Okay, that’s not true at all. Of all the teams in this year’s World Cup, the one team I expect to do major damage in the Group stage is The Netherlands, aka Clockwork Orange, the masters of Total Football and one of the most technically gifted in teams in whichever tournament they play. But the Dutch are an enigma, a team that destroys lesser opponents only to lose the big match; despite playing in two World Cup finals with incredibly talented teams, the Netherlands lost both in epic fashion. First, to Germany in 1974…
Beckenbauer vs Cruyff
..and then to Argentina in 1978.
The Dutch team have always been classic underachievers, playing a thrilling brand of football that just never seems to be enough to win the tournament. This year’s team is once again going about the business of thrashing the opposition, scoring goals in bunches and playing with tremendous flair and confidence. Could this be the year the Dutch finally win it all? I have to be honest, I think most of the world is sleeping on this team, expecting the technically astonishing Spain and the workman-like Brazil to lift the Cup. But if they’re on, if they have their best players playing well, I think the Dutch have as good a chance as any team in the tournament to win it all because, and I’ll call it now, I expect them to score more goals than any other team at the World Cup. With Wesley Sneijder running the show and the two Robbins, Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben (if his recently injured hamstring allows him to play) up in front of Rafael van der Vaart, Dirk Kuyt and Mark van Bommell, this team is loaded with fire power.
Dirk Kuyt Flies High
The problems lie at the back, a sturdy group of mid-level professionals who have never proven as a unit that they can match the excellence of the Dutch attack. While it shouldn’t be a problem in Group E, the latter stages of the Tournament promise less possession for the attack and the need for discipline and precision in the back. The good news? They’re going to score goals by the bucketload. The bad news? They might have to. I can guarantee the Dutch will be hanging goals on their opponents, but I fear that, as the month wears on, their opponents might find some joy in the Dutch third of the field. That said, as the Tournament progresses and if the Dutch hang in there and win some latter stage matches, this team could win it all. I’m hoping they put on a show again, but this time, winning has to come first. Will the Oranje finally make it to the promised land?
The Gears of The Clockwork Oranje: Wesley Sneijder
As much as this Group is about The Netherlands’ probable dominance, it also also, I believe, African football’s best chance to shine. While the Ivory Coast will struggle to make noise in the Group of Death (more on them soon), Samuel Eto’o and Cameroon have a real chance to qualify out of this Group and find a place in the elimination stages, a place where anything can happen. Eto’o is one of the true superstars of world football, a man who earned my eternal respect when he walked off the pitch while facing racist abuse from Real Zaragoza fans while playing at Barcelona:
For me and for many, Eto’o is the symbol of the rising power of African football, a man of deep integrity and amazing ability whose actions on and off the field provide a model for how the game should be played and a career should be built. Cameroon has been an African power for years now, they were the first (and remain the only) African team to reach a World Cup Quarter Final back in 1990, and of all the nations of the host continent, they probably have the easiest Group, with an underachieving Danish side and a beatable Japan both likely to face a hostile environment when they suit up against the Indomitable Lions.
For me personally, there are a couple of things about African football that need absolute clarity; first and foremost, I get so tired of people in the West talking about Africa as if it were a single, homogenous place and not a giant continent filled with diverse nations, cultures and footballing styles; this view of Africa is a problem across all fields– cinema, art, sport, politics– where people, ignorant of the geography and history of the continent, ignore the specifics of national and cultural identity in favor of a reductive assumption of Africa as a singular place. While I talk about African football and European football, I don’t talk about them as being homogenous, but instead as competitive territories, FIFA regions that have their own international Cup competitions (The European Cup, The African Cup of Nations) and Continental governing bodies (UEFA for Europe, CAF for Africa). It is important to me to make this make this distinction and be clear.
It also drives me crazy to hear about how South Africa is not an appropriate venue for the biggest Tournament in world football. One of the reasons, I believe, that South Africa and a CAF nation was chosen to host this World Cup is because FIFA, usually run by Europeans from offices in Europe, had (and still has) a massive problem on its hands back in 2004 when the bid was approved: Racism. For most fans in the USA, the idea that you could walk into an NFL or MLB stadium and be bombarded with messages asking fans to eliminate racism from the game is a completely unimaginable concept; while racism still exists in America, it has been wholly expunged from the arena of acceptable public behavior, especially in sport, where ability trumps all. FIFA’s campaign to “Say No To Racism” began in 2006 and continues in football stadiums around the world, a message that seems as obvious as its necessity in 2010 seems insane. What better place than South Africa to change the face of the game, away from the ugly history of racism and toward support built around the color of jersey instead of the player. Some four years later, I think this ESPN report does a nice job of showing the uninitiated just what players of color run up against in some European stadiums:
ESPN’s 2006 Report On Racism In Football
Carlos Kameni, the goalie showered in bananas at the start of that piece, will play for Cameroon in this Cup. Ask him what an African World Cup means. With men like Kameni and Eto’o on the pitch for Cameroon during the first World Cup hosted in the CAF, well, you have to be pulling for them to make a real splash. While African football could use a dose of pride, FIFA need success in Africa more than anyone.
Who To Watch
It is difficult to name a single player on the Netherlands who will be the difference-maker, but I have to go with Inter Milan ace Wesley Sneijder, the heartbeat and playmaker of a team loaded with scorers. Sneijder makes the Dutch go, and while Arjen Robben provides speed and width and Robin van Persie is the man in form right now, watching Sneijder pull the strings in the midfield is a sight to behold. For Cameroon, it’s Sneijder’s Inter Milan teammate Samuel Eto’o, one of the hardest working strikers in the business and, in my opinion, one of the best strikers in the world; there is no job too small for Eto’o on the pitch and his work rate has made him a great player, while his goals have made him a star. Every team in the tournament would kill to have a player of his ability on the field; he is a true superstar, a must-see marquee player to watch. Denmark seems to be stuttering into the Tournament, but the Danes have a couple of excellent players in Nicklas Bendtner in attack and Daniel Agger at the back; I’m not sure I see the Danes getting it together in time, but Bendtner sure seems to think he can get them through, so who knows. As for Japan, Yasuhito Endo is a creative player who will hold the keys to Japan’s success; his delivery on set pieces and in the midfield is critical to Japan making any noise in the tournament.
Big In Japan: Yashuito Endo
Must See Match
For me, it has to be Denmark vs Cameroon on June 19th. This match should be the decider for second place in Group E. Cameroon should have a big edge; playing for a place in the second round, they should enjoy a virtual home field advantage in this match, one that could play an important role in settling Group E.
A Legend In His Own Mind: Denmark’s Niklas Bendtner
Who Moves On
I see The Netherlands as real contenders to win it all and I think they will win the Group going away. I expect Cameroon to qualify as well, beating Denmark and Japan to secure a spot in the second round.
Up Next: Group F