Tears Before Bedtime
Sitting up late to watch the Dutch betray their heritage was never going to end well
In the summer of 1982, as Italy definitively beat West Germany to pick up their third World Cup and Michael Jackson was applying the finishing touches to Thriller, the Paris Review sat down with the poet Philip Larkin and probed him on ‘why’ he wrote, to which he replied, “If you rationalise it, it seems as if you’ve seen this sight, felt this feeling, had this vision, and have got to find a combination of words that will preserve it by setting it off in other people. The duty is to the original experience. It doesn’t feel like self-expression, though it may look like it.”
In poetry, love tends to predominate as far as themes go. But naturally, where there is love, there is also heartbreak – and you never forget your first heartbreak. If, as Larkin says, the duty is to preserve the original experience, then writing about heartbreak becomes masochistic: the process re-opens wounds, inflicts new pain with new realisations and makes you very prone to overly romanticising its notion.
In this case of course, I remember the first proper heartbreak caused by football more vividly than any caused by a boy and perhaps more vividly than I would like.
The 2010 World Cup was a perfect storm; I had watched enough football by then, aged 12, to understand the technicalities of it and voraciously devour trivia. But I was also still very young and by extension much more prone to being significantly emotionally swayed, one way or the other, depending on my team’s results. Green Day and Linkin Park were always at hand on a hand-me-down iPod shuffle if things went south.
My family had just moved to India from the Netherlands and having an established interest in football helped the transition process in providing common ground to make friends. When the World Cup came round, given India had not qualified of course, everyone had a choice of whom to back and it was a serious matter. Some people went with the country of the club they supported, while others went with the country of their favourite/good-looking player(s). Some of the older kids could sensibly weigh up good contenders based on form and history, and others supported England.
I had a link to the Netherlands, having lived there, and did not think twice about supporting them, hence becoming the only person in this little football community at my new school to do so. The Oranje had neither a winning history nor the handsomeness factor (David Villa’s perfectly-spiked hair and Fernando Torres’s boyish charms won Spain a plethora of supporters) and most certainly did not have fans of their clubs who would adopt them.
India is three and a half hours ahead of South Africa, so the 1:30 pm vuvuzela sound-tracked kick off was perfect for me to get back from school and football training and plonk myself in front of the television for the opener against Denmark. Germany had already put four past Australia the previous day and soon enough, a sort of competitive desperation started to set in. The teams that my friends supported were winning (apart from England and the Rob Green Hall of Horrors) and I needed my team to win too.
They were slow to start, were lacking the still recovering Arjen Robben and could only take the lead after a comedy double-deflection pinball own-goal from Denmark.
But they did win and it did something that would come to haunt me later: it gave me hope. “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul,” wrote Emily Dickinson. Only I have a deep-seated phobia of birds.
By the end of the group stages, we were somehow still unbeaten and had conceded only one goal. On paper, the defence was average at best, with Gregory van der Wiel still relatively young, Giovanni van Bronckhorst at the end of his career and none of the centre-back options particularly outstanding. But Bert van Marwijk had seemingly taken a leaf out of José Mourinho’s playbook with Inter in opting for a midfield two of his son-in-law, the walking red card Mark van Bommel, and Nigel de Jong, he would have essentially a six-man defence whose only major concern was to provide the front four with attacking freedom.
Because while the defence may have been lacking in quality, the attack was brimming with it. In particular, this set-up had eked the very best out of Wesley Sneijder, who had been one of the more consistently impressive Dutch players for the national team since 2006 and who I decided would be the player I would pin my childish hopes on that summer.
Some players physically look like they embody their brand of football: Wesley Sneijder is not one of them.
That summer, Sneijder was disproportionately muscular in a way that made him look like Popeye the sailor or perhaps Scrappy Doo. He wore his shorts long, socks high and fixed tape around his wrists, which made his limbs look even shorter than they were. And of course he was already rather bald; Sneijder looked like he should have been a reserve right back.
But this is why we don’t judge books (and footballers) by their cover.
Few modern footballers can pick a through-ball like Wesley Sneijder and even fewer do it as instinctively and quickly as he does once he receives a pass. His vision was reminiscent of Arjuna, an unrivalled archer in the Indian epic Mahabharata, who won the hand of his bride by accurately shooting through the eye of a golden fish that was spinning above, but by only looking at its reflection in the water below.
From Arjuna to Arjen, as I still remember the pass Sneijder provided to Arjen Robben in the build-up to the second Dutch goal against Cameroon in the group stages. This game was a later kick-off and despite promising my mother I would go to bed, I had secretly stayed up well past a sensible bedtime to catch it, wrapping myself in a blanket and watching it on mute, so that no one else would be awoken by the noise.
I did not hear what the commentator said when the pass was made, but I let out a quickly muffled squeal. In the 82nd minute, Sneijder was a few feet away from the centre circle in his own half as the ball was played to him. He did not even take a touch before playing a long-pass with the outside of his right foot to the (as ever) onrushing Arjen Robben on the right flank. He did it in a motion that made him look like a human golf club, launching the ball with precision and perfect weight. The ball rose up into the air, went beyond the last Cameroon defender before the backspin kicked in and it almost magnetically swerved backwards onto Robben’s feet. Robben’s shot hit the post (source of some déjà vu later), but Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was sniffing around the box to tuck away the rebound.
If the fact that the Dutch were still unbeaten by the time the quarter-finals arrived had kept a small flame of hope going in me, then the performance against Brazil set a keg of gunpowder ablaze.
The odds of Sneijder, the shortest player on the pitch, popping up with a header for a winner against Brazil were longer than the chances of him ever completing a transfer to Manchester United.
It was the classic against-the-narrative performance: Brazil were favourites, Brazil had Robinho and Kaká, and, well, Brazil were Brazil, the country synonymous with the World Cup around the globe. For the Dutch, Joris Mathijsen was injured in the warm-up and the 35-year-old André Ooijer had to take his place. Ten minutes in, the Dutch defence parted, Robinho raced through and fired past Maarten Stekelenburg to open the scoring.
Something about underdog victories endears a team to a fan like little else; there is a reason why they form the bulk of sport-based movies.
When the Dutch rallied, mainly through the ‘clutch’ duo of Robben and Sneijder, the euphoria was unlike any other game in that tournament. It was not that the football had been great – both teams had resisted the urge to play the style of football they are perhaps most popular for.
You do not have to continue with something just on the grounds that it is traditional, of course. As the author Lemony Snicket said, “Piracy, for example, is a tradition that has been carried on for hundreds of years, but that doesn’t mean we should all attack ships and steal their gold.”
(And the first World Cup encounter between the sides in the second group phase of the 1974 World Cup was an equally dirty, unaesthetic game, not offering itself easily to the romantic narrative of either side.)
A lot of the discussion I have since read about the 2010 World Cup is centred on how anti-football the Dutch style was and the moral dilemma it presented. This is the most successful Dutch side I have watched (perhaps in my lifetime, with the way things are going), and it was entirely antithetical to what the nation was known for.
Before the final against Spain, Mark van Bommel remarked to national TV that they had to put an end to people bringing up the 1974 final. There are various nuances of irony in this; the first being that the Dutch approach to the match was such a contrast to their history that it begged unfavourable comparisons to that 1974 team; decades of respect and adulation had all taken a kick to the chest that night. The second, of course, was that Spain were everything the Dutch should have been in all the tournaments they were ‘unlucky’ at – and they managed to go one better and actually win the damn thing. So, the Oranje flew back without even the comfort of that well-worn blanket of having played the best football at the tournament.
For the kid watching thousands of miles away though, this was of little significance at the time. The excitement of being in touching distance of the World Cup – the actual fucking World Cup – was enough to send dopamine surging through all the right synapses and put a rosy tint on a World Cup that was actually pretty bad and clearly did not end well for me.
After the semi-finals, I begged and pleaded as I sought to get my old oversized Van Nistelrooy jersey replaced by a new oversized Sneijder jersey. None of the Nike outlets near where I was living had a Dutch jersey available, but there was a store that my friends frequented that sold counterfeits – and they had a ‘Sneijder’ jersey with his #10 on the back, albeit only in the away kit.
It was several sizes too big and obviously the wrong shirt for the final, but I did not really care. As they had for the semi-final against Uruguay, the Dutch embassy had invited us to a screening of the match at a swanky hotel – the likes of which we would never go to if not for these invitations. The semi-final was screened in a stuffy conference room, but they had splashed out in renting an outdoor space near a swimming pool for the final and projected the game onto a big screen and I was allowed to bring along my best friend, who unfortunately supported Spain.
Kick-off was at 8.30pm in Johannesburg, which was midnight in India. It seemed to be more of a social event for most of the people present there, as my friend and I were the one of maybe three or four children present. I actually remember less from the final itself than many other games from that World Cup – maybe it was the anxiety or maybe it is the fruit of my efforts to blot it out of memory so much.
I do think at least part of it was because of how boring it actually was and I am unsure how I would have perceived the game had I not rooted for one of the team. It was less unstoppable-force-meets-immovable-object than just pretty dull for most parts. Was it the end product rather than a symptom of the way the Dutch were playing? Perhaps. But Spain had also only scored more than one goal twice in the tournament and had won every single one of their knockout games with a scoreline of 1-0.
The comparison to the Champions League final was there to make. Spain had played the beautiful, possession-oriented football, with Xavi and Iniesta at the centre of it all, to whom the then-Bayern boss (but Dutchman of course) Louis van Gaal had given debuts for Barcelona. The Netherlands, on the other hand, were the more defensive side, relying on Sneijder, who was unshackled for the national team as he was for Inter, to send the forwards through on goal.
It was Sneijder who set up the first of Diego Milito’s brace and it was Sneijder who released Robben in the 62nd minute against Spain, looking to repeat history. It had taken until then to produce the first real chance of the game. It started out with a scruffy sequence, with Mathijsen heading away a long ball, before De Jong volleyed it into the air. Busquets tried to head it away but it fell right at Sneijder’s feet. Sneijder was off-balance but whipped the ball across the grass and split two Spanish lines - Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso in midfield, and Gérard Pique and Joan Capdevila at the back - to find Robben’s run.
What followed was something I have re-watched over the years and still struggle fully to fathom. One on one with Casillas and under no significant pressure from Capdevila, Robben strikes his shot too close to the keeper, whose outstretched legs send the ball just inches wide of the post.
In another World Cup match four years later, Robben, finding himself one on one with Casillas again, would take it around the floundering keeper on his right and then switch to his left and send a powerful shot roaring into the back of the net.
But on that night in Soccer City, he had not chosen to dribble it around or dink it over Casillas. He went for a hard shot, on the ground, and one that ultimately defined the Dutch being inches away from winning the World Cup.
It was not too long after that Robben found himself through on goal again and was pulled back by Puyol. Four years later, he would go to ground in the quarter-finals and earn a 94th-minute penalty that made him a hate-figure in Mexico. On that night, he stayed on his feet but momentarily lost his balance – just enough for Casillas to come out and smother the ball.
To an extent, the second chance did not really matter. I had taken the first miss to be an ominous sign already and found a sense of ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this’ wash over me. I had watched the match with a lump in my throat, but now I wanted to be sick.
The sense of doom that had been building up only continued, as Van Bronckhorst was substituted for Edson Braafheid, who had only played 14 times for Bayern that season and did not inspire much confidence. I was sure this was not going to end well at this point.
Ten minutes after that, it happened.
I still have never seen a replay of Iniesta’s goal. I remember Braafheid (I knew it) getting dragged way out of position. I remember Rafael van der Vaart somehow being the last defender as Iniesta floated into that left channel in which Braafheid had left a gaping hole.
By the time Iniesta wheeled off in celebration, I had my face buried in my shirt and spent the remaining four minutes sitting like that, as my Spain-supporting friend rejoiced. The adults did not really care and were celebrating just a goal – and I would not blame them, given they had sat through a 116 minutes waiting for one.
When Howard Webb blew the final whistle, my mother quickly bundled us away towards the elevators, knowing that I was going to get very cranky very soon.
I got into an open elevator and a middle-aged man remarked, “Oh, Sneijder’s come on,” in reference to my shirt, to a few chuckles. Almost immediately, we realised we had forgotten something and had to get back out and the man said, “Oh, Sneijder’s been substituted for losing the final!” to a few more chuckles.
Somehow, this was the most annoying part of the night. I was a 12 year old who was up way past her bedtime at 2-something am and whose team had just lost after the most miserable game of football. I was not mature enough to shake it off and I was not in a mood to process humour, let alone bad, poorly attempted humour.
(Ah, there you see it, the bitterness that oozes out when the old wound breaks open at the stitches and gapes wide again.)
That was the last straw for me, as I broke into quiet, snotty sobs, wiping my face with the sleeve of the white away jersey. I can only feel sorry for my friend who, having stayed up and seen her team win, then had to put up with me acting like a baby.
I did not go to school the next day, for fear of being taunted and got my mother to give me a sick note. It is strange to write this now and try to rationalise it but it was the age where football could affect a radical swing of your emotions and the last thing you wanted after your team had just lost was to be teased about it and have it rubbed in your face at school.
So I sat down that day and came to a conclusion: the 2010 World Cup was rubbish and Wesley Sneijder – who ended the summer second for the Golden Boot and Golden Ball and never had a year like 2010 again in his career – was the only good part about it.