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Pierre's World Cup Diary

GAME 6, GROUP c, JUNE 11, 2006 --LEIPZIG

So, here we go again... I've had to rush from review to preview to Van Nistleroisms, but the sun is shining again in Germany, we're in Bach's hometown, and it's time to see a drenching of goals. Nothing too exciting at the beginning of this game, unfortunately. Except for the jerseys. Nice contrast. Bright whites, bright oranges, matching flags, and now the whistles from the crowd: almost 10 minutes gone, and have we seen a single shot on goal? Anything near goal? Well, yes, a Serbian free kick, right on goal, easily saved.

15... a little life from the Dutch? a cross, a save, a return-breakaway from the Serbs, shot, saved. The game is rising from its first fifteen minutes' slumbers. Serbia's Stankovich plays for Red Star of Belgrade: not a pleasant assignment. That's the team that gets beaten up by its mob fans when they do badly, if Franklin Foer's How Soccer Explains the World is to be believed.


Wonderful, just wonderful breakaway by Arjen Robben (no prison-island for this guy) who takes a perfectly timed flick from midfield, from Robin Persie, stuns the line of Serbian defense, runs straiught down the middle toward goal, forces the keeper out of his box, the keeper slides, but Robben kicks the ball perfectly from just the edge of the box and to the back of the net. This goal ranks up there with Klose's opening goal as one of the best in the tournament so far.

21... Another terrific run, another superb shot from the near side, a diagonal rocket by Cocu, the great Cocu, that a fully stretched and airborne keepr barely saves (and sends to a corner kick that the players used to take a breather. we need it). Serbia are rattled. Holland want more.

25... Holland again!... let me catch my breath...

30... The Serbs are getting a whiff of a chance here. First true attempt on the Dutch goal, just wide. And Cocu just to remind them who's in charge comes back and forces another Dutch save. Then back to a Serb attack and a Dutch save! Great first half. The secret? Controlled possessions, flowing game, no fouls, no out balls. This is football, almost total football. The Serbs are trying, but the Dutch defense is dyke-solid: no leaks, no errors.

33 I spoke too soon. Stankovich challenged a Dutch hard enough to earn himself a yellow card. Leipzig's club team plays in the fourth German division? Are you kidding me? A city like Leipzig? Must be their Chicago Cubs. Too busy singing Cantatas to play football. A slow stretch here, one meek Dutch attack, saved.

36... Robben! He could have had a second goal, took a long pass across the field, drove down the near side, shot, just wide of the far post. I was reading the keeper's lips: "What the f---" but the camera cut away just then. And Robben drives again! he's the man of the match so far. His feet are nuclear. A corner goes nowhere for Holland until Robben takes it back again. But off side.

"Important for them to get off to a good start," the ESPN commentator says of the American team. I disagree. I think it's important for the American team to get off to a very poor start, as it is for every team playing its first game. Very important for them to get off to a lousy, lazy, poor start. The Dutch and the Serbs, too. They should work really hard at being blah. (Those commentators: the bane of American football-watching).

40... Holland has controlled the ball 65 percent of the time, officially. In fact it's closer to 70 percent.

44... Is Holland's Van Nistelrooij in the line-up? Really? He's been a non-issue in this game. Not that he's been needed. And look at that, a late break from the Serbs, but easily handled by the keeper. Halftime, after one last good attack by the Serbs. Great first half, beautiful play, good action. Keep it up. I'm off to get a bagel.

Half-time fun: Here's what I was referring to earlier, regarding Red Star, the Serbian football team, and the extent to which Serbian football is synonymous with violence. From Franklin Foer's How Soccer Explains the World, pp. 7-8: "The gangs have influence in large measure because they've won it with intimidation. A few months before I arrived in Belgrade to learn about the club's complicity in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Red Star fan clubs had burst into team training sessions. With bats, bars and other bludgeons they beat three of their own players. After their havoc, they aren't typically shy about advbertising their accomplishments. In this instance, the hooligans told reporters bluntly that they could "no longer tolerate lack of committment on the pitch." "

And on page 13: "The Red Star fans would become Milosevic's shock troops, the most active agents of ethnic cleansing, highly efficient practitioners of genocide."

Foer also describes his interview with a Red Star fan boss called Krle. At the end of the interview p. 11): "As I put away my pen and notebook, Krle reengages the group. He stands over me and demonstrates the three-fingered salute of Serb nationalism, the peace sign plus a thumb. The gesture signifies both the Holy Trinity and the Serb belief that they are the plate's mopst authentic representatives of the Holy Trinity. "Now you," he says in English. I comply. Before I leave the room, Krle makes me repeat the gesture four more times. When I later describe this moment to a human rights activist who has spent many years in Belgrade, he tells me that, during the war, paramilitaries forced Muslims and Croats to make this salute before their rape or murder."

Second half.

47... It does look like the Serbs got a beating in the locker room. They've come out fuming, attacking, riling up the crowd and firing on goal what, twice? three times? But the Dutch aren't having any of it either, and we heard mention of Van Nis somewhere in there. Maybe he got a beating too.

53... All build-ups, no finishes just now. The Dutch have taken back control of the ball after that Serbian flurry. But the game has kept up its great tempo. Free kick Holland. outside the box, volleyed in, a Dutch player tries a little showmanship, scissor-kick, but falls flat, and a follow-=up attack ends in the Serbian's hands.

56... an inexcusably silly ftree kick by the Serbs that bounces long in shame. The Serbs redeem themselves a minute later, busying the Dutch boix more than the Dutch feel entitled. (My two year old son just showed me a mighty boogger, of which he was really proud: symbollic of Serbian play?)

60... The Dutch keep pressing, great attacks, another one from a corner kick, saved by the keeper. It seems impossible that we can go on at this pace without a bevy of goals. And yet...

64... Serbia, free kick, just outside the box... bends just over goal. Tempers are beginning to flare. Serbian players are beginning to act like their fans. Not a good sign. The game risks diving into the toilet. It's working too: The Dutch are miscommunicating, mjissing easy passes, putting j's where they shouldn't: football's equivalent of misspellings.

68: Van Nis, taken out. Not a bad choice. He's been in exile on his own field. It's like he never left ManU.

71... Best serb attack yet, a shot from inside the box by Koroman, barely saved. A few dozen men are down, hurt.

74... The Dutch cannot afford a tie in this game, if they want to advance--not with Argentina in their group, and the way it's looking now, the Dutch (aside from this late attack just now, that went nowhere) are settling back, giving the Serbs the feel of a chance. The Serbs can tie this easily. Fifteen minutes left, plenty of time for a surprise, plenty of time for a Dutch mistake. Tactically, the Dutch are committing that mistake now.

76: an almost goal for the Serbs: inside the box, a mess, a save, and then Robben again at the other end shaves the near post with a nice shot.

79... very poor free kick for the Dutch, fired high above and beyond every goal in Leipzig.

81... Excellent Holland free kick, barely misses the goal, impossible to say how.

85... At this point if the Serbs tie the game, the way they did in the late minutes against Spain in a qualifying game, the Dutch will have deserved it. They have not pressed as they should in the second half, and they have not lived up to their first half's enthusiasm. That's a shame. This could have been one of the tournament's classics. It lost that possibility at the 65th minute.

89... Terriric play on both sides these last few minutes, broken up cynically by a Serbian foul on Robben outside the Serb area. Free kick coming. Nada.

A good game overall, but not a classic, and under its potential for goals. My prediction of a 3-2 game had realism on its side, but not much more.


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