NED 2 SVK 1: You’re no fun any more

ROBIN van Persie gave us just a hint of a strop when he was substituted against Slovakia in Durban. But in general, Holland’s squad at this World Cup has been harmonious, as well as consistent. It’s all a bit boring really.

There was a time when you could guarantee Holland would implode at a major tournament, usually when they had hopes of winning it, and end up going out in the quarter-finals instead. They were like a much, much more interesting version of England.

We had Ruud Gullit storming out of camp on the eve of USA ’94, Edgar Davids being sent home from Euro ’96 after accusing coach Guus Hiddink of favouring the white players in the squad, Dick Advocaat going against the wishes of many of his players by refusing to play Patrick Kluivert at Euro 2004, Marco van Basten substituting Ruud van Nistelrooy in every game at Germany ’06 and publicly slating him, and then Clarence Seedorf sulking off a month before Euro 2008.

And then there was the on-field stuff. Holland memorably shipped four goals against England in their final Euro ’96 group game at Wembley, and would have been overhauled by Scotland on goal difference had Kluivert not scored a late consolation – instead ensuring the Dutch lost feebly on penalties to France in the quarter-finals instead.

In Germany four years ago, Holland won their opening two games in that tournament’s Group of Death, and all looked fine – until they lost a spectacularly bad-tempered match to Portugal in the last 16 (four red cards, 16 yellows).

At Euro 2008, Holland set off like a train again, thrashing Italy and France, and everyone thought they would win the tournament. They lost to Russia in the quarter-finals, and Van Persie sparked a feud with Wesley ‘I take the free kicks’ Sneijder by snaffling a set-piece for himself, having previously clattered him during a training session.

And what have we got this time? Sodding teamwork.

Six minutes from the end in Durban, with Holland leading thanks to a brilliant Arjen Robben strike, Dirk Kuyt was put through on goal. The angle was too tight for him, so he squared for Sneijder to tap into an empty net. It was all far too unselfish.

In addition to the lack of fireworks off the pitch, there haven’t been many on it, either. Holland have been solid, unspectacular, winning 1-0 here, 2-1 there, looking unimpressive at times but always doing enough to win. They have now won 14 competitive matches in a row, and are unbeaten in 23 games overall.

Slovakia – conquerors of Italy, don’t forget – had chances to get back into yesterday’s game. But Robert Vittek’s penalty came so late that there wasn’t even time to restart the game.

Holland, though, rumble on, with a surprising lack of squad rumblings. Van Persie, who has had a frustrating World Cup, looks the likeliest source of discontent – but even his frustration is probably borne of nothing more than a desire to build up his match fitness after a long spell out injured last season.

No team has won the World Cup without hitting top form at some point, though. And Holland will have to hit it on Friday, when they play Brazil. Holland won when they met in 1974, but Brazil won in ’94 and ’98 – and will be favourites this time, too. The Dutch may be relatively harmonious at this World Cup, but harmony alone will not be enough.

Holland are still in the tournament, though, which is more than can be said for Italy, France or England – none of whom had harmonious camps. Perhaps it really is great when you’re straight.


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