Most football rivalries originate from geographic or political concerns, but the most intriguing are often those based purely upon football.
In this respect, the 2010 and 2014 World Cup matches between the Netherlands and Spain, who meet again in Amsterdam on Tuesday night, have been significant enough to form a brand-new rivalry on the international stage.
Before the 2010 final, these two countries had never previously met at a major tournament. They’d faced one another in friendlies, in qualifiers and in the Olympic Games of 1920, but there were no previous encounters to set the scene, to provide a backdrop for a chance of competitive revenge.
Yet the two nations’ football style was unquestionably intertwined, primarily through the considerable Dutch influence at Barcelona. Only five Barca managers have taken charge of more than 150 matches, and four were Dutch: Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard all had a tremendous impact at the Camp Nou. The other on the list, Pep Guardiola, was influenced heavily by the first three, in various ways.
Michels, who also coached Ajax and the Netherlands and invented the “Total Football” style of play, was cited by Cruyff as his “one and only football master,” while Guardiola credited Cruyff for giving him his first opportunity in the Barcelona first XI.
Considering that Guardiola as a player was the inspiration for many of Spain’s recent midfield maestros and, as a manager, nurtured their talents further, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the current Spanish style has significant roots in Dutch football.
2010 World Cup final
This borrowed philosophy was the most significant historical aspect of that 2010 championship game in Johannesburg, won late in extra-time by Andres Iniesta’s goal. The most memorable feature of the game, of course, was the Dutch physicality and the extent to which they attempted to disrupt Spain’s passing patterns by sheer force.
It wasn’t simply that the Dutch were dirty, it was that they’d betrayed their philosophy of good, positive attacking football. Spain were now the standard-bearers for that approach, based around a high defensive line, ball retention and intelligent use of space
Nigel de Jong’s incredible karate kick on Xabi Alonso summarised the brutality, with referee Howard Webb only showing the Dutchman a yellow card for the “tackle.” “Having watched the game back, there’s not a great deal I’d change,” Webb said a couple of months later. “But I would change the colour of the card for De Jong’s tackle.”
De Jong’s midfield partner, Mark van Bommel, was even more aggressive. As was typical of the midfield destroyer throughout the second half of his career, there was a concerted effort to consistently foul the opposition’s star player, and two of his fouls on Iniesta — a horrible lunge with little regard for the ball, then a sneaky stamp later on — were somewhat forgotten in the aftermath. Iniesta reacted badly to the second tackle, and was lucky to escape a caution.
Cruyff, in particular, was furious with his countrymen. “Sadly, they played very dirty,” Cruyff told Spanish newspaper El Periodico. “This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style … if with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they lost. They should have been down to nine immediately, then they made two ugly and hard tackles that even I felt the damage. It hurts me that Holland chose an ugly path to aim for the title.”
Neutrals celebrated Spain’s win as some kind of footballing justice, based upon the approaches of the two sides, yet the reality is that the Dutch tactics worked effectively. Spain were a better side, and by turning the game into a fight, the Netherlands effectively neutralised the game and created arguably the two best chances of the final.
After an hour, Wesley Sneijder sent an excellent through ball for Arjen Robben, who raced past the Spanish defence and went one-on-one with Iker Casillas. The Spanish goalkeeper-captain actually dived the wrong way, yet managed to divert Robben’s shot around the post with the outside of his right foot. It was a huge moment.
Twenty minutes later, Robben again raced through the defence, this time from a Robin van Persie flick-on. Here, he was clumsily fouled by a falling Carles Puyol, but elected to stay on his feet rather than going to ground.
In doing so, however, he stumbled and Casillas was able to intervene again. Robben chased after Webb, furious at the non-decision; curiously, his determination to stay upright had cost him. Had he gone down, Puyol would surely have been dismissed
A bizarre — and somewhat forgotten — aspect of the final was actually an act of sportsmanship. After half an hour, Casillas came to the edge of the box to collect a long ball, clattering into Puyol, who required medical attention. Casillas therefore put the ball out for a throw, and when play restarted, the Dutch returned the ball to the goalkeeper, as expected.
However, John Heitinga’s long ball, intended to head straight for Casillas, took a nasty bounce off the pitch. Perhaps it clipped the line marking the edge of the penalty box and rose up unexpectedly, or maybe it was just another example of the Jabulani (a truly awful ball that contributed to a poor tournament) bounce deceiving players.
Either way, Casillas was forced to tip around the post, preventing an accidental 70-yard goal that would have thrown the World Cup final into chaos.
The fact the Dutch approached the World Cup final with such an un-Dutch approach was peculiar enough but, having followed the game plan they did, it would have been deeply ironic had they profited from this moment of goodwill.