In his modern-day classic Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby spends a few minutes empathising with Gus Caesar. The Arsenal defender, Hornby writes, ‘leaped over every hurdle in his path’ to reach as far as the first team. But he fumbled at the finish line, because sport’s ‘cruel clarity’ revealed he was good, but just did not have enough of what it takes to succeed.
Of course, that is not the case with Holland. But it must be difficult for this bunch of supremely gifted attacking players to be beaten by world-class defenders that the Germans are, especially since they overcame every layer of German defence, only to be often stonewalled by the last line.
For 52 of the 60 minutes, Germany were struggling. And it was beautiful to watch. Even when the Dutch unleashed their cavalry of attackers, Germany’s defenders did not panic. With their backs hunched, they waited. Waited for Seve van Ass, Billy Bakker, Jeroen Hertzberger and Robert Kemperman — the holy quartet of attacking hockey — to do their thing; to artfully work their way inside the ‘D’ and then, just when they were about to pull the trigger, a German stick would appear out of nowhere and steal the ball.
They did that with such monotony that it became extremely frustrating for the Dutch but from a neutral point of view, it was jaw-droppingly wonderful. Holland thought they had the match under control. So silly would they have felt after realising that all along, it was the Germans who were operating the remote.
At the end of 60 mesmerising minutes of Dutch craft and Deutsch graft, the latter won. The result, 4-1 in Germany’s favour, hardly matters in the overall context — both teams should safely go through to the knockouts unless there is an upset of gargantuan proportions.
This, though, was a classic clash of hockey philosophies: One blessed with flair; the other, a dutiful toiler. For Holland, winning is not everything, but winning beautifully is. Germany, on the other hand, are the 1-0 team of world hockey — a side that is supremely good at defending but isn’t defensive, and there’s a fundamental difference there. And they showed that on Wednesday.
Germany didn’t park the bus but answered Holland’s artistry with some equally artful defending. It wasn’t always pleasant to watch — Holland disintegrated as the match progressed while Germany perennially appeared to be in a state of crisis. But even in times of adversity, they did not depart from their ethos.
“Sometimes, playing beautifully is even more important than the result.” says Hertzberger, the most-capped player in this Dutch squad. “Which is obviously stupid,” he adds sarcastically.
Hertzberger is serious. In 2015, Holland won the European Championships for the fourth time. But fans were not impressed. “Because we won a few games 1-0, they said, ‘congratulations, but you were kind of boring to watch’,” Hertzberger says. “You are like, ‘okay, what do you want?’”
In Holland, the country that’s produced one of the modern-day greats in Teun de Nooijer, it is always about playing attractive, offensive hockey and it always needs to be fun to watch. “It depends on the group of players you have. If it is a team that can defend well and counterattack, then you should do that. But we have always had players who have the ability to move the ball within the team and show the creativity,” Hertzberger says.
This ideology, of course, transcends sports and what inspired total football in the first place.
But beauty isn’t only in the body feints and dodges. If one looks closely, the tackles and steals can be equally alluring. And Germans, perhaps, are the best exponents of this art. They are to hockey what Italy are to football. They won’t dazzle you. Instead, they will bore you and grind you down, making you wish you weren’t an attacker. “You want to take a breath and think how you can solve this. But Germany always have the answer. It’s frustrating,” Bakker, the Dutch captain, says.
Ask Germany coach Stefan Kermas about his philosophy and he rambles on for two minutes about playing nicely and all that before he finally gives up: “But in the end, you need to win.”
This winning-at-all-cost mentality was showcased in all its glory in the final of the Beijing Olympics, when Germany, in their typical fashion, eked out a 1-0 win to beat Spain and clinch the gold. And while a similar scoreline was derided in Holland after their continental title, the Germans hailed it as their ‘best-ever performance’, in the words of their then captain Timo Wess.
Which is what makes their 4-1 win on Wednesday a freak result. Max Caldas, Holland’s coach, says the match will keep his side grounded for the rest of the tournament. Kermas, however, was quick to move on. It didn’t matter to him if they won by four goals or one, as long as his players got the job done.