Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Dutch courage blanks the World Champs

EURO 2008: Netherlands 3:0 Italy (Van Nistelrooy 26', Sneijder 31', Van Bronckhorst 79' ), Stade de Suisse/Wankdorf, Bern

Now hands up who predicted that scoreline?

'As a finishing touch, God created the Dutch' said a fan's t-shirt in Berne. And I wondered how much the hand of the divine was behind last night's lightning bolt of a scoreline at the Wankdorf. While not quite another 'Miracle of Bern', there was something magical about watching the world champions getting clubbed 3-0.

There is also nothing like seeing football 'experts' get it so wrong.

The 2002 World Cup could not be bettered for shock after shock, but Greece's win in Euro 2004 was also wonderfully unforeseeable. As we remind the Premier League ad nauseam, football needs to have that umpredictability factor for it to thrive.

I was all about to pen a piece about the soccer gods punishing Italy for years of gamesmanship with some dodgy refereeing before,

a) I remembered that already happend six years ago when Ecuadorian funny-man/referee Byron Moreno orchestrated a 2-1 win for South Korea over the Azzurri at the World Cup (though Italy also had themselves to blame that day to be fair), and,

b) The half-time professors concluded that the goal was good because Gianluigi Buffon had pushed Christian Panucci off the field in the same movement which produced the strike.

Confused? I am. I thought staying over the line was a classic way to play the opposition offside or your teamate on.

If so, then our initial reaction was correct: that Ruud Van Nistelrooy was a country mile offside when he tapped in Wesley Sneijder's drive in the 27th minute. I'm not the only one. None other than Roberto Donadoni, Milan and Italy legend and current Azzurri coach, told Italian TV after the game that he thought it was clearly off.

Italy, the soccer nation neutrals love to hate (Perche? Catenaccio, bribing refs, Berlusconi, Materazzi...), paid for the Christian Vieri dive which helped eliminate Australia in World Cup 2006, as well as Marco Materazzi's foul-mouthed gamesmanship which saw Zinedine Zidane sent off in the final.

Yes it was cruel, but we cannot blame Van Nistelrooy, even though he has been known to fool linesmen before. When he scored tonight he turned immediately to the linesman after netting and ran away convinced he was onside.

The same striker also stayed on his feet minutes earlier when Buffon made contact with him in the area, upsetting his stride. I can't imagine an Italian player doing the same.

That is the difference between Italy and the Netherlands at football. The Dutch play clean and foul clean too. Compare the card fest of blatant fouls and dissent
Holland served up at the last World Cup with the Italian 'furbizia' (craftiness) which lets get away with it so often.

If you were in any doubt, watch Materazzi's foul on the raiding Dirk Kuyt around the half hour mark in slow motion.

Materazzi had nothing in his body language to suggest he was playing irreguarly, but he stealthily tapped Kuyt's right foot with his as he sped past, forcing the Liverpool man to lose his footing almost imperceptibly.

The Italians are experts at shirt-tugging, niggling and upsetting their opponents and in 2006 escaped unpunished too much for their eventual victory to shine.

The Italians cannot complain on the night anyway as the Netherlands had dominated the game before taking the lead against an anaemic Italy.

There was nothing wrong with the Dutch's second goal in the 31st minute, which came only seconds after Giovanni Van Bronckhorst had cleared off his own line. Wesley Sneider's volley past Buffon was almost as surreal as his team's sky blue socks.

Could the World Champions really be 2-0 down and so hopelessly on the ropes?
Had the Italians' world-class goalkeeper not shown his class ten minutes later as Van Nistelrooy bore down on him, it would surely have been 3-0 Netherlands at the break.

When Gianluca Zambrotta turned Van Bronckhorst's header past Buffon with eleven minutes to go, the karma was in full flow.

Ok, enough Italy-bashing. I have always liked Roberto Donadoni and will feel sorry for him if this costs him his position, which despite his recent contract extension, has been hanging like a thread and rumored to be in its final days for some months.

The Italians came back into the game after Alessandro Del Piero, enjoying an Indian summer, came on in the 64th minute to provide a roaming threat to the Dutch's defence. A multi-man move in the 70th minute proved how good the Italians are and how they should not be written off yet.

The Azzurri are traditionally slow-starters to tournaments and so it proved once more. But the world champions are far from beaten. In 1994 they lost their opening World Cup game to Ireland but then reached the final, which they only lost on penalties.

The Netherlands had not beaten the Azzurri for 30 years before the match but before long, it seemed there was only going to be one winner on the night. Italy were just not at the races, as if they were pre-programmed to start tournaments slowly.

While the 57 million national team coaches in Italy have begun throwing tomatoes, or should that be oranges, the Italy-bashers should beware. The siege mentality worked in their favour in 1982 and 2006, and they have two games left in which to perform.

...

Not understanding Schweizer-Deutsch enough and not wishing to be bored by the French-Swiss commentating team, I watched the game on Italian-speaking Swiss TV.

This was a whole lot better than the interminable post-game analysis on RAI, which lost me in its byzantine detail from irritating pundits, self-proclaimed soccer-boffins who almost sent me to sleep before I could hit the off button.

You might think England is a football-loving country, but there is nowhere in Europe, with the possible exception of Spain's daily 'AS', which can hold a candle to the minutiae, the obsessive clinical dissection of the game, as practised in Italy.

...

The Swiss reaction to their 1-0 loss to the Czechs could have come straight out of Fleet Street. A picture of Czech defender Tomas Ujfalusi handling the ball was splashed across the front pages of the local rags - 'Hands off our cup!' bleated the headline.

Meanwhile, in another English parallel, the more cerebral side of the debate has centred around the preponderance of foreigners in the domestic game, which they have belatedly realised is hurting the Swiss national team on its big day at Euro 2008.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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