“Mathematically Possible”Posted: June 14, 2012
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.
In any endeavour, whether it be emotional, physical or mental, there comes a time when the faith of the individual, the pair or the group is tested. After the honeymoon period there inevitably comes a period of calm and not long after that period of calm comes a defining moment of truth, a watershed; now you know that I am/we are fallible, are you going to stick around? For our ever-growing group, after the fledgling summer romance of a World Cup that ended in Johannesburg with a final appearance two years ago and the long-distance lull of qualifying that followed, that moment came last night; surrounded by Germans in the Bierkeller just off the Headrow, we watched as our team were out-maneouvred, out-thought and out-run by Joachim Loew’s side, but even though the Oranje were naive, temperamental and overwrought, we embraced these qualities as own, stood toe-to-toe with our continental counterparts and said “Ik ben”.
After a fraught, tense day at work for all concerned, myself and RM were the first to meet outside the Bavarian-themed basement bar minutes after the early match between Portugal and Denmark had kicked off in Lviv. Having been to Munich before but not to Bierkeller, I was truly impressed; with it’s authentic interior decor featuring stone walls and rows of long benches, stereotypically lederhosen-clad waitresses and a fine selection of German draught beers includes Veltins and Jever, the cellar bar goes a long way to accurately recreating the atmosphere of it’s Bavarian equivalent, an admirable feat given that it is situated in West Yorkshire. With the Haus Bier available in authentic two-pint Steiners, those that were attempting to curb (or legitimise) their drinking even had the option of switching from the “four pint rule” to the “four stein rule”. We were admittedly a little disappointed by the reaction of the (presumably) German owner, who greeted our arrival with a surly efficiency that we assumed was a show of contempt for five Netherlands supporters that had made the potentially inflammatory decision to watch this encounter with their closest rivals in a German-themed bar. As I have said before, nothing we have said or done is designed to antagonise; our main reasons for watching at Bierkeller were actually in the hope of mixing with German supporters, to experience a different atmosphere than we are accustomed to and (as the Germans themselves were also hoping) to take a break from having to watch football with the English.
Working our way down the first stein of the evening, we ordered from the incredible food menu that includes Currywurst mit Pommes, Fleischpflanzerl and Nuremberg Bratwurst, and settled down at a table directly in front of the huge projector screen to watch the early kick-off. Having worked out the possible connotations of Wednesday’s results the previous evening on post-it notes in RM’s living room like some mediocre version of CSI, we knew what the best outcome for the Oranje was and Portugal duly obliged; a fine header from Pepe that crept in at the near post and a beautifully clinical finish from Helder Postiga gave Portugal a two-goal cushion and although two soft headers from Nicklas Bendtner drew the Danes level, Silvestre Varela conjured an unbelievable finish three minutes from time to seal victory for the Portugeuse. They had done their bit to blow qualification from the group wide open, now it was up to the Netherlands to do ours.
Seated next to a group of lovely German supporters, we watched as the two sides belted out their respective anthems in an intense, heartfelt manner and the Oranje dominated the first twenty minutes, knocking the ball around with confidence and purpose as they had done four days earlier. The Germans struggled to get a foot on the ball in the early stages and the first clear cut chance of the match fell to Robin Van Persie, who could have taken a touch inside the penalty area after being found by Mark Van Bommel’s masterful long pass, but instead elected to shoot first time with a weak side-footed volley that Manuel Neuer easily saved. Mesut Ozil then fired a warning to the Dutch with an excellent volleyed effort from the edge of the area that struck the base of the right-hand post before being gratefully grasped by Maarten Stekelenburg and with the two sides trading body-blows Van Persie snatched at another decent chance, dragging his right-footed shot wide on the turn after being slipped free down the right side of the area by Arjen Robben. Once again this poor finishing was punished, this time by the lethal finishing of Mario Gomez who grabbed two goals in fifteen minutes. The first came after Van Der Wiel dropped slightly deeper than the rest of the Dutch back four and Bastian Schweinsteiger’s neat through-ball from just outside the area found Gomez just inside it; with his back to goal the Bayern striker took an incredible first touch that wrongfooted both Heintinga and Mathijsen, dragging the ball between the two Dutch centre-backs with the sole of his left boot and finishing low into the bottom left corner with the side of his right. The clinical shot went to Stekelenburg’s right and although the Roma goalkeeper got his thigh to the ball as he dived in the opposite direction, it wasn’t enough to divert it wide and Gomez wheeled away towards the corner flag in celebration. Although the Germans had struck first, we felt that apart from the scoreline we had played a near-flawless opening half an hour and still had hope that if we could find a finish or two, we could at least take something from the game. This hope was all but extinguished five minutes before half time when again the sea of Oranje parted far too easily and allowed space for Schweinsteiger to play in Gomez, this time down the right side of the area with an almost impossible angle from which to shoot; the former VfB Stuttgart forward and Crispin Glover lookalike ran onto his Bayern team-mate’s perfectly weighted pass, steadied himself and side-footed a sublime rising finish with his right boot that swerved away from Stekelenburg’s outstretched right hand high into the top left corner of the net. Even though the Oranje had played some excellent football that was easy on the eye, they never really looked as threatening as a Germany team that were capable of complimenting those same intricate passes and deft touches with instinctive, precise finishing; Gomez, a striker who is extremely likeable but prone to going amiss in the bigger matches, proved to the whole of Europe that he can produce when it really matters.
(Another facet of the English mentality towards football that has disappointed us in recent years is the reliance of the media and fans to concentrate more on players’ mistakes and poor refereeing decisions when analysing a match, rather than concentrating on the constructive aspects of the game. More and more airtime and breath is wasted on identifying a lapse in concentration of a back four or the poor eyesight of a linesman to not spot a possible offside that allows a team to score a goal, rather than replaying and doing justice to the sublime pass, intelligent run or instinctive finish that created it. Too much emphasis is placed on blame rather than praise and I am utterly sick of it; last night we were undone by two truly beautiful examples of how to strike a football.)
At half-time we spoke with the German supporters at the table next to us, in particular an amiable Bayern fan from Munich who had come to watch the game with an English friend, about our decision to follow the Oranje and the reasoning behind it. Not only did he understand but was supportive of our choice, telling me that “football is about what is in your heart” and thumping his own chest emphatically with his fist. What a guy. We spoke about the host of talent contained in each other’s squads, he of Huntelaar’s incredible record at Schalke, his love of Van Bommel as a Bayern supporter and the frustrating inconsistency of Arjen Robben, we of our hope that Ozil continues to shine at Madrid, our fondness for Schweinsteiger and the exciting Bayern trio of Muller, Kroos and Lahm. We discussed the similarities between the current Bayern and Netherlands teams, how both squads contain so much quality yet there are so many difficulties in integrating that quality into a single entity. We talked of tournaments and matches past; he told us of his memories of playing Holland in Euro ’88 and Italia ’90, and we in turn raved about the Dortmund team of ’97, Jurgen Klinsmann’s time at Tottenham and what an incredible World Cup Germany had hosted in 2006. We then found ourselves talking to a lovely Dutch lady who came over to our table and seemed extremely happy to find herself surrounded by Dutchmen, even if they were not really Dutch and barely men in the traditional sense of the word. (Although I didn’t catch her name, she promised to take a look at this blog and to meet us at the Fox & Newt for the penultimate Portugal match; so if you are reading, please come and join us on Sunday evening!) By the time the second half started the Dutch and Germans had all united through a common dislike; they too said that the owner of Bierkeller had been rude to them and after a reconnaissance mission to the bar it was discovered that the barman was French. There followed a recognition that as a Frenchman he must be rude to everybody, not merely the Dutch and Germans; I guess some cliches are cliches because they are true.
The second half passed in somewhat of a blur; with Germany completely in control and continuing to create plenty of chances to further their lead, the Oranje struggled to get a foothold despite the double substitution of Huntelaar and Van Der Vaart for Van Bommel and Afellay at the interval. With just over quarter of an hour remaining and the game seemingly drifting towards a foregone conclusion, I decided to chance a trip to the toilet during a stoppage in play. Halfway through relieving myself I heard Jonathan Pearce exclaim “Brilliant goal! Brilliant goal! And he’s driven Holland back into the game” and much to the bewilderment of the Englishman stood next to me, I simply started giggling; after watching 165 minutes of football in which he looked like he was never going to score, Robin Van Persie had struck the first Dutch goal of the tournament while I was taking a piss. I returned to my seat much to the amusement of those around me, although in time to catch the replays; a superb solo effort, RVP picked the ball up midway inside the German half with his back to goal, feigned to run right into the left channel and turned Hummels to his left. With a clear run to the edge of penalty area, the Arsenal striker took several long strides and when confronted with the next line of German defence, struck a beautiful effort with the outside of his right foot that flew past Neuer into the bottom right corner with minimal backlift. This prompted the Germans to join us in a self-deprecating chant of “He scores some of the time, he scores some of the time – Robin Van Persie, he scores some of the time” and for the next fifteen minutes we all took turns in going to the toilet, whether we needed to or not, but we could not repeat the same trick and after several more decent German openings, the final whistle sounded. We commiserated with the Dutch, congratulated our new German friends and wished them the best luck for the rest of the tournament, before heading out into the failing light in order to search for one last drink that might numb ourselves from the reality; Germany had beaten us by two goals to one and we had been eliminated from Euro 2012.
Or had we? Having not worked out the connotations of defeat against Germany, because first of all we could not bear to and secondly because we presumed losing the match would see us eliminated, it only dawned on us shortly after the final whistle that mathematically speaking we were not only still in the tournament, but that the outcomes of the final group matches that would see us through were far from ludicrous. With Germany on six points, Denmark and Portugal both on three points and the Oranje trailing without a point, defeat for Denmark and a win for the Netherlands would put Germany on nine points and the rest on three apiece. In Euro 2012, in the event that teams are level on points they are distinguished by the points they have picked up in matches between the teams concerned, but with Denmark beating Holland, Portugal beating Denmark and Holland beating Portugal, each result would cancel the others out as each team had picked up three points in matches concerning the other two. The next mathod of separating the teams is goal difference between the teams involved; with Denmark and Portugal currently plus one and the Netherlands on minus one, in the eventuality that Germany won in the final game and the Oranje beat Portugal, they would therefore have to win by a margin that would rectify their lagging goal difference in games between themselves, Portugal and Denmark. Simply put, if Germany beat Denmark and the Netherlands beat Portugal by two clear goals on Sunday, then quite unbelievably we would be through to the knockout stages.
Despite the fact that the results required to see the Oranje qualify from the group are hardly out of the ordinary, in the last twenty-four hours our belief has been replaced by hope and we know that our chances of progressing are slim, particularly with talk of infighting and rifts within the Dutch camp. Rafael Van Der Vaart spoke out prior to the Germany game over his disappointment at being left out against the Danes, saying “I am very disappointed. The coach has his preferences, I am not part of them and I don’t think that is going to change. We have seen in the past few years that the coach does not make changes to the starting line-up easily. It is great to have a nucleus of first choice players, a lot less so for those who have to sit on the bench. Besides I believe I am in tremendous form. I will continue to give 100% but at the same time I have the right to express my disappointment.” This followed similar sentiments from Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who also expressed his disappointment and anger at not being included in the opening match, however the Schalke 04 forward did temper this statement by saying “Now I prefer to shut up and to continue to train hard. It would make no sense to say anything more.” There were also accusations that Bert Van Marwijk favours Mark Van Bommel due to the family ties between the pair, prompting a reaction from Wesley Sneijder, who later said to reporters: “It is time we let these pathetic egos go. If somebody is creating a mess, I will stand up against them now. We don’t need a psychologist with the Dutch team, we are grown-up men. If he is talking for two hours, I’ll be sleeping for two hours. That’s when I can take my rests. If players have problems, they should talk them out with each other. If that doesn’t help, then a psychologist won’t help either. The ones who have a problem with other players or the manager should tell them face-to-face. That is the only psychology we need. We have to stop living on little islands. We must all go for the same goal, be united or face the consequences.”
Although the majority of these reports filtered through the British tabloids and could therefore be seen as a typical inflammatory attempt to destabilise the Dutch camp, there is no doubt that there are wounds that need to be healed and it is likely that Sunday may come too soon for this. Perhaps Bert Van Marwijk should take the team out for Burger King and mini-golf, as Denmark coach Richard Moller Nielsen did to relax his Denmark team in 1992, when the Danish team failed to qualify and were then reinstated into the European Championships after Yugoslavia’s exclusion (due to international sanctions in place because of the Yugoslav wars) and famously ‘came off the beach’ to win the entire competition. Alternatively, Bert could do his own rendition of the speech Al Pacino makes at the end of “Any Given Sunday” to his team of NFL players on the brink of elimination from the play-offs, surely one of the most inspiring sports movie scenes of all time. No matter what happens on Sunday, we will be at the Fox & Newt supporting the Oranje until the very last ball is kicked and I continue to hope for a miracle, despite the thoroughly harrowing dream I had last night; the final whistle has just blown on a 6-0 Netherlands victory over Portugal in Kharkiv, with Germany 1-0 up and still playing Denmark in Lviv. If the score remains the same the Oranje will qualify, however the Danes equalise. Through a Mario Gomez own goal. From the halfway line. In the 14th minute of injury time.