DAVID SHONFIELD: When a soccer friendly is not really a friendly

All friendly matches are equal but some are more equal than others, writes David Shonfield.

International football generally involves a compromise between necessity and invention, particularly when competitive matches are immediately followed by games that can turn into souped-up training sessions.

Managers like Guus Hiddink and Antonio Conte, serial winners at club level, are in no position to complain, but it is harder to get an international side to perform well when the warm-up game is the one that matters.

Both the Dutch and Italians had poor results on Saturday, both against relatively weak opposition.

Italy have a history of underperforming against Bulgaria, especially away from home. The Bulgarians themselves hit a new low four months ago in a 1-1 draw at home against Malta, but this is the third time running the Azzurri have dropped points in Sofia: More than a coincidence.

Embarrassing for Conte, who came into the manager’s job with huge expectations from the fans and the media, a bit like an Italian version of Martin O’Neill. The good news for Conte, however, was that his controversial new striker Eder delivered a crucial goal on his debut.

Born and brought up in Brazil, Eder is another example of the peculiar ways of Italian football. Players often have to wait years for their chance, and there is a lot of untapped potential in the lower divisions. Still, those who watched Eder in Serie C with Frosinone would not have bet on success in the top flight, let alone playing for his adopted country at the age of 28.

Now he’s being talked of as a striker who can make the difference and Brazil may be regretting another fish that slipped away to a big rival, as with Diego Costa and Spain.

“He was on our list of elements to follow in Europe,” said Brazil manager Carlos Dunga after Eder saved Italy with his spectacular late equaliser. “But that’s globalisation: players now choose the offer they find most interesting.”

South American teams have always been vulnerable to the poaching of oriundi , as the Italians call them, players like Thiago Motta and Mauro Camoranesi, both of whom switched allegiance.

Not that Dunga has much to complain about with another two wins under his belt.

Two friendlies, but only in name. Both France and Chile were at full strength and put their bodies on the line. After last summer’s humiliation, the Brazilians are now a very competitive side, full of aggression and pressing as well as flair and movement.

By contrast the Dutch decline is a real surprise. They were a revelation in the World Cup and might even have won it but for a shoot-out and a goalkeeper who had never saved a penalty in his career.

Since then their slide has been horrendous. They were without both Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie at the weekend, but having to rely on a stoppage-time goal to rescue a point at home against Turkey is a damaging blow to morale.

As in their shock defeat in Iceland last October, the Dutch seemed to lose their way in this match after missing chances. Against Iceland they had 70% of possession but only managed three shots on target. They had slightly less of the ball against Turkey and more shots, and they did have two attempts disallowed, but in the end it was only a deflection from a long-range shot that got them the draw.

Dutch fans have various explanations.

Some argue that Guus Hiddink is a poor manager, a view which finds some support in Russia, but not in Australia and South Korea. Some argue that Louis Van Gaal is a genius and that his tactics enabled the team to perform at their best. Some take the view that the Dutch weren’t as good as they looked and have now been found out.

The third position may have most to it. Van Gaal’s three-man defence looked a superb call against the Spanish tiki taka in the World Cup, but the Dutch were also at risk of being cut to ribbons.

Matches between the Netherlands and Spain are never dull, and there is a lot riding on tonight’s encounter in the Amsterdam Arena, even though it is nominally a friendly.


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