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Why everyone else is wrong about the World Cup final


Journalism, they say, is the first draft of history but the second and third drafts follow soon after.

Before too long you've got an authorised mini-series starring Richard Roxburgh and there's no turning back.

When it comes to the biggest event in world sport - the World Cup final - the historical die was cast, seemingly forever, about 29 minutes into a two-hour long match.

Except, of course, the first draft of history in this case is wrong. Or at least overly simplistic. Newspaper readers all over the world have already been told that Holland kicked their way to disgrace against free-flowing Spain in Monday morning's match. Generations to come will no doubt get this version also, distilled to a simple good versus evil schematic by intervening decades and hazy nostalgia.

The night that Total Football was betrayed and orange was shown, simply, to be a combination of yellow and red. The night that Holland set fire to its own beautiful legacy. That art and creativity triumphed over cynicism and violence.

Except it didn't and it wasn't - not from where Balls was watching. What a horribly unfair way to see quite an absorbing match.

Twenty-nine minutes was all it took. After a host of Dutchmen had already contributed some fairly unsophisticated challenges, Manchester City's Nigel De Jong raised his boot as the ball flew in and sprigged Xabi Alonso square in the chest. It looked awful, it was awful, but it was not necessarily indicative of the entire 120-minute match and the - entirely legitimate - tactics the Dutch set out to play.

Anyone who has ever played team sport will know that Dutch coach Bert Van Marwijk did not send his men out to kick people in the chest. De Jong's act was an ill-timed, split-second decision that he should, and will, regret. Maybe it should have earned him a red card - but that is debatable and it is not Holland's fault that it did not.

Certainly Van Marwijk did send his team out to be aggressive and to try to frustrate and jostle Spain. As he should have. Where Balls takes issue is with the idea that Holland played anti-football. It has already been repeated so many times that it is now gospel truth: only one side came to play football at the final. The side that tried to play football won. Justice was done.

It was said by the TV commentators, by the online reports, by just about every single newspaper account of the final. What rot.

The underappreciated truth is that Spain - the greatest collection of talent at this tournament - did not play well. The reason this is so is because it was not allowed to. It is said the Spanish dominated - in possession terms they may have. But in terms of executing their game plan and imposing the sort of match they wanted, Holland out-performed its opponents at Soccer City. Clearly.

Spain wanted to control the ball and use weight of possession to debilitate its opponents, it hoped to demoralise Holland as it had a German side that had been a juggernaut until it ran into Spain and could not get near the ball.

To accept these terms - as many now appear to wish Holland had - would have been suicide. The Dutch, instead, tried to play a different way. Their plan was to jostle and disrupt Spain's passing rhythm, to aggressively intrude into its midield space, deny time on the ball and take away the ease of ball movement that typifies the way Vicente Del Bosque's men like to play.

If it could get to half-time level-pegging, Holland would have believed, the match could break its way. The pressure was on Spain to make the play and get the goal. The longer this did not happen, the more recklessly it would commit forward and the sole weakness in an excellent Spanish defence - pace through the middle - could be exploited by the lightning-quick Arjen Robben on the counter.

It so nearly worked. In truth, Spain's best player on the night was probably goalkeeper Iker Casillas. His adroitness off the line saved Spain three times from Robben's deadly runs. It was, though, all a bit much for Craig Foster in the SBS commentary box. The sense of outrage he consistently mustered throughout a lamentably one-sided call was enough to gradually turn Balls from disinterested neutral to sudden Oranje fan.

Foster's love for the beautiful game played the beautiful way makes him a passionate advocate and is a welcome intrusion into the fence-sitting that characterises much punditry. But you sometimes fancy he would send out the Melbourne Knights reserve team to play against Spain with orders to keep possession, stroke the ball around and break down the defence with triangular interplay. What would that achieve?

Spain was good for its tournament win and played some lovely stuff - particularly in the semi-final against Germany. But look at this match in totality. That's all we're saying.

Look at the fact that Andres Iniesta had one of his quietest games for the tournament. Look at his blatant, penalty-seeking dive just minutes before his match-winning goal. Look at Spain's five yellow cards and the - unpunished - Carlos Puyol challenge that stopped Holland taking the lead and should have earned a send-off. Is that pure, unimpeachable foobtall?

Everton's John Heitinga earned a yellow card on 56 minutes for a bad tackle on Villa and a second (and red) on 109 minutes for another bad challenge. In between - a span of 53 minutes (that's more than a half) - Holland received two yellow cards and one of them was for dissent. Spain copped two as well.

After half-time, the Dutch did play football, and good football at that. Certainly it was counter-attacking football but, rest assured, it is not easy to play that way against an opponent as good as the furia roja. The Dutch were compact and organised, they functioned as a unit and played to their strengths. Sitting on a host of yellow cards from the first half, they walked a disciplinary tightrope with admirable nerve.

Their tactics were the right tactics and they so nearly worked. The suggestion that they are not legitimate tactics is deeply unfair. This had been talked up as the Cruyff final, pitting the inventor of total football against the nation that - through Cruyff's long involvement at Barcelona - adopted and perfected it. In truth, with a pragmatic focus on defensive organisation long ago having swept through Dutch football and with Inter Milan's Wesley Sneijder ensconced in midfield, it was more like Cruyff versus Mourinho.  

For the second time in a couple of months, then, a major final proved that the Spanish way - the Barcelona way - produces beautiful football but that is not always the most effective way. Certainly it is not the only valid form of the game. Defence is football too.

Spain was a deserved winner and the Dutch could not claim to be aggrieved that they lost. They could, though, take issue with the idea - already now entrenched - that they did not play football. They gave it their best shot and they were not good enough. Sometimes it really is that simple.  

44 comments so far

  • Spot on, Ballsy.

    Kiwi Pie
    Woodend, Vic.
    Date and time
    July 13, 2010, 11:39AM
    • Appreciate your attempt to make the Oranje look respectable. But, are you saying that Johan Cruyff's analysis of the final is wrong? Because I disagree.

      Spain were certainly stopped by the Dutch but you can't deny that the Dutch merited at least two red cards in the first half (yes, so it's not their fault that they didn't get red-carded when they deserved it). Plus, the Dutch did not try to play football nor did they try to play their usual brand of football. That is a bigger betrayal than Spain not capitalising on their numerous chances in the box.

      Oh, as for Iniesta - why was his quiet? Because he was the most despicably fouled player in the final.

      Date and time
      July 13, 2010, 11:42AM
      • What a terrible game! Referee Webb was fantastic in controlling this unprofessional hacking game, more akin to a 5th division amateur game.
        Holland was hopeless, bad passes, bad finishes, losing the ball often, and way too many rough unnecessary tackles.
        I'm surprised they still had 10 men on the field at the end.
        What the hell got into them?
        Why on earth would the Dutch coach use those tactics, it gives the Dutch game a really bad name.
        If anyone, coach Van Marwijk should have been red carded for useless play instructions. Had they won the game, the World Cup would be in a shambles.
        And if I had been at the game, I would have wanted my money back.

        Erik Steen
        Date and time
        July 13, 2010, 12:11PM
        • I thought The Netherlands played well. They were far better able to stop the Spanish game of keepings-off than Germany had managed. They came very close to scoring - if it were not for Casilas trailing leg, who knows what might have happened.

          Date and time
          July 13, 2010, 12:33PM
          • this is a great summing up of the ducth game, and a much needed analysis that celebrates the skill required to play the extremely patient and disciplined gameplan the dutch employed. Maybe it wasn't pretty, but as you said "Defence is football too."

            Good article

            Date and time
            July 13, 2010, 12:43PM
            • Sadly, it seems that for the most part, soccer journalism is angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin stuff like this. Just admit it was a crap game.

              Lorenzo Lozenge
              Date and time
              July 13, 2010, 12:44PM
              • Thank goodness someone with a rational and objective view of the game. I have been writhing around in agony since the end of the game, frustrated at the one-sided call and reporting on the game. I have no dispute that Spain were the better team throughout the World Cup, and indeed the Netherlands were perhaps only the fourth or fifth best team - BUT the Oranje did use valid tactics to try and nullify the Spanish play - and they did win all their games up to that point. They were also the second top scoring team, after Germany so deserve some credit for playing entertaining football. Spain on the other hand tried to win all their games 1-0. The tactics employed by the Dutch were mostly legal and where they pushed the boundaries the referee punished them. The referee, in my opinion, did actually have a good game and could have easily red carded a number of players from both sides, but it is a world cup final and it has to be a Zidane-like infringement to get red carded in a final. This game is not played for sheep stations, it is far more important than that.
                Thank you for this story, I hope it too gets syndicated to bring back some balance!

                Canberra, ACT
                Date and time
                July 13, 2010, 12:59PM
                • Thanks for a great article Dan. It's good to know that there are some other people out there who appreciated and understood what Holland were trying to achieve. Listening to Craig Foster's constant criticism of the Dutch (all tournament mind you) was getting rather annoying, but we had a game plan, and it worked all the way til the last four minutes of the tourament.

                  Andy K
                  Date and time
                  July 13, 2010, 1:00PM
                  • What I would like to know is why were they playing the European State of Origin in South Africa, and how much money did the South Africans lose for the privilege? Once you clear away the politically motivated post event propaganda, I bet it would be somewhere between "jaw dropping" and "gob smacking". That'll teach them not to trust bogus financial projections, I guess they'll have to console themselves with all those 'intangible' benefits instead.

                    Date and time
                    July 13, 2010, 1:00PM
                    • Great piece Dan. Sadly, as your prescience implies, your point of view will soon fade into un-history. Generally what happens is that a few key opinion makers forge their position early on, the rest of the media (too lazy to question or offer their own incisive views) carry the themes forward, and in the end, the public take it into their consciousness and make it history. Then the public will believe they made up their own minds about it, rather than having it fed to them, and this will consign history, to fact. an ever shall it be, amen.

                      i'm not sure how the beautiful football evangelists reconcile the fact that Robben nearly did, and definitely should have, consigned Spain to runners-up in this world cup, despite all of Spain's intricate and at wonderful football. I guess they dodged an existential bullet.

                      Date and time
                      July 13, 2010, 1:04PM

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