A “disgrace”, “anti-football”, a game that “shamed” the world. Pundits and the media have been universal in their condemnation of Holland’s tactics in the World Cup final. But do the Dutch really deserve such a slating?
Holland were up against possibly the best international team of the last 20 years. Trying to outplay Spain would have been tactical suicide. To win, Holland had no choice but to stop Spain playing. That meant pressing and yes, sticking their collective boot in.
It’s not pretty. It’s not nice. But it’s a time honoured football tradition.
Sometimes you win by outplaying your opponents, sometimes by outworking them, and sometimes by stopping them playing. Breaking the game up, making it scrappy, and trying to create something for yourself.
Sure, it doesn’t make for a pretty game for the neutral. But Holland were there to win. They’d missed the memo telling them to just turn up and let the Spanish pass the ball around them.
Nobody has come to represent this approach more than Mark Van Bommel, who has emerged as a media hate figure, epitomising Holland’s supposedly negative tactics. The so-called dirtiest player at the World Cup in fact only received one yellow card. And that was for time wasting.
Dismissed as a referring anomaly, what that disciplinary record actually tells you is that Van Bommel understands what the limits of the game are, how far he can go, and what tactically needs to be done.
Sometimes a player needs to be stuck on his backside. If your opponents are counter attacking, their players streaming forwards, and your team-mates are caught up field, then it’s the right thing to do. Bring him down, stop the game, let your team get their shape.
For all Spain’s elegant possession, they created few clear chances in the game. The two best opportunities both fell to Holland. If Arjen Robben had put either of them away, Holland would be champions, and deserved ones. There would have been many things to admire. The discipline, the collective resolve, a team buying into a tactical plan and ruthlessly executing it.
When we talk about winning the World Cup in 1966, we don’t talk about how poor the match was. History only remembers who won, not how they got the job done.
When Iniesta scored I was gutted.