Saturday, July 10, 2010

It's the Netherlands and Spain, so I'll be Switzerland

I feel very conflicted as to whom I will root for tomorrow. This is the problem that a sports bigamist can have. I have rooted for Holland since 1988, when I watched the Dutch play in Euro '88. (The tournament wasn't on in the U.S., but we were in Israel for three weeks and then in London for several days, so I saw everything but the final. I read about the final in The Manchester Guardian, which my parents got for the crossword puzzles. And you wonder why I'm an Anglophile.) The Netherlands played attractive football, they had cool uniforms and players with cool hair, and most importantly, they beat the Germans in Hamburg. If I would have known at the time that Ronald Koeman celebrated by wiping his rear with a West German jersey, I might have moved to Amsterdam right then and there. My affection for the Dutch was cemented when we saw them three times in USA '94 in Orlando, concluding with a 2-0 spanking of an Ireland team that I detested for aesthetic reasons. (I defy any human being to watch Ireland-Norway from 1994 without falling into a coma.) The Dutch fans were outstanding. They were a singing carnival; everything good about SEC fans without the nasty side. I was humming the tune from the Aida march for the whole drive back to Macon.

Side note: for years after the tournament, the expression that my brothers and I used for ripping a shot from outside the box was "give it a bloody Jonking."

When I was picking a club team in the aftermath of USA '94, I picked Barcelona in part because of the Dutch connection. Cruyff had played there, he was the manager there, they played the Dutch 4-3-3, and they had won the European Cup on a goal by Ronald Koeman. Plus, in the same way that I liked the Dutch for their opposition to the Nazis, I liked Barca because of the club's history as a bulwark against Franco. Being a Dutch/Barca fan seemed to make a lot of sense.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. I've been rooting for the Dutch for over two decades. I've been rooting for Barca for over a decade, to the point where I spend more emotional energy supporting them than any other team other than Michigan football. Over the past five years, I've become especially attached to the current core of Barca players. You know, the guys who are going to be over half of Spain's starting lineup tomorrow. If Spain win, then Puyol, Xavi, and Iniesta - the heart of the current Barca dynasty - are going to join the select group of Europeans who have won every major piece of silverware: their domestic competition, the European Cup, and the World Cup. Off the top of my head, we're only talking about the core of the West German/Bayern side from the 70s - Beckenbauer, Muller, Breitner, Hoeness, Maier - and the France side from the late 90s - Zidane, Henry, Desailly, and Thuram.

So here's the question: am I rooting for the uniforms or the players wearing them? My loyalty is to the Dutch. I had always hoped that they would win the World Cup at some point during my lifetime to reward a great collection of supporters and a culture that produces an obscene number of skilled players. A Dutch victory will validate that a small country doesn't need to play a conservative, limited style in order to compete, even if this is not the most expansive of Dutch teams.

However, I also have loyalty to and affection for the core Spain players. I watch these players once or twice a week for most of the year. With Michigan's football program attached to the bowl like a skid mark and Atlanta sports firmly in meh territory (subject to revision if the Braves keep playing like they have for the past two months), Barca have kept my sports sanity for the past two years. There have been more than a few occasions on which I've felt lucky that I liked Barcelona better than any other city in Europe when I was backpacking after graduating college in 1997.

This particular group of players are especially rootable. They play a passing style that is aesthetically appealing. They foul at a lower rate than other teams and rarely get carded. Their fundamental disposition is to attack, which means that they don't play boring games (as opposed to counter-attacking parasite sides that require the opponent to take risks for anything to happen). In contrast, this is harder Dutch team to love. I don't begrudge the fact that they play 4-2-3-1 in a relatively defensive fashion. Bert van Marwijk would be insane to throw everyone forward with his average back line. However, Mark van Bommel.

Arjen Robben is a diver with the most exaggerated pout I've seen since Bobby Hurley. Robin van Persie is a brat. Nigel de Jong broke Stuart Holden's leg. Jonny Heitinga is not good. I root for these guys when they put on the orange jersey, but I wouldn't choose to do so if they played for Neutral United.

So anyway, the only solution for my dilemma is not to make a decision. I'll just watch the match tomorrow with a smile on my face. I didn't like any of the teams that made the last four of the 2006 World Cup and, validating my opinion of those teams, the last three games were 1-0 on a penalty, 2-0 with both goals coming in the final five of 120 minutes, and 1-1 after 120 minutes with the most memorable event of the match being the best player of his generation imitating a Cape Buffalo. This tournament has been much better in terms of the quality of the knock-out matches and my favored teams winning, which I will of course view as being correlated. Rooting for two teams famed for getting their fans' hopes up with attractive displays and then crushing those hopes, usually in penalties, I never thought I would face the problem that has been flummoxing me for the past three days.

One final note: even though I did vote for Barack Obama, I would root for the U.S. over either the Netherlands or Spain.


Anonymous said...

i have always despised germany and rooted for the dutch above every other european team, but i would root for this german team above this dutch team. i too am a barcelona fan and i am not conflicted at all. i too would root for the usa above the spanish but failing that, i will root for the most compelling style of play i have ever seen and rejoice if the dutch dare to attack spain, for if they do, i know they will lose by multiple goals. if they choose the jose style, the dutch might smash and grab a win.

chg said...

The Netherlands was my second favorite team coming into this Cup, but the more I have seen of their play, the less I like them. De Jong is a straight thug, and this Dutch team winning the Cup will do more to encourage than discourage cynical play.

I rooted for the Dutch against Brazil because Dunga is even worse for pretty soccer, but that was as far as I could go. If Spain won 5-0, I would be disappointed that it wasn't 6-0. That's how much I dislike this Dutch team. I would feel the same way if Germany was playing the Netherlands in the final.

Incidentally, I saw a Dutch group game (vs. Japan) in Amsterdam and a German group game (Ghana) in Cologne. The German fans were much more intense and emotionally invested in the outcome than the Dutch. The Dutch cared about the outcome, but you felt like they were going to have a party regardless. It seemed as if the Germans entire evening if not week would be ruined if they did not win. It was the difference between Baton Rouge and Ole Miss, complete with the parallel between the ladies of the Grove and the women of Amsterdam.