a point of being boring. Ugly as well, as personified by the nine yellow cards and one red picked up by its players in the final at Soccer City. Cruyff, for one, called them the ‘practitioners of anti-football’.
“Regrettably, sadly, Holland plays very dirty,” the legend wrote in a column. “With this ugly, vulgar, hard, hardly eye-catching, lack of football style, Dutch tried to win a World Cup. If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they ended up losing.” The once beautiful Holland had hit rockbottom.
Until, another fluid projectile, spitting out of the Fonte Nova pitch in Salvador, began turning ugly into beautiful once again.
With just seconds left on the clock of what had been yet another miserable half of football, Holland had begun their 2014 World Cup campaign in Salvador on expected lines, conceding an early goal to the reigning champions and finding no way to penetrate Spain’s famed defence. Then the unexpected happened. Dutch captain Robin van Persie, who had hardly touched the ball all half, equalised. And what an equaliser it was.
Daley Blind had rifled down the left flank and flung in a cross into space over Sergio Ramos’s head. Even before the ball could kiss the pitch, van Persie had calculated that Iker Casillas, Spain’s captain and goalkeeper, was a step too many out of his line. So instead of trapping the ball with his feet, he leapt for the skies and rocketed his header 15 yards, over Casillas’ head and into the back of the net.
Clocks stopped around the world as Holland turned theirs back, but on the field, as van Persie pointed out after the match, ‘we just went on and on and on and on.” They did, scoring as many more times as the Dutch captain said the word ‘on’. The 5-1 win over Spain not only delivered the most crushing defeat to a side defending the World Cup but also exorcised their ghosts; ghosts from the recent past to avenge their final defeat from four years ago and ghosts from the not-so-recent past of the previous 14 years of staleness.
Now, all of Holland, including the stiffest of critics, seem to be happy again. “The question is whether they can continue getting results and playing attractive football at the same time,” wrote Cruyff, in his column in De Telegraaf. He’s a tough man to please, that Cruyff, but at least he conceded that Dutch football is attractive once again. And just for that, well before they take on the unfancied units of Australia and Chile to qualify for the knock-out stages, the beauty of old seems to have gotten a fresh life.
And what do the Dutch do to celebrate birth? The elders hold the child close to their lips and spit three times. It is said to ward away the evil eye.