper rooted to the spot. Eventually a late brace from Dirk Kuyt saved Oranje blushes, first arriving at the far post to volley in a deep Afellay cross from the left and then sealing the win with an audacious lob from thirty yards that arced over the Hungarian goalkeeper into the top left corner.

Following another long break due to the imbalanced Group E schedule, the Oranje triumphed in a much more comfortable fashion over San Marino almost six months later. Four goals from Van Persie, a Sneijder brace and one apiece from Jonny Heitinga, Kuyt, Huntelaar and Georginio Wijnaldum gave the Dutch an astonishing 11-0 victory, a scoreline that surpassed any margin of victory in the history of the Nederland national team. Less than a week later the Oranje then took themselves to the brink of qualification with a 2-0 victory over Finland, with both Kevin Strootman and Luuk De Jong respectively scoring their first international goals in Helsinki.

This left the Oranje needing only one win out of the remaining two games to seal qualification and they did so at the first time of asking, beating Moldova 1-0 at De Kuip. Shortly before half-time Dirk Kuyt collected Joris Mathijsen’s long pass from inside the Dutch half and raced down the inside right of the Moldovan penalty area. Kuyt took the ball to the goal-line and pulled a low cross back; it was quite fittingly left to Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to seal qualification and he duly obliged with a composed finish from close range, retaining the power of the pass and diverting the ball into the net.

With a place in the finals already secured, the Oranje travelled to Stockholm for their final qualfying match to face a Swedish team that were still playing for second place in the group. In the interests of fair play and with a one hundred perfect record to protect, Bert Van Marwijk fielded a full-strength team in the Rasunda Stadium, however Kim Kallstrom gave Sweden the lead with a sublime free-kick after thirteen minutes that curled into the top right corner from the edge of the penalty area. Huntelaar pulled the Oranje level ten minutes later, meeting PSV left-back Erik Pieters’ deep left-wing cross with a powerful header that left Isaksson motionless and Kuyt nodded into an empty net as Van Persie’s effort came back off the goalkeeper to give Nederland the lead shortly after half-time. However two goals in two minutes, a calmly taken Sebastien Larsson penalty and a whipped Ola Toivonen effort from just inside the area, gave the Swedes a 3-2 victory that denied the Oranje not only that one hundred perfect record in qualification but also an unbeaten one.

Despite this disappointing final match, the Oranje had qualified with a game to spare and finished as top scorers in the whole of Euro 2012 qualification. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was also top individual goalscorer with twelve goals, a feat made even more impressive when it is considered that the former Ajax, Real Madrid and Milan striker only managed two goals in the home hammering of San Marino. More encouraging still was the manner in which the Oranje had played; after the uncharacteristic reliance on physicality and grinding out results during the 2010 World Cup, as qualification progressed the team rediscovered the fluid, expressive style of play with which the country is synonymous, albeit against much weaker opposition. Although it remains to be seen whether they can carry this aesthetic into the finals, Van Marwijk’s decision to leave out Nigel De Jong for the majority of qualification and play with Mark Van Bommell as a solitary holding midfielder saw the Dutch go a long way to restoring their damaged reputation.

As I mentioned in the introduction to this blog, although it has been difficult at times to sustain our relationship with the Oranje throughout the yawning chasm that stretched out beyond the World Cup, in many ways the distance has brought us closer. Each qualification group match, every poorly-translated snippet of news and all those stolen moments searching for a 2008 player-issue away shirt have been gratefully received, as if they were some small Dutch archipelago in a vast ocean of flat beer and Grand Slam Sundays. Over the past twenty-four months, no meaningless friendly has been without meaning.

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