There are few relationships in football more jealous than that between a Dutchman and the ball itself. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Dutch footballers are blessed with an extraordinary first touch. As these gems from Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Dennis Bergkamp demonstrate, once the ball is under control it seems to become a part of the player’s body.
However, it is also universally acknowledged that Dutch players are amongst the most egocentric in world football. The penchant for a beautiful first touch is symbolic of a desire to keep the ball exclusively. It is has often been the case that the individual takes precedent over the needs of the team and infighting has blighted many a Dutch world cup campaign. And despite their magnificent performance in demolishing world champions Spain 5-1 on Friday night there were signs that all may not be well in the Dutch camp.
Upon scoring the equaliser (an early contender for goal of the tournament) Robin Van Persie sprinted fifty yards to celebrate with manager Louis Van Gaal. The two will shortly be club colleagues at Manchester United. Van Persie was seen as a disruptive influence at Old Trafford last season and it is likely he would have walked away had Van Gaal not been appointed. Van Gaal is not renowned for being a genial manager and therefore his celebration with Van Persie implies a hint of favouritism towards his captain. The potential is there for disharmony among the other players in Van Gaal’s squad.
There appears to be no such tension between Van Persie and Arjen Robben. When the striker was substituted he handed the captain’s armband to Robben with great pomp and ceremony. However, there were hints that all is not well between Robben and the rest of his team mates. For Holland’s fifth goal, Georginio Wijnaldum was perfectly placed for a tap in yet there was never any danger of Robben passing the ball. The shrug of Wijnaldum’s shoulders as the ball hit the net told it’s own story.
Wijnaldum was then guilty of the cardinal sin of switching off after his late shot was saved by Iker Casillas. He threw his arms into the air and was stationary when a follow up shot form Wesley Sneijder was also saved. Sneijder’s own discontent with his lack of goals seemed to outweigh any joy he should have felt for the beautiful through ball he had played for Robben’s second goal.
Spain have been plagued with self doubt since last season’s 3-0 Confederations Cup Final defeat to Brazil. The aura of invincibility has gone and they were there to be shot at by Holland on Friday night. However, wilier teams will pose a much greater threat to Holland throughout this tournament. If the supply to Robben and Van Persie is cut then the frustration will start to grow. Few teams do individual skill like Holland. The legendary Johan Cruyff even had a piece of skill named after him. Yet the fact that the whole has never been greater than the sum of the parts has meant that Holland are the greatest nation never to win the world cup. In this observer’s eyes that trend looks set to continue.