Holland 3 Italy 0
As a spectacle, Euro 2008 finally kicked off last night.
Say what you like about Ruud van Nistelrooy's opening goal - and much has already been said in the media and online over the past 12 hours or so about whether or not it was offside - but Holland's other two goals were aesthetic beauties worthy of any Dutch Master.
If the final goal scored by left back Giovanni van Bronckhorst was a classic example of counter-attacking football, coming as it did from a sweeping end-to-end move started by a fine save by Edwin van der Sar, then the goal scored by Wesley Sneijder to give Holland a 2-0 advantage was the equivalent of van Gogh's Sunflowers or A Starry Night. Again, van Bronckhorst featured prominently, initiating the move with a goal-line clearance before sprinting forward to receive the ball and deliver an incisive cross into the Italian box, which was cushioned by the head of Dirk Kuyt into the path of the arriving Sneijder, who volleyed the ball home. It was reminiscent of the sweeping Brazil move finished by Carlos Alberto in the 1970 World Cup final, a true team effort widely regarded as one of the greatest goals ever scored.
European Championship finals have witnessed some astonishing goals in the past: van Basten's thunderbolt volley against the USSR in the 1988 final, Gazza against the Scots at Euro 96, Suker and Poborsky's deft chips at the same tournament. Sneijder's goal last night arguably betters them all: it was that good.
And it was exactly what this year's tournament needed too, with the five preceding matches serving up a mixture of mild entertainment and downright drudgery (in particular, the desperately disappointing France v Romania). There was always a danger that the first genuine heavyweight clash of Euro 2008 would be a terrible letdown, as such games often are, but somehow you just know that any game involving Holland is likely to have some kind of a spark to it.
There is something genuinely uplifting about watching the Dutch national team. Here are five reasons why:
1. They seek first and foremost to play beautiful football - this is, after all, the nation which gave us the concept of 'total football'
2. Their history contains a veritable Who's Who of great players: Cruyff, Gullit, van Basten, Bergkamp and so on
3. They can always be guaranteed to produce as many headlines off the pitch as they do on it - there is always at least one story of in-fighting, or a training ground punch-up, or players refusing to play for the coach or with other players
4. Their fans are lovably bonkers: a sea of orange-clad maniacs who add colour and atmosphere to any stadium
5. Finally - and perhaps most importantly - they are, statistically, the only major footballing nation who are comparably bad to England when it comes to penalty shootouts (England have won just one out of six in major tournaments; Holland's record is one win in five)
Arguably the Dutch have the most talented squad in the tournament - and this is without heavy hitters such as Clarence Seedorf and Mark van Bommel, who refuse to play for coach Marco van Basten. Equally, one could make a case for them being the weakest team in what has been labelled (as happens at every major tournament) Euro 2008's 'Group of Death': a group which includes both 2006 World Cup finalists (Italy and France) and Romania, who headed Holland's group in qualifying.
Yesterday, they showed the best side of what Dutch football is all about, while demonstrating how fine the margins in international football truly are. A questionable opening goal, followed by two majestic goals which arose directly from Italian near-misses. In no way, shape or form were Italy three goals inferior to Holland last night - a draw would not have been an unfair result - and so Italian fans can rightfully feel somewhat aggrieved this morning. And yet, in a country which has a deeper appreciation for artistry than any other on Earth, they may also feel a grudging admiration for having being part of and party to two moments of great footballing beauty last night.
If we see a goal or a game even half as good as what we saw last night, then Euro 2008 will already have been a memorable tournament. Bring it on!
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