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Make No Mistake, Dutch Team Is the Real Deal

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Sunday, July 5, 1998; Page D12




MARSEILLE, France — The Netherlands is a small country with a large soccer reputation. It forged that reputation as a World Cup finalist in 1974 and 1978. In 1974 the Dutch ignited a revolution in soccer with their concept of "total football" — a style of play in which everybody attacks and everybody defends, orchestrated by Johan Cruyff, the most famous Dutch player of all time. That year, the Dutch lost the final to host country West Germany, 2-1. Similarly, they lost the 1978 final, 3-1 in overtime, to host country Argentina.

But just as soccer enthusiasts began to treat the Dutch as a power, they failed to qualify for the next two World Cup tournaments, in 1982 and 1986. Since then, they have tried to regain their stature of the '70s. But, until this year, they have not had much success, the problem being that they were more a collection of talented individuals than a true team. Now they are tempting soccer fans into thinking they are for real. In beating Argentina Saturday, 2-1, to reach the semifinals of the 16th World Cup, the Netherlands' talented individuals played as a team and stepped forward as this tournament's first genuine threat to unseat defending champion Brazil.

We'll only have to wait until Tuesday night, once again here in Marseille, to learn if this is just a pointillist illusion or if they can sweep the soccer world up in the kind of celebration they enjoyed Saturday. Tuesday will bring Brazil to these Mediterranean shores, and perhaps the real World Cup showdown will take place here five days before the championship game. This will be a replay of a 1994 World Cup quarterfinal, which Brazil won, 3-2. But could this finally be the Netherlands' time? Could Dennis Bergkamp go on to eclipse Cruyff by lifting the World Cup trophy?

It still would be a shock if the Dutch won the Cup. They never have broken into the group of elite soccer countries that have won the Cup. But this time the Dutch players believe they can do it.

Just this week Cruyff explained why the Dutch always come up short: Their players historically have been confident individualists who, in crunch time, go their own ways, each one believing he has the answer. Cruyff said the Netherlands would never win if it couldn't overcome its individualism. One thing about the current Dutch players, they appear extremely confident — and they seem to be united.

"I don't give a darn what Cruyff thinks," midfielder Edgar Davids said after Saturday's game. "He's not the coach. This is a new generation."

The new generation of Dutch soccer players definitely has people wondering if they can win this tournament. Both of the Netherlands' goals Saturday were beautifully done, the result of teamwork.

In the 12th minute, midfielder Ronald de Boer beat two defenders, made a long run and fed to Bergkamp. Bergkamp headed the ball to fellow attacker Patrick Kluivert, who had plenty of net to hit. Even though the Netherlands controlled the ball to a surprising extent, Argentina remained a scoring threat because of its ability to strike quickly out of the midfield. That's what happened five minutes after the Dutch goal, when midfielder Juan Veron pushed the ball up to striker Claudio Lopez, who tapped it under the left leg of goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar. But Argentina had so few chances that Gabriel Batistuta, who has scored five goals in the games, was left forward to fend for himself, although he did manage to hit the post.

But as the Dutch continued throughout the afternoon to dazzle with their head and foot work-and this was the most balletic action seen in a long time — it appeared that Argentina would hold and force overtime and perhaps even win another game on penalty kicks. In the 72nd minute defender Arthur Numan received his second yellow card and was ejected automatically, leaving the Dutch down, 11 players to 10. Still, Argentina could not respond. Argentina's coach, Daniel Passarella, later blamed his team's sluggish game on "the lack of recovery time" following its penalty-kick victory over England on Tuesday night.

Then, in the 87th minute, the game shifted once and for all with a red card to Ariel Ortega. There seems to be something about wearing the No. 10 shirt for Argentina that brings out the worst, as well as the best, in the individual. Maradona wore the shirt for the previous four World Cups and his behavior sometimes was abysmal while his play often was unmatched. His successor is Ortega, who physically resembles Maradona-short and dark. It remains to be seen what legacy Ortega will leave with his World Cup play. But Saturday he demonstrated that he can be as hot-tempered as Maradona, who, incidentally, was in attendance, contributing to the telecast to Argentina.

After a fall in the Dutch penalty area, Ortega jumped from the ground and rammed his head upward into the chin of the Netherlands' goalkeeper, van der Sar. Referee Arturo Brizio Carter of Mexico red-carded Ortega immediately. The ugly incident was reminiscent of the young Maradona's first World Cup in Spain in 1982, when he, too, had been frustrated and reacted in anger. Maradona kicked Brazilian Joao Batista, drawing a red card and leaving his first World Cup with his head bowed. Brazil won easily, 3-1, although Italy won the Cup that year.

"That red card gave us some real energy," said Guus Hiddink, the Netherlands' coach. Two minutes later, the other de Boer, Ronald's twin brother Frank, kicked a long ball from midfield on a high arc to the right of Argentina's goal. It landed on Bergkamp's foot. He settled the ball confidently, then boldly cut inside defender Roberto Ayala. It was evident that Bergkamp was not going to miss his scoring opportunity. When he made the goal, he and everyone in the stadium knew the Netherlands was moving on.

The blond Bergkamp's assist on the first goal and his goal both were delivered at a time in the World Cup when the Netherlands sometimes folds. But possibly this is the 29-year-old Bergkamp's year. His Arsenal team won both England's Premier League and the Football Association Cup. After the game, a photographer asked him to take a victory pose by making a fist. But Bergkamp was too tired. All he could say at that moment was, "I found a little bit of energy to score that goal."

The finish was similar to the Netherlands' round-of-16 game, when Davids scored a last-gasp goal to beat Yugoslavia, 2-1. That game was a turnabout from the Netherlands' final first-round game, in which Mexico rallied from a 2-0 deficit to a tie on a goal deep into second-half injury time. And the past two games have been a turnabout from recent Dutch history, such as 1994, when the Netherlands came back from a 2-0 deficit to tie Brazil, then lost. Or the 1974 final, when it scored first only to lose to West Germany. Or the 1978 final, when it tied the game in regulation, but lost in overtime.

In World Cups past, and even in this one, the Dutch were getting caught. Now watch out for the Dutch. They could be coming up on Brazil's heels Tuesday night.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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