IT BEGINS.Posted: June 9, 2012
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.
With our numbers increased slightly since those glorious summer evenings of two years ago, we gathered at RB’s flat exactly two weeks ago for the first of three warm-up matches against Bulgaria at the Amsterdam Arena. At the end of an absorbing first half in which Valeri Bozhinov hit the Dutch woodwork with a floated, dipping free-kick from distance and the Dutch created plenty of openings only for the final pass to go slightly astray, Wesley Sneijder at last found the killer ball, chipping a delicate pass over the Bulgarian back four into the path of a clever run by Robin Van Persie, who nudged a first-time volley into the bottom left corner. With Van Marwijk taking the opportunity to look at Tim Krul in goal and Jetro Willems at left-back, and attempting to accomodate both Van Persie and Huntelaar in a forward line ahead of Rafa Van Der Vaart, the experimental nature of the side caused the Oranje to stutter and three minutes after the break Bulgaria equalised; Ivelin Popov slotted a penalty down the middle of Krul’s goal after the dubious award of a spot kick, Van Der Vaart the man penalised for handball as he attempted to block a low cross with sliding challenge. The remainder of the second half passed by with little attacking threat from either side until Bulgaria found a winner in injury time, a wayward pass from Heitinga gifting possession to Stanislav Manolev and the right-back ran unchallenged to the corner of the penalty area, where he stood a cross up to the far post and onto the head of substitute Ilian Micanski, who nodded the ball back across Krul into the bottom right corner.
Following an inauspicious beginning to our preparations, talk turned to the usual pressing matters of whether Huntelaar and Van Persie can be incorporated into the same starting eleven and potential replacements for Mathijsen, after the Malaga centre-back pulled up with a hamstring injury in the first half. The most disconcerting of injuries, the hamstring has a tendency to fool the recipient into believing that they have recovered, only to go again minutes into a comeback and although Joris has since trained with the squad, it is more than likely that another centre-half will be required at some stage during the tournament. Despite the anti-climax of such a disappointing performance our spirits were raised considerably by the football-themed adverts on Dutch television, including a truly ridiculous Lipton Iced Tea commercial featuring Wesley Sneijder travelling around in a ‘Limoensine’.
The following Monday morning I booked ten days strategically chosen days off work over the course of June and the beginning of July, taking into account the kick-off times, the venues at which we have planned to watch each game and how hungover I am likely to be the following morning. (Below are the results, with Euro holidays marked in yellow and blue – before you ask the answer is yes, I did try to find an Oranje highlighter with which to denote these days off, but the guards of the stationery cupboard are cold, unforgiving and do not care for fun.) Two days later we met once again for the second warm-up and things went a little more smoothly this time, as the Oranje cruised to a 2-0 victory over Slovakia at De Kuip. Following a rather bewildering opening five minutes in which Wilfred Bouma, Mathijsen’s replacement in Rotterdam, attempted to decimate the remainder of the Dutch central defence by colliding with John Heitinga, the Netherlands took the lead on eleven minutes after Ibrahim Afellay surged down the left side of the penalty area and played in a driven, teasing low cross that Kornel Salata sliced into his own net. With Van Marwijk reverting to his oft-favoured 4-3-3 that deployed Robben and Afellay on either side of Van Persie, the Dutch matched their sexy new away strip with several passages of sexy football and the victory was wrapped up by substitute Van Der Vaart with a quarter of an hour remaining, collecting the ball on the edge of the box and taking two long strides towards the right of the penalty spot, where he fired the ball cleanly across the goalkeeper into the bottom left corner.
This looked more like the imperious Oranje that we had witnessed in qualifying and although the performance was far from flawless, it seemed that everybody was beginning to hit their stride. The following Saturday, with our group dispersed by the bank holiday weekend, we watched in separate corners of the country as Holland demolished Northern Ireland. Van Persie, again playing down the middle after his misadventure on the left a week earlier, opened the scoring after ten minutes; Wesley Sneijder took a quick short corner and got the ball back, changing the angle of delivery as he so often does before placing an inch-perfect far post cross onto the head of RVP, who powerfully headed home. Barely five minutes later Sneijder doubled the lead with a beautifully struck free-kick, curling the ball into the left side of Lee Camp’s goal from a distant central position and Holland went three up inside half an hour thanks to a Van Persie penalty. Shortly before half-time RVP turned provider, collecting the ball on the edge of the area after Arjen Robben’s driving run from the halfway line and playing a blind pass for the overlapping Afellay, who hammered the ball across Camp into the bottom left corner. The pair again combined to the same effect in the second half, Van Persie holding the ball up on the penalty spot and laying off for Afellay, who caught the ball flawlessly with the side of his foot to find the net with minimal backlift and leave Camp inanimate. With little over ten minutes remaining Ron Vlaar then capped a fine personal performance with his first international goal, arriving in the six-yard box like a ton of bricks on a trampoline and powering a header inside the near post.
Those of us watching the game kept those unable to up to date via text message, however they may have received a slightly obscured analysis of the match as we raved about Afellay’s performance, attempted to do Sneijder’s free-kick descriptive justice and declared Ron Vlaar the saviour of Dutch defending. On Thursday evening RM came round to my flat in order to help me put up my giant 8ft x 5ft Dutch flag; I had planned to attach it to the balcony (to the right on the photograph) however having misplaced the key to the French doors we settled on hanging it from the two bedroom windows. Having chosen the worst possible weather in which to attempt such a task, fifteen minutes of dangling out of a window in galeforce winds and drizzle then followed, as I held one end of the flag and attempted to throw the other end to RM. Eventually this approach paid dividends and we managed to secure both ends by trapping them in the windows. Feeling thoroughly proud of ourselves if a little damp, my girlfriend brought it to our attention that we would not be able to open the bedroom windows for the next month and then enquired as to whether we thought somebody might take offence and throw something at the window. My reply, that once somebody had bricked our window the bedroom would be ventilated plenty, did nothing to allay her concerns and left me wondering what it must be like to go out with a twelve year-old during a major international tournament, although I didn’t dwell on this matter for too long as there were stickers to be placed in the Panini album.
And so last night, at the end of months of anticipation, we assembled excitedly at the Fox & Newt on Burley Road to watch the opening ceremony and first two matches of the tournament. After Poland and Greece produced a draw that was one of the more entertaining opening matches to a tournament in recent memory, the Russian annihilation of the Czechs and a truly epic 16oz gourmet burger topped with bacon, cheese and possibly the finest onion rings that I have ever tasted (it needed two ‘masts’ to hold it together) we hit the Euro wall and retired to our separates abodes to dream of Wesley and his Limoensine. In a little over three hours we will embark upon the long walk from our separate corners of Leeds to Mr. Foley’s Cask Ale House on the Headrow, where our European Championships will begin. So all that really remains for now is that I make you aware that you are more than welcome to join us, wish you the best of tournaments no matter your nationality and pose you this important question, in relation to the photograph below: Sikh temple or Oranje supporters club?