Johan Cruyff himself, moving spirit of the Dutch team which should have won the World Cup in 1974, called Holland’s wretched display in Johannesburg “anti football. Sadly they played dirty. This ugly, vulgar, hard, frenetic, hardly eye catching, hardly football style. If with this, they get satisfaction, fine, but they lost.”
Though of course they very nearly didn’t; there was a very real chance of this being the third World Cup Final which went shamefully to penalties. A sick travesty of what should be the best and most important of all soccer competitions. And indeed, the Dutch though much inferior in terms of football to Spain still had their chances, thanks largely to Arjen Robben, who stood out amongst a prosaic team – what went wrong with Wesley Schneider? – with his determined strikes at goal, one thwarted by a magnificent save, one frustrated by what he had every right to think should have been a foul.
Looking back, however, at the World Cup Final in Buenos Aires in 1978, when Cruyff stayed at home, reportedly “gated” by his wife, the Dutch committed no fewer than 50 fouls, the first of them by Poortvliet in the opening minute. They had it is true been much provoked. The Argentines, who in fact had no business being in that Final at all, having bought the Peruvians in their last vital pool match, winning 6-0, had deliberately kept Holland waiting five minutes, before they deigned to take the field.
Howard Webb indeed had to endure an excruciating 120 minutes, but he was seriously at fault for failing to send off Nigel De Jong in the first half for that atrocious assault, more than a mere foul, on the unfortunate Xavi Alonso, who bravely soldered on, but subsequently feared that he might have suffered broken ribs.
Webb’s omission set the deplorable scene for what happened afterwards. That the Dutch players should have the gall and the temerity to protest subsequently that they were unfairly treated takes the breath away. Let them read, mark and inwardly digest what Cruyff said about them.
Away back in 1962, after a torrid time and malevolent match in Santiago between Chile and Italy in the World Cup had got hopelessly out of hand, the English referee Ken Aston remarked, “It was uncontrollable.”
He might well have had a point since the Chileans, from the first, were hell bent on provoking the Italians who responded in kind and had a man sent off after only seven minutes; and later on another. Whereas when the Chilean left winger Leonel Sanchez broke the nose of Humberto Maschio, Italy’s Argentinian oriundo, Aston, behind whose back it happened, was not informed by his inept linesman. A task far tougher than Webb’s.
There have been several far better English World Cup referees than the hapless Webb, whom I have never greatly admired, when watching him take Premiership matches. One all too clearly recalls the crass decision he made at Old Trafford when giving Manchester United a non-existent, match turning, penalty against Spurs, from some 30 yards away.
Serene and splendid was the officiating at the Maracana stadium, packed by 200,000 impassioned Brazilian fans, by George Reader, a Southampton headmaster. Uruguay sensationally won, lesser referees might have wilted.
Then there was the excellence of Arthur Ellis, a Yorkshireman like Webb, who controlled, as best he could, the so-called Battle of Berne in the 1954 World Cup between a rabid Brazil and a resistant Hungary. Ellis sent off two Brazilians and a Hungarian and somehow kept things under control.
Overall, it was yet another disappointing World Cup, suffering from the elephantiasis bestowed on it by Havelange, then Blatter, 16 teams, swelling first to 24 and now to 32. By the time it comes to the Final, two tiring teams have no wish to replay, and so deplorably, it has twice gone, after extra time, to penalties and so nearly did so again.
Spain, beyond doubt, played the best, most adroit football, though the Swiss in that first game sturdily prevented them doing so. I still cannot understand Del Bosque’s absurd indulgence of the injured Fernando Torres, who should never have played at all, yet was deployed time after time, and even absurdly and potentially disastrously, came on for the second half of extra time, in the Final. Only to succumb yet again to an injury. A touch of Beckhamitis there?
Alas, though failure wasn’t wholly his fault, Fabio Capello will be in charge of England for another year. Once Roy Hodgson went to Liverpool, whose American owners are now being pressed by the Royal Bank of Scotland to step aside, it was, in any case, hard to see any English contestant. I wish Roy the success he deserves, but Liverpool remains a club in crisis. As for England, if Capello stays on and on, will we one day see Beckham whizzing up the wing in a wheelchair.Like Angler´s Mail blog? Subscribe to our magazine and you will be able to access our latest comprehensive content!