“If I spit, they will take my spit and frame it as great art.” — Pablo Picasso
Picasso must’ve chuckled in his grave. For this time, an artist’s spit wasn’t framed as great art. In fact, a flying ball of gooey spittle was all it took to wipe art away from the most artistic sporting canvas of them all, the Dutch football team.
That mass of phlegm was slurped down from Frank Rijkaard’s (one of the custodians of Holland’s great legacy) nostrils and into his mouth, ejected almost instantly on to the permed blond mop of Germany’s Rudi Voeller. Then he did it again. Suck, collect, spit, red card.
Those two minutes of ugly madness had put a slobbering and sobering end to an era known as Totaalvoetbal, where Holland were the artisans who had created the fascinating sculpture of beautiful football.
It had occurred at the San Siro in Milan on June 24, 1990, during a World Cup pre-quarterfinal fixture between bitter rivals West Germany and Holland. Just two years before, when the two sides had met in the semi-final of the 1988 European Championships, Marco Van Basten’s 88th minute winner had taken Holland on to the cusp of an unfulfilled promise — that of framing their unique art-form with a trophy.
The promise, of course, was kept with a screaming volley by Van Basten in the final against USSR — giving Holland their first and only major trophy. It was tangible proof of good trumping evil in the end. It had vindicated the likes of Johann Cruyff and Rinus Michels (captain and coach of the Dutch team at the 1974 World Cup respectively) who had shocked the world with the free-flowing madness but had lost to the regimented method of West Germany in the final.
For 14 years they had stuck to their principles, making the taste of success sweeter when it arrived in 1988. Then, it all came to a sticky end in Milan. Following Rijkaard’s red card, Holland lost 2-1 and were catcalled all the way back home from Italia ‘90. And for a further 14 years, it hardly got any better.
Yes, there were flashes of getting their acts back together at the grandest stage, such as the individual excellence of Dennis Bergkamp, whose magical finish against Argentina that took them to the semis of France ‘98. And of course the Class of 2010, who reached and lost the final in South Africa against Spain. But it was precisely this team that exemplified just how far the apple (or orange, in this case) had fallen from the tree.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s Oranje were said to have been bickered with infighting off the field. And on it, they were methodical to 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.
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