Wiel of Fortune

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.

The signs had been ominous from the very beginning; although consuming a full pot of coffee before riding halfway to town in RB’s cosy D reg Peugeot 306 had given the morning a fittingly continental feel, there was largely a notable absence of anything Oranje on the remainder of the journey and the lack of atmosphere upon our arrival in Foley’s immediately killed a Euro-buzz that had barely begun to gather momentum. It was our own fault; with it’s fine selection of real ales and boutique lagers, mahogany panelling and genuine Winchester furnishings, I have always been fond of the old cask ale house, however while it is the perfect place to quietly read a book with only a pint or two for company, it is perhaps not the ideal venue in which to view a crucial opening game of an international tournament. We knew this beforehand of course, but we were there out of tradition having gathered in that same place two years ago for our inaugral game as adopted Dutchmen; that too was an opening group match against Denmark and so it felt right to be at Foley’s almost two years to the day later. However, whereas back then that same understated ambience matched our whimsical, naive attitude towards following the Oranje, our connection with the national team and identity has grown over the past twenty-four months to an extent that the delicate surroundings of Foley’s can no longer equal. The low volume of the television sets and the test match cricket displayed upon their screens when we first entered did little to help the black mood that had suddenly descended upon me; something was amiss that I couldn’t quite put my finger on and overly confident text messages of support from friends such as “in the bag mate” only served to heighten my nervous anticipation.

And of course the ninety minutes of football that followed confirmed our worst fears. Never have I witnessed a game so one-sided, where a single team has so many opportunities to score but never looks like doing so; although we tried to keep our spirits up and kept telling each other that a goal was coming, deep down I think we knew that it never would. It does not take a tactical genius to identify the difference between the two sides – out of a ridiculous twenty-nine shots the Oranje managed to only find the target with six, whereas the Danes made Stekelenburg work with four out of their eight attempts. Krohn-Dehli hit the target with all three of his chances alone, including the fatal blow that he delivered at seven twenty-five pm local time. After the efficient, functional football of the World Cup that got criticised so heavily, it would seem that the Dutch are back to doing what we do best – outplaying the opposition with fluid, creative football that has no end product and then claiming a moral victory over statistical defeat. Johann Cruijff once said that “there is no better medal than being acclaimed for your style” and whereas this speaks hugely to the romantic inside of me, defeat still hurts even if you can look back on brief moments of pure beauty, such as the 40-yard arcing pass with the outside of the right boot that Wesley Sneijder played for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar midway through the second half; around 3:22 on the below video, which demonstrates that even when the team fails to perform, Sneijder still manages to demonstrate his sublime talent. Even though I would not exchange the memory of such moments of inspiration for an entire team of Krohn-Dehlis and a lifetime of defensive 1-0 victories, the frustrating thing about the Oranje is that they have the potential to do both; the issue seems to be the fragile, inconsistent temperament that occassionally prohibits the domination of matches to be translated into goals.

Personally I believe that the problem on Saturday with the Oranje was that, having been drawn in the obligatory ‘Group of Death’ along with the Danes, Germany and Portugal, statistically the toughest group ever drawn together at a major championships with every single team inside the top 10 of the FIFA rankings, everybody immediately focused on the Germany game. It is not difficult to see the reasons for this, taking into account the footballing history between the two nations and the fact that this youthful, exhilerating Germany team are second favourites to win the tournament after their resurgence of recent years. Then with Portugal to come in the final group match, everybody identified Denmark as the ‘weaker’ team in the group which technically I suppose is true, but with Denmark having beaten Portugal to qualify for the tournament ahead of them and still being tenth in the FIFA rankings at the time of the draw, it is all relative. This in turn then led to calls from Van Marwijk, Van Bommel and the Dutch media for the team to not underestimate the Danes but also that with Germany and Portugal to come, it was imperative that they take three points. The end result seemed to be a conflicted combination of complacency and humble anxiety; the Oranje reacted to each squandered chance with an air of calmness that suggested they believed there would be another moments later, yet the reason that they were squandering chances to begin with was that they were apprehensive in thinking that this game needed to be won. I suspect that after the group stage is over (or the tournament as it may turn out to be for the Dutch) we will perhaps look back on the Denmark match as the most difficult, due to it’s complex and delicate psychology. After such a perfect season with Arsenal, Van Persie looked rigid and far from relaxed as he continually lost his footing and allowed his first touch to bounce off his shin or bobble over his foot, and Robben appeared too impatient to get shots off instead of displaying the composure that he so often does. They weren’t alone; the other players also looked choked and stifled, leading to uncharacteristic errors. Without wanting to take too much credit away from Denmark, the mentality of our fallible heroes on Saturday could possibly have made this the toughest game in the group.

Aside from the potentially catastrophic defeat and the relentlessly poor finishing, one of the other big disappointments of the afternoon was how many English people that we knew immediately leapt upon our defeat like vultures. It was as if most of them already had texts written out before the match and were waiting for the final whistle to hit ‘send’; at least four times did one of our phones signal a new text message within ten seconds of the match ending, each one reading something witty and insightful such as “heh heh” or “oops”. I doubt that they appreciate that each antagonistic, smug message that they sent provided further validation of our decision to follow the Oranje, a decision that was borne out of a distaste for the mentality of English football and a wish to distance ourselves from it, a mentality that dictates that the English be more concerned with the failure of others than their own success. Like the international equivalent of Leeds United supporters, who in the last season have gotten more animated about the propect of Manchester United losing the title than the possibility of Leeds getting promoted, perhaps one day they will learn to concentrate on their own failings rather than those of others and in doing so, they may finally learn to play football well. I will not be cheering should England win against France this evening in Donetsk, nor will I be gloating if the French come out on top. We have not made this decision to be antagonistic as we believe that football should not be used for such ends, we have made it for our own personal reasons and we remain fully commited to it; a friend later said to me “Yeah but deep down, you must want England to win it?” I imagine this is a little like telling your friends that you are gay, only to have them continually attempt to set you up with girls.

And so after successfully executing my backstory on a few unassuming Englishmen and a double Wild Turkey on the rocks to calm the nerves, we left Foley’s in favour of heading to the Fox & Newt to watch Germany face Portugal in the evening kick-off, in the hope that a minted lamb burger and the dreamy barmaids of that particular establishment might raise our spirits. While crossing the ringroad, two figures dressed from head to toe in red and white appeared in the distance. No fucking way; we had managed to come across the only two Danish supporters in the whole of West Yorkshire. We braced ourselves for an emotional beating that never materialised, in fact they looked heartbreakingly humble and almost apologetic as we passed them. I do love the Danes, and have done since I visited the towns of Aarhus and Fredericia in 2005; any country in which you have to specifically ask for bread with your hotdog or else you will be handed a napkin containing a huge frankfurter, mustard and ketchup is the kind of country that I can get along with. As if things hadn’t gotten daft enough, at half time during the match in Lviv, with space at a premium, the prime table in the pub (large leather armchairs, right in front of the huge projector screen) was vacated and as we swooped in to claim the territory for the Netherlands, so did two other guys who were seated on the opposite side of it. With plenty of seats available at the table, we asked them to join us only to find they were German. Two of the loveliest guys you are ever likely to meet, we shared an appreciation of the creative attacking talent contained in the midfield of each other’s teams and after their country sealed a 1-0 victory over the Portugeuse we made plans to meet at Bierkeller for the match on Wednesday.

I returned home at half past four on Sunday morning, after a mini Euro-bender that peaked in buying seven packs of Panini Euro 2012 stickers at around midnight and culminated in dancing our troubles away to Lionel Ritchie and Cyndi Lauper. Fittingly my last act before bed, as day broke over Meanwood, was to untangle the Dutch flag hanging from the bedroom windows that had somewhat symbolically been battered around by the wind. The next two days are going to be agony in anticipation of the Germany match, but it will just be a case of keeping our heads down and getting through it. We can at least attempt to continually console ourselves with the knowledge that when Nederland won the Henri Delauney trophy back in 1988, they lost their first group game to a USSR side that they would later beat in the final and that in 2010 Spain lost their opening group game 1-0 to Switzerland on their way to winning the World Cup. We will try to ignore that the Netherlands’ two remaining group games in ’88 were against England and Ireland, and the Spanish only had matches against Honduras and Chile left to negotiate two years ago. At least if nothing else we are now in no doubt as to what is required; every tournament becomes knock-out football at some point, for us it has simply arrived two games earlier than we had expected. Perhaps Bert will play Huntelaar instead of Van Persie, perhaps he will play both together and maybe De Jong will be sacrificed in order to accomodate Van Der Vaart so that the Netherlands can go for broke, but either way hopefully the Oranje will relax and learn to be themselves again, to show the rest of Europe what we already know. To paraphrase Cruijff once more: it is better to fail with your own vision than to succeed with that of another.

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