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Winning Ugly? Hey, It’s Still Winning

Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing

In 1959, Vince Lombardi embarked on his first chief position, as Head Coach of the Green Bay Packers, with these uber-competitive words as his rallying cry in the first day of training camp. 9 years, 5 national championships, and the sport’s first two Super Bowls later, the Brooklyn man needed just one year to create a record breaking winning attitude at Washington before dying a Football martyr, a sporting pioneer, a winner.

People will disagree with this post (a LOT of people). Total Football enthusiasts will puke over my beliefs. Romanticists will wince at my writing. But I must admit, I take my hat off to the Dutch.

Bert van Marwijk took the reigns of his country after the Russians prematurely ended their Euro 2008 dreams with a 3 – 1 Quarter Final defeat. Not popular with the fans, the former Feyenoord manager had my respect from the off, admitting, “Total Football is a thing of the past.

Thou shall not pass

And he couldn’t be more right. Yes, we are still treated with the mouth-watering exhibitions of a devastating Barcelona outfit, the guile of the current European and World Cup champions, and even the potential of a fantastically fluid United attack; but in 21st century football, opposition sides are conditioned, organized and more astute, and to flood men forward with careless abandon, particularly with weaker individuals, would of course uphold the integrity of pure football, but undermine the necessity of common sense.

Despite the fact that the renowned Total Football of the 70’s took place over 30 years ago, the Dutch also never actually won anything but respect for their scintillating style. On top of that, the ’74 and ’78 World Cup finalists were blessed with generation talents such as the two Johans (Cruyff and Neeskens); Wim Jansen; Rob Rensenbrink; and Johnny Rep. Today, the Netherlands nation expected the same interchangeable elegancy from Liverpool workhorse Dirk Kuyt; Real Madrid reject Wesley Sneijder; and the injured Robin van Persie. Arjen Robben is no doubt a good player; but is he really of the same calibre as the ammunition Rinus Michels had at his disposal in 1974? Even if he is, is he really so good that he can single-handedly recreate the magic of 36 and 32 years ago?

A ridiculous argument would be to suggest that if your team is not good enough, you have to simply accept this and take your beatings. However, the beauty of sport is that every player, every team and every nation begins on a literal level playing field. Some individuals, some teams, are not as good as their opponents, they are not equipped with the same artillery sometimes, but they do not roll over. Instead, they can analyse ways to wear down their counterparts, and at times, they find their Achilles heel.


So what is wrong with Holland’s dirty tricks? Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way condoning the life threatening thuggery which caused Nigel de Jong’s studs to flail into the chest of Xabi Alonso. But the rules are there to be abided by and I’m certain the Dutch manager did not excuse this sure-fire sending off offence so early in a World Cup Final. The Man City player should have seen red, but this would have been for an act outside the plans of van Marwijk, outside the laws of the game. The Netherlands are certainly guilty of gamesmanship – but all this entails is the bending of the existing rules of Football, not the breaking of such laws. They set out to rough up their opponents, cynically (yet tactically) foul and disrupt attacks, and they are happy to accept their penalties of warnings and yellow cards – but boy, can they hit teams on the break.

Maybe it’s just me. Yes, it isn’t the spectacle everyone yearns for. But just like Jose Mourinho’s inferior Inter Milan outfit spoiling the life out of attacking flair, Holland would not have cared what any headline said if they were going home in the company of that iconic gold trophy. And truthfully, they probably warranted it. Spain played by far the better football, but apart from Fabregas’ breakthrough, they struggled to overcome the tenacity of the Dutch terriers in normal time. (Of course, with 10 men, cracks later became apparent in the Orange wall of defence). And as I’ve always argued; in sport; you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you take. And with the best chances of the 90 minutes (I counted 4 first-class opportunities), Holland should have stolen the game from the grasp of the best passers on the planet – and I would have been one man delighted to see it (not merely because my 12/1 pre tournament bet would have came up!).

I could say that they came up short, but they probably over-performed throughout the whole competition. And after winning 14 competitive World Cup fixtures on the trot (and drawing with Spain after full time), how can anyone begrudge the Dutch of the credit their effective system deserves? Had they taken on the Spanish or Brazilians man-for-man, had they done the same against weaker opponents (like previous years) for that matter, they would have been wiped out – simply because their players are not good enough. But like the enigma of ancient warfare tactics, sport provides the flexibility of the manager’s nous to become an advantage; it allows perceivably weaker outfits to damage their rivals in unexpected, sometimes unorthodox, fashion; and it allows the underdog to prevail, reminding us all that anything is possible.

Instead of bashing the Dutch for their admittedly disgusting spoiling tactics at times; why aren’t we celebrating the fact that they brought the greatest footballing nation to its knees for 116 minutes? Johan Cruyff criticised his country’s performance as “ugly, vulgar and anti-football…” and it probably was. But it was this anti-football approach which gave his compatriots a fighting chance. And I’ll tell you what, if Aston Villa decide to adopt a gung-ho attacking and respectful approach to the 2010-11 season, we can kiss any aspiration we have of breaking the top 4 mould goodbye – because on paper, we are simply not amongst the 4 best teams.

Sport defies logic

Fortunately though, the game is never won on paper and anything can happen on any given day. And I will not criticize The Netherlands for refusing to accept second best, but instead, making the most of what they had, ignoring the boundaries of logic and reason. And just like David beat Goliath (in all his size, all his armour, and all his artillery) with an impotent yet cunningly effective sling shot, I respect Bert van Marwijk’s modern day Holland for their spirit, their resilience, their unlikely success and more importantly, for their triumph in restoring faith in the giant-killing fairytale.


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