Spain vs. The Netherlands: A Neutral’s Dilemma

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World Cup soccer is often the continuation of war by other means, a ritual reenactment of past conflicts that allows those who perceive themselves as victims to claim some sort of symbolic vengeance. Algeria’s coach sought to raise his players’ passion for their showdown with England by showing them watch The Battle of Algiers, a movie depicting their country’s battle for independence from France. England’s tabloid newspapers couldn’t resist the temptation to evoke memories of Churchill and World War II in their coverage of the match against Germany. And most Argentines have little problem with Diego Maradona’s 1986 “Hand of God” goal against England, coming just four years after hundreds of their soldiers had been killed in a war with Britain over the Falklands/Malvinas islands.

But what claims of historical injustice might inflame the players and fans, or sway the neutrals for Sunday’s clash between the Netherlands and Spain? Well, let’s just say you’d have to go back 500 years to find a source of grievance to animate this one [EM] and if you’re inclined to revisit the Duke of Alba’s serial atrocities against the Dutch Protestants during his days as governor of the Spanish Netherlands, you’d have to cast Spain as the bad guys that needed taking down on Sunday. The fact that the Dutch welcomed with open arms many of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews expelled from Spain together with the country’s Muslims after the reconquista in 1492 burnishes Holland’s claim to my Spinoza-inspired affections.

Even fast-forwarding to the middle of the last century, the Dutch, while not quite as exemplary in their conduct under Nazi occupation as they’d like to imagine, clearly hold the advantage over a Spain ruled by the Hitler-aligned Fascist General Franco until 1975. But even if it were the case that the sins of fathers are born by sons (it’s not), it would be daft to imagine Spain’s current team, whose starting lineup in the semifinal featured seven Catalans, a Basque and an Andalusian, as somehow representative of the Spanish crown or Franco.

The same argument, of course, holds for those who see some sort of dark vindication of colonialism in the idea of a Dutch victory on South African soil. Sure, the Dutch were the original colonialists in the small area around Cape Town (they never went as far as Johannesburg, where the final will be played), and they behaved as abominably towards the indigenous population as any other European colonizers. They brought slaves from what is today Indonesia, who remained after the Dutch were driven out by the British in the early 19th century, and form part of the South African minority termed Coloured (of mixed heritage) that has given the country some of its finest footballers, such as Steven Pienaar, Benni McCarthy, Sean Bartlett and Quentin Fortune. More importantly, this Dutch team arguably also represents those colonized by the Netherlands: Team Captain Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, striker Robin Van Persie, midfielder Demy De Zeeuw and defender John Heitinga are believed to have some Indonesian heritage, while Nigel De Jong, Gregory Van Der Wiel, Eljero Elia, Ryan Babel and Edson Braafheid have roots in the Dutch Caribbean. (Khalid Boularouz and Ibrahim Affelay are immigrants of Moroccan Berber descent.)

So there’s no great historical or political narrative to help the neutral decide which team to support on Sunday. In such instances, the game’s own history can help tip the balance: If the Dutch were playing Argentina, for example, the cause of justice would demand support for Holland if only to avenge the outrage against all that is good and decent in football perpetrated by Argentina against Holland in the 1978 final. Outrageous gamesmanship and thuggery were integral to Argentina’s victory against a Dutch team whose football they struggled to match.

But here again, there’s little to choose: Being so heavily based on Barcelona — not only for its personnel, but also for its playing style — this Spanish team could arguably be said to have a major strand of the Dutch game in its footballing DNA. As Glen pointed out earlier, key luminaries of the 1974 “Total Football” generation such as striker Johan Cruyff, midfielder Johan Neeskens and coach Rinus Michels all migrated to Barca, and became its beloved sons. (Cruyff went on to coach the team, and was a key influence over its current coach, Pep Guardiola, and also over his predecessor, the Dutchman Frank Rijkaard.) The Holland-Barcelona pipeline maintained over more than three decades gives Sunday’s game an element of fratricide.

Both teams play a possession-oriented game, although neither is particularly negative. The Dutch are arguably more direct than the Spanish when they push the “go” button, with Spain often seeming to want to pass the ball over short distances all the way into the opposition’s net. On the other hand, nobody on the Spanish side excites the sort of pantomime villain hostility as do Holland’s Mark Van Bommel and Arjen Robben — Van Bommel for his sometimes thuggish tackling at the heart of the midfield, and Robben for his maddening habit when a defender challenges him for the ball of going to ground like the Republican soldier supposedly struck by a Fascist bullet in the iconic Robert Capa photograph that also may have been a fake.


The Dutch certainly represent a more “interesting” dynamic in that their two key attacking players, midfield playmaker Wesley Sneijder and striker Van Persie make no secret of their loathing for one another — instead, they routinely trade insults in the Dutch media. Despite that tension, their combination play can be electric and lethal.

It’s hard, even, to pick a favorite, because neither team has looked especially convincing: Spain has the edge on paper, player for player, but it has scored just seven goals in its six matches at the World Cup, and only against lowly Honduras did it win by more than one goal. Moreover, unlike the Dutch, Spain actually lost one of its group games, against Switzerland. The Netherlands, by contrast, has scored 12, although it also only once won by more than one goal, against Denmark. And the Dutch have conceded five goals, whereas Spain has let in only two. Both of these teams have come this far less by pulverizing their opposition than by simply out-organizing and out-passing them.

The stakes on Sunday will, of course, force both sides to abandon some of their caution. One pattern both have established in South Africa is that once going in front, they’ve never looked like losing. That may mean that the team that scores first will win — then again, Holland conceded early against Brazil, widely favored to win the tournament, and recovered to win 2-1. So, this one really is too close to call. Each side has an offense that will subject the other’s defense to a sterner test than any faced thus far in the tournament. And by measure of the relative strength of their defense, Spain has to start as favorites. But having already once upset the form guide when they bounced Brazil out of the tournament, you’d not want to bet too heavily against the Dutch.