Dutch egos no match for unified Germany

When Holland’s divided and reportedly dysfunctional team lost to Denmark at Euro 2012 a tabloid newspaper back home in the Netherlands ran a headline that read ‘Legoland beat Egoland’; so goodness knows what kind of abuse is heading Bert van Marwijk’s way today after his team lost 2-1 to Germany to stand on the brink of elimination.

The mighty Dutch, who were World Cup finalists in 2010 and regarded as one of the biggest favourites here in Poland and Ukraine, have to beat Portugal in their final game, pray that Denmark lose to Germany the same day — and also improve their goal difference — to stand any chance of reaching the quarter-finals; and the inquest could well be ugly.

Once again the spectre of in-fighting and oversized egos has damaged Oranje hopes of glory as they went into this match dogged by stories of problems in the camp; and then failed to recover from a first half in which German striker Mario Gomez scored two stunning goals to take his tally to three for the tournament already.

They did at least improve after the break — when Robin van Persie scored and manager van Marwijk finally made some compromises in his much-criticised team selection by substituting his son-in-law Mark van Bommel — but it was too little, too late; and it looks quite possible the Dutch campaign will end prematurely.

Of course for decades it has been a much-repeated rumour that the only thing in Holland that can possibly match the skill of its footballers is the size of their egos; and football history has been littered with examples of Dutch teams imploding just when it seemed they were on the verge of greatness.

That was never more evident than in Euro 96 when stories of cliques and internal rows followed the Dutch team everywhere eventually resulting in a hugely controversial story that the team was split along racial lines.

Several players have denied that since; insisting the splits were down to inequalities in wages. But what was clear was that a talented side — that included egos and talents as big as Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert and Clarence Seedorf, were rendered almost useless by never-ending internal strife that destroyed team spirit.

Legend has it the problems that year began when Davids brazenly informed manager Guus Hiddink during the tournament that he was “too deep in the ass of Danny Blind”, the team captain. And 16 years on and the similarities are painful; rumours abounding that van Marwijk is blind to the fact that veteran captain van Bommel is past his best and no longer deserves his place.

Additionally the outspoken Klaas-Jan Huntelaar appears affronted that van Persie is consistently chosen ahead of him; and Tottenham’s Rafael van der Vaart also broke ranks this week to criticise team selection for the first time.

So it was particularly poignant, symbolic even, when van Marwijk chose to take off van Bommel and replace him with van der Vaart at half time; and his decision to bring on Huntelaar at the same — to play alongside van Persie — also hinted at compromise and conciliation.

That would have pleased midfielder Weslely Sneijder who before the match had said: “We have to stop living on little islands. We must all go for the same goal, be united or face the consequences.”

But it was not enough to save Holland’s night, largely because Germany — who never seem to suffer these problems of ego and in-fighting — were so ruthless in putting their opponents to the sword with two wonderfully-taken goals that mean they need only a point now to finish top of the group.

Van Persie had already wasted a couple of good chances — one in particular when clean through on his left foot — before the game turned in Germany’s favour in the space of 15 minutes.

Gomez’s first came when Bastian Schweinsteiger found him with a clever, crisp straight pass and the big striker turned balletically 180 degrees on the ball before calmly steering a shot past Dutch keeper Maarten Stekelenburg after 24 minutes.

The second after 37 minutes was just as sweet, and featured the same combination as Schweinsteiger put Gomez through, this time wide to the keeper’s left, before Gomez swept a glorious shot across Stekelenburg for 2-0. Not bad for a striker who was universally panned and derided at Euro 2008 when he failed to score a single goal.

Holland, who had more possession for much of the match without truly threatening Manuel Neuer’s goal, improved dramatically after the break with van der Vaart excellent — and gave themselves hope with an equally outstanding strike from van Persie.

The Arsenal man, currently refusing to speak to the Dutch press, cut inside from the left and unleashed a superb, low and swerving shot with his right foot that fizzed into the net.

Even Huntelaar gave him a pat on the back for that; but Holland could not complete the comeback and now face a terribly nervous final game against Portugal if they want to save their tournament.

With the changes made in the second half, and the improvements that came with them, maybe there is a glimmer of hope; but if the egos want to land in the quarter-finals there is a lot of work to do.

Subs for Holland: van der Vaart (6) for van Bommel (46), Huntelaar (7) for Afellay (46), Kuyt for Robben (83).

Subs for Germany: Bender for Muller (90), Kroos for Ozil (81), Klose (6) for Gomez (72).

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