As many of you know by now, the drawing for the Euro 2004 match-pairings was held last Sunday in Lisbon. Nearly every such football tournament, whether it be for the World Cup or for the European Cup, can be counted on to produce in its run-up the so-called “Group of Death”: i.e. the matching of four national teams in a preliminary group which are of such a high quality that it’s a shame that only two of them will be able to advance further into the knock-out stages of the tournament. (The international football organizations that run such tournaments – FIFA and UEFA, respectively – do their best to pre-cook such drawings with “seeding” arrangements. These are supposed to ensure that each group has a proper mix of teams that are expected to do very well and teams that are not. Of course, one aspect of the charm of such events is that at least one team which, prior to the tournament, had not really been expected to advance, actually ends up doing so, meaning that at least one team that had been expected to do so does not. This generally results in national embarrassment and gnashing-of-teeth, and always in a coaching change.)
Sure enough, the Euro 2004 tournament coming up next summer in Portugal has its own “Group of Death.” Appropriately, that is group D (for “Death”), in which the teams from Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Latvia will play each other in a round-robin arrangement. Germany was the runner-up in 2002’s World Cup competition, only losing to Brazil; and the Dutch and the Czech teams are both highly regarded. (That’s true even though, strangely, both failed to qualify to play in that World Cup tournament in 2002. But the Dutch recently sent the Scottish team packing in a playoff with a 6-0 score. And it was the Czechs who defeated the Dutch and sent them into that playoff in the first place.) For its part, Latvia comes in last in the list of countries expected to win the European Cup compiled by those experts with their financial derrières on the line, namely the book-makers. Still, Turkey was a team that was supposed to be at this tournament, and the fact that they are not is directly attributable to the Latvian team (who no doubt caused substantial losses for the book-makers with their remarkable feat).
As it happens, I have the familiarity with the languages involved to shed some light on the domestic reactions to that “Group of Death” drawing from Germany, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands. Let’s head off to the Internet, shall we?, on the hunt for football insights which go beyond the standard line of “Yes, it’s a tough group; and we can’t afford to underestimate Latvia.” The Dutch press will be first on our list.
Of the Dutch team’s future opponents, it is Germany which attracts the most attention, for the Germans and Dutch have a bitter football rivalry that stretches back to 1974, when the (West) German team beat the Dutch 2-to-1 in the World Cup final (held in (West) Germany). This rivalry includes, among other meetings, another Dutch loss in the knock-out rounds of the 1990 World Cup in Italy which featured an ugly spitting incident, in a trajectory from (past Netherlands national team coach) Frank Rijkaard to (current German national team coach) Rudi Völler. As the headline in one of the articles in the Volkskrant expressed it, The Germans Again!. (OK, the full headline is: “It’s Only a Lottery-Drawing But Still: The Germans Again!”) Or, as the coverage in the Telegraaf put it, Once Again Against the Germans, an article which called the upcoming match on the 15th of June De Moeder aller Veldslagen – that’s right, “the Mother of all Battles.” In that same Telegraaf article Dutch coach Dick Advocaat professes that he didn’t really care who was picked in the drawing to oppose his team in the first round: “Because at this level there are no more weak teams left, it doesn’t matter who the drawing pairs you with. You just have to get down to it [Je moet er direct staan].”
Over in the NRC Handelsblad, in addition to the usual information, there’s a particularly good run-down on the schedule of friendly matches that the Netherlands Football Association (the KNVB) has arranged, to provide the national team with a little practice before it heads off to the big tournament. But there’s one problem: a “friendly” match (“friendly” only meaning that it doesn’t count for anything) had been arranged with the German team for 18 February. Now it’s not at all sure that that will happen; there will be a decision next week. Otherwise, there’s a friendly against France on 31 March, against Belgium on 29 May, against South Africa on 6 June, and against some Swiss professional club after that, as the Dutch team finish their preparations at their training camp in Lausanne, Switzerland, just prior to heading off to Portugal. The KNVB is still looking for a suitable opponent for a similar-type match next April.
FROM PARODY TO PANIC
Probably the most interesting aspect about the drawing out of the Dutch press is the attitude of the Germans, or at least their supposed attitude in Dutch eyes. So the best article comes out of the Algemeen Dagblad and is called Light Panic Among the Germans. From that article it seems that Schadenfreude (that’s “pleasure in the misfortunes of others”) has been the dominant emotion lately among Germans when it comes to the Dutch national team. After all, the Dutch didn’t make it to the 2002 World Cup tournament, and the Germans did. (Again, they even were runners-up there, a rather unexpectedly-good result, most will agree.) When the Dutch failed in their qualifying campaign for that tournament (as I recall, it was a defeat in Dublin against the Irish team that did it), a website with the address http://www.ihr-seid-nicht-dabei.de* quickly offered itself online as a forum for Germans to, basically, rub-it-in – what with cutting remarks in comment forums and pictures posted of glum football fans dressed in orange (that means they’re Dutch) staying home. (Go ahead, try that URL now, it still works. You’ll know you’re there when you see a cartoon picture of girl in an orange Dutch football uniform mocking a boy in a red Belgian uniform. Yes, the Belgian “Red Devils” – who were the main rivals to the Dutch until the Germans took over in the early 1970s – are indeed going to have to miss out on Euro 2004.) What’s more, the site quickly emerged again after Holland’s 1-0 loss in Glasgow to the Scottish national team of a few weeks ago, when it seemed that the Dutch team might miss out again. But that team won the next game 6-0 and went through to the tournament; hence the site’s apparent new function.
Ah, but the “panic”: From that AD article from writer Eddy van der Ley, it seems that things have turned around at frightening speed for the Germans: not so long ago they were indulging in one of their favorite past-times of mocking the Dutch team, and then *poof* it turns out that they will have to play them in their very first game of this summer’s competition in Portugal. What is more, most Germans (football connoisseurs that they are) realize that the Dutch have a better team. (And a few are quoted as admitting as much in the article. I agree that that is true. Curiously – and this provides more than enough material for a weblog entry in-and-of-itself – when the Dutch fail it is generally not so much because of what their opponents do, but what their team-mates do, i.e. they find that they cannot get along with their team-mates and/or their coach. Indeed, among the open sores in the current Dutch team is the apparent inability/unwillingness to work together between what should be a heavenly striker (i.e. attacker) combination: Manchester United’s Ruud van Nistlerooy and Barcelona’s Patrick Kluivert. Needless to say, that combination was not employed in the recent 6-0 victory over the Scots; Kluivert spent most of the game warming the bench.)
In short, as van der Ley writes, in the past in Germany it was a matter of hit pop-songs about the Dutch team (namely Ohne Holland fahren wir zur WM, or “We’re heading to the World Cup without Holland,” sung by “The Jojos, with Helmut from Mallorca” – really!). But now, with the fact staring them in the face that Holland will be their first opponent, a full 53% of Germans in a recent survey doubt that Germany will even survive Euro 2004’s Group D (which stands for “Death”).
* Oh, the German making up that web-address means “You guys aren’t there! (Ha-ha!)”