The Netherlands and its flexible formations.
Louis van Gaal, team manager for the Netherlands, in 1988, as interim manager with Ajax.
France ’98 remains the standard for World Cups in my lifetime. The number of great players in their prime, the quality of the games in the knockout rounds, the last-second drama of the now (thankfully) abolished Golden Goal—a rule by which the first team to score a goal in extra time won—it all proved irresistible. France as a nation had turned to embrace the right, and up had risen the National Front; nevertheless, people traveled in happy droves to spend days, if not weeks, in their dream of Romantic France. During those June days, football flourished under what should have been a crushing paradox of love and hate, more felt than fully understood.
Brazil ’14 is not France ’98, but it’s getting close. Its group stage has been unquestionably better. Both tournaments have been played in times of terrible turbulence, providing a welcome distraction for some and annoying others—as in 1998, regardless of the result, it will be a national triumph and a national disgrace.
Yesterday, a friend asked me how I feel about it all. But do we feel about anything as an “all” or a whole? Aren’t there portions we consciously or unconsciously admire, see, unsee, or detest? At times, the games in this World Cup have been so good that I’ve had to close my eyes and put my head back in order to clear my mind, to review what I’ve just seen, a team’s movement, or the sounds of the match, the commentators chasing the game, the mazy motion of New York City midday summer noise sidewinding through my open windows.
Yesterday, I found myself closing my eyes in dismay. The Netherlands, a.k.a. the Oranje—in homage to their royal color, inherited from Willem van Oranje–played Chile for the top spot in Group B. Both teams were undefeated, having trounced the defending champ, Spain, and discarded Australia. Because of goal difference, Chile needed to win this final game in order to top the group; Holland needed only a draw. At a time when some teams were already being eliminated, these two were comfortable in knowing that they would both move on—still, there was much at stake in a seemingly inconsequential game. Assuming Brazil were to beat Cameroon in the later game—as they ended up doing—the runner-up of Group B would play Brazil in the next game, and afterward the loser would have to go home. Brazil has hardly been sharp thus far, but if you can avoid playing Brazil in Brazil, especially in an all-or-nothing game, you’d better do it. But what if Brazil hadn’t won? Or what if Mexico—for my money the best team of the tournament thus far—had absolutely routed Croatia, overtaking Brazil in Group A on goal difference? (This nearly happened.) Then the team that won Group B, rather than the runner-up, would’ve had the distinct nonpleasure of playing Brazil. In other words: everything was in the air. It was time to be flexible. Read More