Viva Espana!

12 07 2010

Spain 1-0 Netherlands

And so it ends. After thirty-one days and sixty-four matches played at the highest level we have Spain as worthy World Champions. Thank you Andres Iniesta for scoring while still in extra time. Nobody wants to see the World Cup decided on penalties (except maybe Italy). Thank you to all of you who had a look at the blog (and a bigger thank you to any of you who actually read it). The bad news is that the 2010 World Cup is over. The good news? Euro 2012 is only two short years away.

Goodbye for now,

The World Cup Neutral


A Blackout on Monday, An Oranje-out on Tuesday

6 07 2010

Netherlands 3-2 Uruguay

Let me first begin by saying if Toronto had to have a blackout it was much better on Monday when it didn’t effect watching the World Cup.

The streets and lanes of Liberty Village looked like the paths leading to the Amsterdam ArenA or De Kuip in Rotterdam on days when the national team is playing. There isn’t a “Dutchtown” or “Little Holland” to speak of in Toronto, but for the duration of the World Cup this area appears to be filling in nicely. As the crowd approached the School Bakery and Café (ground zero for Holland HQ) the music was blaring, the vuvuzelas were droning and the whistles were blowing. It was a mix of tailgating and a national holiday as the hundreds of people all clad in orange jerseys and t-shirts were in full party mode a full ninety minutes before kick off, meaning the place was full. Even members of one of the local TV crews were dressed in orange shirts for the occasion. I was later to learn there were people congregating as early as eight o’clock in the morning so the likelihood of a neutral getting into the crowded party was minimal. Luckily there was an ample supply of bars and restaurants on the surrounding streets handling the waves of orange overflow ready to cheer “Hup Holland!!”

I settled into one of the last open seats at Shoeless Joe’s in time for kickoff. The first goal wasn’t necessarily a surprise, but the scorer certainly was. I saw Giovanni van Bronckhorst in action at the 1998 Scottish League Cup final for Rangers a few months after the 1998 World Cup and if you’d told me then that in 2010 his role with the Dutch national side would increase from substitute then to captain and starting in the back four now I would have said not likely. Never mind that he would still be capable of scoring a goal like he did today in the 18th minute. His beautiful strike from well outside the area just evaded Fernando Muslera’s gloves and just evaded the top corner of the post for a stunning goal that cranked up the decibel level at Shoeless Joe’s quite a bit.

Four minutes before the half and Diego Forlan continued his outstanding tournament. For many, the last thoughts many a football fan around here had of Forlan were of him struggling at Manchester United. He has since resurrected his career at Villarreal and Atletico Madrid in Spain before bringing himself back to prominence in South Africa. From almost as far out as van Bronckhorst, the Uruguayan fired just under the crossbar near the middle of the net for an equalizer of almost equal beauty.

As the second half kicked off this was still very much Uruguay’s match to win. The crowd was slightly quieter, especially after Forlan almost added a second on a deadly free kick on target saved by Maarten Stekelenburg which brought back some of the applause.

Between the 70th and 73rd minutes, the Dutch looked to have put the game away with a pair of goals from their dynamic duo of Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben. Sneijder’s shot from 20 yards out sent the crowd back into euphoria before Robben’s picture perfect header sent them beyond as a third ever final appearance for the Dutch was clearly in sight.

That sight was blurred slightly in a bizarre stoppage time that saw Maximiliano Pereira curl home off a quickly taken free kick and the referee wait a couple minutes after the allotted three minutes before blowing his whistle touching off mad Dutch celebrations here, down the street, across the city and around the world.  The only downside was that we all had to head outside into the scorching heat and humidity away from the air conditioning that was as enjoyable as the goals scored this afternoon.

Dancing the Samba in Wooden Shoes

3 07 2010

Netherlands 2-1 Brazil

Billed as a “clash of the titans” type match up, the Brazil v. Netherlands quarterfinal lived up to the hype if not quite up to the expected result. In all previous matches between the two countries, the scoring came late. There had never been a goal scored in the first half. Eight minutes in and Brazil thought they’d ended that streak when a wide-open Robinho scored only to have the goal called back on a late offside call.

Two minutes later it was a case of fool me once shame on me, fool me twice shame on you when Robinho met the ball on the run right down the middle in front of the net and easily scored to give Brazil the 1-nil lead. The belief was that with an early goal, Brazil would be able to defend successfully and move on to the next week’s semifinals.

With the second half underway, time was not on the side of the Dutch, but a horrendous error by Brazilian keeper Julio Cesar in the 53rd minute brought the Netherlands right back into it. Arjen Robben continued his strong play since coming back from injury finding an open Wesley Sneijder who shot towards the top corner where the ball ended up after going in off Felipe Melo’s head for an own goal. Why Cesar went for a ball that was clearly Melo’s to clear? Nobody knows. It was uncharacteristic play by the Brazilians and it brought new life to the Dutch with the score lever at one.

In the 65th minute Kaka’ continued his disappointing tournament with a miss from just outside the box. This miss was turned into a bigger deal three minutes later when an Arjen Robben corner kick was flicked on by Dirk Kuyt towards Sneijder who with a flick on of his own scored to put the Dutch in front. No own goal this time, Sneijder got all the credit for his third goal of the World Cup.

Five minutes later Felipe Melo’s horrible game came to a premature end when he was red carded for stamping on Robben’s hamstring. If you wanted Robben out of the game, you should’ve struck earlier than with seventeen minutes remaining.

Down to ten men, down a goal and clearly frustrated Brazil was unable to stage a comeback of its own and exit the World Cup way earlier than they or their supporters expected. The samba has stopped while the Oranje Army marches on.

Slovak Dreams are Orange Crushed

29 06 2010

Netherlands 2-1 Slovakia

I read in one of the papers just before the World Cup started that Roncesvalles Avenue in the heart of the Polish neighbourhood would be welcoming the Slovaks to their bars and restaurants. Since there isn’t a “Little Slovakia” to speak of around the city, this seemed to make some sense. For this morning’s round of 16 clash between Slovakia and the Netherlands I decided to make my way down there to check out the scene as the Eastern European upstarts may not have too many more games before their World Cup turns back into a pumpkin. Given that their opponent was the Dutch, it would look like they were up against eleven pumpkins.

Another piece of good news for the Netherlands (and bad news for Slovakia) was that Arjen Robben would be back from injury. The Oranje had done quite well winning all three of their group stage games without him so they could actually be more dangerous opponents.

Just outside the subway station I caught sight of a kid in an orange Holland t-shirt out for his morning jog. I can only hope he was jogging on home, or at least to the nearest TV set.

Whoever wrote about Roncesvalles being the makeshift Slovakian gathering place seemed to be off the mark. There were no Slovaks in sight. The only football fans I could see were a guy in an orange Netherlands t-shirt out for a walk with his girlfriend and looking in no rush to get anywhere near a screen showing the game and, five hours before their game kicked off, three people in Brazil jerseys heading north towards Bloor. Seeing any lack of necessary atmosphere I decided the only place I could guarantee getting back to in time for the start was my apartment.

Once home in front of the TV I saw Arjen Robben, as if right on cue, get the ball just outside the box. He dribbled a few paces towards the middle of the perimeter of the area to beat off the defenders and give himself a bit more space and fired home to give the Dutch a 1–nil lead after eighteen minutes. Welcome to the party Arjen.

Within minutes of the second half kicking off Slovak keeper Jan Mucha single handedly kept his side in the game coming up big against Robben and then Joris Mathijsen on the ensuing corner kick.

Not long after the hour mark Slovakia came alive with a pair of serious chances, but it was Maarten Stekelenburg’s turn to play hero tipping the first shot over the net for a corner and grabbing Martin Vittek’s shot fired right at him.  You almost had the feeling the Dutch were playing one those games where they did everything but score a second goal and it might come back to haunt them.

In the 84th minute that second goal materialized off a free kick, which the Slovaks were busy arguing rather than defending. Dirk Kuyt picked up the ball alone on the side of the area and slotted it easily to a wide-open Wesley Sneijder for the easy tap in.

Dave Woods doing commentary gave an interesting comment on the goal when he said, “unselfish play form Dirk Kuyt.” When was the last time you heard the word unselfish to describe Dutch play? After years of underachieving, they might have finally learned their lesson.

Stekelenburg provided the only blemish to the Dutch performance in stoppage time when he brought down Martin Jakubko in the box with only seconds to go. Martin Vittek stepped up and sent Stekelenburg the wrong way with the penalty for one last parting shot before the Slovaks bowed out of their maiden World Cup. Based on their performance you have to figure it won’t be their last.

Bend It Like Beckham (And Then Do It Again)

25 06 2010

Japan 3-1 Denmark

Netherlands 2-1 Cameroon

I’m not sure that Toronto has a “Little Holland”, but Yonge and Eglinton was doing an ample job filling in for one today. The van parked on the side of Yonge selling flags featured more large Netherlands flags than any other country (although a Brazil flag was clearly on display). Three different guys wearing jerseys in the crowd coming in and out of the subway station were all sporting the oranje as they went about their business.  The Dutch match against Cameroon was actually a “dead match” (nothing at stake for either side as the Dutch are moving on and Cameroon are already eliminated) so I decided to find a screen showing Japan versus Denmark.

The Duke of Kent had a decent crowd, but with two non-traditional football powers facing off there was a definite neutral vibe in the place. That all changed in the 17th minute when Keisuke Honda took a free kick from 30 yards out that beat the wall and Danish keeper Thomas Sorensen for the early 1-nil lead. The goal was met with appreciation by the neutrals, but by real joy from the two Japanese guys sitting directly in front of the big screen, who high-fived, clinked glasses and let out who-whoos.

A fourth member of the oranje army came into the pub a few minutes later ad actually needed to be directed to the lone screen showing the Dutch game. Talk about loyalty to your team.

At the half hour mark Japan was awarded another free kick. Yasuhito Endo must have liked what he saw from Honda because he gave everybody an encore performance beating the wall and Sorensen from 25 yards. That was two goals from two free kicks. Which had the crowd talking while our friends in the front row were again clinking glasses and high-fiving.

Denmark had work to do in the second half if they were to move on. Much like the Italians, it was a case of too little too late. In the 81st minute the Danes were awarded a penalty. Jon Dahl Tomasson dually stepped up, Eiji Kawashima guessed the right way but gave up a juicy rebound which Tomasson slotted in to pull his side one back.

Japan sealed a shock win and qualification for the round of 16 three minutes from time thanks to Shinji Okazaki giving the front row duo one more chance to cheer, to clap and definitely leave happy.

For what it’s worth, Netherlands beat Cameroon 2-1 so everybody with a rooting interest in the place was feeling better than the Italians across the city.

Later on in the day I was walking along Dundas Street and I spotted a Dodge Intrepid with a Slovakian flag flying from its window.  I kid you not, but coming up in the lane beside it was a minivan sporting an Italian flag attached to its roof. A block down the road curves and I swear I saw the minivan pull up right beside the Intrepid. I didn’t hear a crunch so I don’t think it ran the sedan off the road.

A Different Shade of Oranje

20 06 2010

Netherlands 1-0 Japan

Denmark 2-1 Cameroon

When you think of Dutch football you think of incredible individual skill. You think of Cruyff, Neeskens and co. and it was beautiful football, but that side lost the World Cup final in both 1974 and 1978. Thoughts might turn to Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard and you conjure up more brilliant images on the pitch, but aside from a European Championship and dozens of club level accolades this generation doesn’t have a World Cup resume with anything worth mentioning. Bergkamp, Davids and Kluivert gave us a spectacular run to the semi finals in 1998 (along with a classic call from an over zealous Dutch radio commentator on one of Bergkamp’s great strikes. You can find it on YouTube), but also fell short of the big prize. Van Nistelrooy had the indignity of failing to even qualify for the World Cup in 2002.

It all adds up to years of disappointment after promising so much more. Whether it was ego, infighting or something else the Dutch still find themselves on the outside looking in at the club of World Cup winners.

In South Africa at this point the Dutch find themselves one of only two teams to have won both of their games so far. That may not be a surprise, but its how they are doing it. This Dutch team is more patient, more workmanlike and more fundamentally sound. Aside from Dirk Kuyt’s attempted bicycle kick (he is Dutch so he is capable of something spectacular on the pitch) they coolly and calmly passed the ball around and waited for their chances. Wesley Sneijder scored in the 53rd minute and that was all that was needed as the Netherlands move on to the knockout stage 1-nil victors.

When this World Cup is over and you think of Van Persie, Sneijder, and Kuyt, you might remember the Dutch as World Champions.

Denmark took to the field against Cameroon and by the final whistle we may have watched the tournament’s best game. It had it all. In the 10th minute Samuel Eto’o fired home after a bad Danish giveaway turned the ball over just outside the Danish box. Eto’o’s goal was a rarity in that a team’s superstar scored it. England, France, Spain, Brazil and Portugal are all sides that have yet to see their main man hit the back of the net.

In the 33rd minute Denmark equalized when Nicklas Bendtner slid through the crease to meet a cross with his outstretched foot for a beautiful goal. Things got interesting with three minutes remaining in the half. Eto’o rattled a shot square off the post less than a minute after Jan Dahl Tomasson missed a simple finish at the other end.

Just after the hour mark Denmark took the lead when Dennis Rommedahl scored on the counter attack after Pierre Webo had narrowly missed an easy chance for the Africans. Cameroon continued to press and spent the majority of the last ten minutes in the Danish end but the Scandinavians held on by the skin of their teeth for the 2-1 win. With that loss Cameroon becomes the first team eliminated, but for the neutral fan there was no disappointment as this match was full of action and drama.

Pressure Mounting Early for Some in Group E

14 06 2010

Netherlands 2-0 Denmark

Japan 1-0 Cameroon

Monday morning and I was in my living room for Netherlands versus Denmark. It started at 7:30 am and at that time I’m just happy to be awake and in front of my own TV, never mind at any sort of location in the city.

Netherlands against Denmark seemed intriguing to me as both sides can score, both sides can win and look good doing it, but the match was underwhelming. For nearly forty years the Dutch have played some of the most beautiful and exciting football at major tournaments only to come up short time and time again. This side featuring world-beaters Wesley Sneijder, Robin Van Persie and Dirk Kuyt amongst others played a fairly middle of the road game, but the Danes couldn’t put up much of a fight. Nicklas Bendtner was their biggest threat but he was playing at less than 100 percent and was subbed just after the hour mark. Given all the talent on the field it was a Danish own goal courtesy of Daniel Agger just after the second half kicked off that opened the scoring for the Dutch.  The result was still in doubt until Kuyt added a second goal five minutes from time.

I doubt this was the performance with side wanted with Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane watching from the stands.

Much like Argentina’s win over Nigeria the result will say Netherlands won and that’s all that matters. The flash and brilliance has carried the Dutch far before, but not far enough so maybe they’ve learned to grind out results to get to football’s promised land.

A couple of weeks ago I was at a party talking to a Dutch ex-pat. His prediction was, “we’ll win. We have the 23 best players in the world.” I thought that’s typical Dutch. Yes, you have the 23 best players but the worst team.

If the Dutch were underwhelming then Cameroon was just plain disappointing. Playing on their home continent in front of a very partisan pro-Cameroon crowd against a Japanese side that has never won a world cup game outside of its own country.  Cameroon also has the benefit of having a very in form Samuel Eto’o in its lineup. This equation should have added up to a Cameroon win.

Instead the Japanese played a very solid game and benefited from some lazy Cameroonian defense in the 39th minute for Keisuke Honda to put the Japanese up 1-nil. They rode defense, a bit of luck thanks to their cross bar four minutes from the end and a win clinching save by Eiji Kawashima in stoppage time to an unlikely victory. Now thanks to a bit of sloppy play and some bad luck Cameroon now finds itself in a must win game against Denmark.