24 June 2008

(embarrassed cough)

"It was just a thought when everything was so sad. I thought life has some beautiful moments and you should tell people you love them. I wanted to show some emotion."

Ah, Raymond. I feel for you, pal. It's happened to us all. We've all done something silly while drunk on a cocktail of hope and despair, no? Some of us have proposed to our partner live on national television; whilst other among our number have rashly declared that despite our estrangement and the harsh words and icy glances we've exchanged subsequently, we're still in love with you, Dutch football!

Yep. I was one of them. It might be something to do with my being a "beautiful game"-spouting pseudo-intellectual pygmy* who's read Brilliant Orange twenty times and longs to see something in Dutch football that is, perhaps, merely a ghost these days. Perhaps I got carried away by the contrast with the vapidity of the 2004 team and the 2006 vintage's descent into record-breaking levels of indisciplined ridiculousness, in tandem with Portugal. But hey, tell me you weren't swept up by the majesty of their performance against Italy, which was surpassed by the win over France four days later. Tell me Sneijder's goal in the first game and his and Robben's against the French won't come instantly to mind when you recall this tournament in your dotage. Wasn't your heart warmed by Marco van Basten withdrawing Kuijt and Engelaar and sending on Robben and van Persie? What does that Cruijff chap know, anyway?

And like poor old Ray, we were left feeling a bit silly returning to the seaside the morning after we'd scrawled our words of devotion in six-foot-high letters on the pier wall. At least we didn't do it on live TV, I suppose.

(Oh, and Gabriele Marcotti says we're morons. Cheers, Gab.)

So, like some shameless football slut, we discard Holland now that they've fulfilled their usefulness and jump on Russia instead. We're surely on more solid ground here. As Jonathan Wilson (the finest football writer around, I'm beginning to think) pointed out at the weekend , it's with them that the idea of Total Football is most faithfully embodied. Wilson points out that this has at least as much to do with Russia's own sporting tradition as with the fact that their manager is Dutch.

I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a match (in a non-partisan capacity) as much as Russia-Holland. Sure, Holland appeared relatively sluggish - James Richardson's pun of choice on the Guardian podcast: "Holland Dozier Holland" - but Russia were superlative**. Whenever they had the ball, they looked to score. (The same went for the group decider against Sweden, too.) It didn't matter what the score was at the time. Even when a single goal to the good late in the game, they still went for it. This runs against the prevailing trend which says that possession is merely a means of not conceding a goal. This was glorious anti-anti-football. Most teams would have instinctively shifted their weight onto the back foot and doggedly hoped to protect their lead.

Like England. Good lord, remember how close they came to qualifying - to eliminating Russia? If that thought doesn't send a chill down your spine, you're probably English, in which case you're understandably excused. Think of the difference between the styles of the respective teams. Take England's collapse in Moscow last October: they take the lead and without even thinking, cede two-thirds of the field to Russia, giving up any notion of threatening to score again. They don't even try to control the game by maintaining possession, keeping Russia at arm's length. I would call it 'panic', but that just makes it sound like a reflex rather than the neurosis it probably is. Sometimes it works (cf. the win against Argentina in 2002). This time it didn't.

While we're dragging the party down, let's recall how our hopes are continually elevated and then callously thrown out of the fifteenth-floor window at these major championships. As well as Holland this time, I can think of Argentina in 2006, Anyone But Greece in 2004, Holland in 2000 and, um, Holland in 1998. And Spain, anytime. Yet here I am getting giddy at another bunch of teasers on the basis of a couple of games. The rational course of action would be to pre-emptively adopt the crash position and brace oneself for the inevitable.

Well, luckily, I'm human and therefore inherently stupid. So I hope...no, no, fearlessly predict that: Hiddink will figure out how to counteract the counter-attack of the Spanish; we get a fantastic game between two of the most technically accomplished teams around, with Russia winning; they will then overcome Germany with a wave of almost ideologically attack-minded football; pundits all over the world will not decry Russia's "naivety" and won't say "if only they didn't go for a second goal"; Andrei Arshavin's tournament will be hailed as the greatest since Roberto Baggio in 1994; and I won't be stood forlornly on the pier on Monday morning, clutching an engagement ring in my fist before chucking it into the ocean.

Photo by Georgio R. (away for a while) on flickr

*It's one thing being an intellectual pygmy; imagine being a pseudo-intellectual pygmy.
**'Superlative' being the superlative of choice when one can't think of an actual superlative to say.


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