There’s a Dutch saying. “The game is 90 minutes long,” it goes. “And in the end, Germany wins.” Some national traumas are relived again and again. And it is seemingly the Netherlands’ lot in its footballing life to lose out to Germany eventually.
Since giving away the 1974 World Cup final, a game in which the Total Footballing Dutch went ahead against West Germany – in West Germany – but managed to lose in spite of totally dominating the game, the Dutch have sought, in vain, to remedy this imbalance. There was a brief spell of catharsis, when the Dutch overcame a deficit and beat West Germany – again, in West Germany – in the semifinals of Euro ’88, before winning the entire tournament. That day, the Dutch nation cried communal tears of joy. Not since their liberation from, ahem, the Germans in World War II had so many people hit the streets to celebrate. The overzealous few even got into minor skirmishes along the Dutch-German border.
And then, naturally, Germany struck back, knocking the Dutch out of the 1990 World Cup on its way to one-upping them once more and winning it, something the Dutch have never done. That Frank Rijkaard had landed his phlegm in Rudi Voller’s perm was of little consolation.
On Wednesday afternoon in sweltering Kharkiv, Ukraine, the Dutch wrote another chapter in their great Oranje book of infamy. It began eight minutes into the pivotal group stage game against Germany, one that the Netherlands really needed to win to remain in serious contention for a place in the quarterfinals, having already been upset by Denmark. Mark van Bommel dropped a pinpoint pass in for Robin van Persie, who was spooked by the vastness of time and space he had to shoot; he could muster no more than a meek sidefooter. Manuel Neuer, the unflappable and unflappably German goalkeeper, gratefully scooped it up.
And thus the tone was set. Conforming to their role, the Dutch played the better football and the Germans, conforming to their role, won. Again and again, the Dutch appeared in the German third only to sabotage their own chances by the sudden and deleterious onset of incompetence. Just like they had against Denmark, van Persie & Co. demurred on putting the game out of reach before the 20th minute was up. Disinterested and mechanical, the Dutch attack washed up on the German defense again and again, like waves crashing against an immovable pier.
Germany, playing with a great deal more zeal, wrested control. Mesut Ozil hit the post. Thomas Mueller carved up the disjointed Dutch defense and laid off for Bastian Schweinsteiger, whose seeing-eye through ball found Mario Gomez, and the striker elegantly spun and shot past Maarten Stekelenburg. Holger Badstuber smacked a wide-open header right at Stekelenburg. Then Schweinsteiger threaded another ball to Gomez, who blasted his ball into the top corner, 2-0.
Just 38 minutes in, the resistance of the Dutch, a trait they espouse so proudly, was broken.
Germany, horror of horrors, began to do what the Dutch consider their birthright. If the Germans are to win, the Dutch should at least show them up while they do, like in ’74. But it was Die Mannschaft that pulled out the playground moves, teasingly tapping the ball into wide-open spaces and playing a glorified game of keep-away as Dutch minds seemed to wander to upcoming (and probably sooner than expected) holidays.
It was left to playmaker Wesley Sneijder to remind his peers what was at stake and what they owed to their shared history. He had talked before the game of setting aside “pathetic egos,” foretelling the internal strife in his flagging team. He huffed and bellowed at teammates and barked at the ref and dove into tackles. He was the lone Dutchman to have a good game. (Funnily enough, he is having a far better tournament than when the Netherlands made it to the 2010 World Cup final and Sneijder shared the Golden Boot with Mueller.) The back line was shambolic, a problem compounded by the poor play of holding midfielders van Bommel and Nigel de Jong -- expressly positioned to thwart Schweinsteiger and Ozil -- who were nowhere in sight when their opponents frequently ran amok.
By the 70th minute, however, Sneijder had gotten his point across and sparked a revival. A rare pass (of any kind) from Arjen Robben found Sneijder cutting across the box. And although his shot was blocked, the Dutch were galvanized. In the 73rd, Sneijder found van Persie just outside the penalty area. The misfiring striker took three long strides toward the center of the field and lashed a shot through Badstuber’s legs and into the twine.
But then the Dutch fizzled again as the Germans expertly killed off the game, safe in the knowledge Oranje had squandered too much energy already.
The battle was lost. As was the war. And probably the tournament. The Dutch will need to hammer Portugal and hope Germany beats Denmark to stand a chance of advancing.
There’s another Dutch proverb. “Bet on Germany. You’ll win a lot of money but you’ll get over it.” The former proved true. But will the latter?