x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Total Football marred by thuggery

Holland's plan to hassle and harry Spain in the final showpiece turns what might have been a beautiful game into unsightly anti-football.

Spain's Xabi Alonso, left, gets kicked in his chest by Netherlands' Nigel de Jong as they fight for the ball.
Spain's Xabi Alonso, left, gets kicked in his chest by Netherlands' Nigel de Jong as they fight for the ball.

Operation Stop Spain did not contain the element of surprise. The pre-match comments from the Dutch camp indicated a gameplan based on a determination to disrupt. Deprive Spain of rhythm, the theory seemed to go, and it would be like denying them oxygen. Hassle and harry, rather than being seduced by the Spanish ploy of perpetual passing, appeared Bert van Marwijk's instructions. But the disappointment was the undercurrent of thuggery it contained.

This was not the beautiful game. A showpiece was turned into an unedifying exercise as Holland went from "Total Football" to anti-football in 36 years. In 1974, the Dutch endeared themselves. This served to alienate them. Persistent fouling brought an inevitable consequence when Johnny Heitinga tugged back Andres Iniesta to collect a second caution in extra time. His name is now bracketed with those of Pedro Monzon, Gustavo Dezotti, Marcel Desailly and Zinedine Zidane: the men dismissed in a World Cup final. If Heitinga is unfortunate, it is that he does not have a teammate for company.

A concerted campaign to foul brought its deserved defeat. Minus Heitinga, the defence was short-staffed as Iniesta scored the goal that won the World Cup. Football, it can be argued was the winner. Winning ugly used to be anathema to Holland. It is not now. But they lost ugly, minus silverware and plaudits alike. There was no chance of the sort of moral victory that has been the preserve of past Dutch teams.

Their approach was a tacit admission that Holland were the less gifted and less fluent side. Van Marwijk willingly cast his charges in the role of underdogs although, truth be told, most others would have concurred with that appraisal. Perhaps theirs was a task that could not be accomplished legally. In the process, Mark van Bommel added destroyer-in-chief to son-in-law among his job descriptions for Van Marwijk.

A family affair, however, does neither credit. Holding midfielder and hatchet man should not be interchangeable terms - and they certainly are not for Spain - but Van Bommel has become more of a malevolent presence the longer he has stayed in South Africa. Agent provocateur for much of the tournament, he has become the pantomime villain as awareness of his persistent fouling mounted, along with incredulity at his apparent immunity from refereeing sanctions.

The Bayern Munich midfielder's luck may have run out in added time against Uruguay, when he was belatedly cautioned for kicking the ball away. Now his notoriety is a barrier to anonymity. A foul on Iniesta resulted in Howard Webb reaching decisively for his yellow card. Others, on Carles Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta, could have brought red. His antics drew sarcastic applause from Vicente Del Bosque, the Spain manager.

Van Bommel's partner in crime was Nigel de Jong and, for once, his fellow midfielder was the greater offender. His Bruce Lee impression left studmarks in Xabi Alonso's chest. Webb chose yellow again but, if a previous World Cup was remembered for the Cruyff turn, De Jong's karate kick may leave a less pleasing impression for decades to come. The midfield allies were far from alone in Webb's notebook. Robin van Persie, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Heitinga, Arjen Robben, Gregory van der Wiel and Joris Mathijsen were all placed on a final warning as well. Yet it was only with half a team at risk of expulsion that the game became more open.

A football match broke out when the margin for error was removed for some of the more cynical stoppers. Before then, frequent fouls produced a stop-start match, rather than the slick continuity Spain favour. The reminders it provided were of the Battle of Nuremburg in 2006, when the Dutch departed the World Cup in a game of 16 bookings and four sendings-off, and, in another sense, the uneventful 1994 World Cup final.

But then ill-behaviour came at a cost when the loss of a man was promptly followed by the loss of a goal and when, in a microcosm of perfect Spanish passing, Cesc Fabregas picked out Iniesta, who delivered the coup de grace. And ultimately Holland failed in their task: they could not stop Spain. And they damaged their reputation in their indecent attempts to do so. @Email:sports@thenational.ae