Any American youth coach looking to illustrate the maxim that “There is no I in team” would be spoiled for choice at Euro 2012. One option would be the histrionics directed by Cristiano Ronaldo at his teammates for stray passes or, more perilously, his reluctance to play defense, which left his team vulnerable to raids down the left flank when Portugal lost the ball. But a more obvious example might the Dutch, the beaten finalists of World Cup 2010 who had been fancied to reach the final four at Euro 2012. Their campaign imploded in a rolling riot of personality conflicts, resulting in their failure to win a single game, as longtime feuds among key players broke out in open warfare.
The whole world knows that Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie loathe one another, and it showed. Nor was there any trying to hide Rafael van der Vaart’s enmity toward Sneijder — and toward coach Bert van Marwijk and his son-in-law, skipper Mark van Bommel, after he was left on the bench. Van der Vaart made sure the press knew all about his dim view of the proceedings in the Dutch camp. Most telling was the moment midway through the match against Germany when van Bommel was yanked off and replaced by VDV, who was handed the captain’s armband too — as in, “O.K., Mr. Bigmouth, let’s see what you can do.” Not enough, it turns out, as the winless Dutch looked like a bunch of talented individuals shopping their playing abilities for scouts rather than a team driven by common purpose.
But it’s an old story to say that coaching the Dutch is an exercise in herding cats; this year’s prize for fratricidal feuding must go to the French. After all, the strength, form and cohesion they’d demonstrated during an excellent qualifying tournament had been taken as evidence they’d exorcised the ghosts of South Africa 2010, when the team’s World Cup campaign imploded amid acrimonious public exchanges between players and coaching staff that led to the squad going on strike and refusing to train after striker Nicholas Anelka was sent home for insulting the coach. But it turned out, following the team’s chaotic loss to Sweden, that the French dressing room is still deeply divided. Both Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa reportedly tore into the coach after the game in a dressing-room shouting match. Then, in their quarterfinal clash with Spain, the French looked listless, with Ribéry often looking like the only player with much fight left in him. And Samir Nasri’s petulant handling of the media didn’t help.
Still, the French can take heart from their progress in plugging leaks. After all, in South Africa, Anelka’s colorful harangue of his hapless coach, Raymond Domenech, was reported verbatim in the French press. This time, the players acknowledged that harsh words were exchanged, but they largely kept the exact content of those exchanges to themselves. But the fact that coach Laurent Blanc seems ready to wash his hands of this lot and move back into club management speaks volumes.