The Dutch are normally rather patronising of opponents, but they share the general awe for the Argentines. Asked to name his moment of the tournament so far, Holland’s striker Ruud van Nistelrooy lost his syntax: “Argentina’s second goal [against Serbia and Montenegro], of course. Twenty-five passes, at least. Cambiasso scores. Not normal. Really not normal. That you as a striker are allowed to give the final touch to an attack like that: wow.”
After Argentina’s 6-0 demolition of Serbia, everyone agrees they are playing the best football here. The Dutch are relieved to have qualified even before tonight’s match in Frankfurt against the Argentines: both these teams won their first two matches, so all that’s at stake tonight is winning the group and bags of pride. Two nations that love beautiful football are also hoping for a beautiful match, the first clash of giants this tournament. And for several reserves given an outing today, this is their chance to win regular places as the big games start.
Both sides will make plentiful changes. Players carrying yellow cards will be rested, to avoid suspensions for this weekend’s second-round matches. For Argentina, this means Carlos Tévez and Julio Ricardo Cruz will likely replace Javier Saviola and Hernán Crespo in attack. Bonehard defender Gabriel Heinze will take a break too, as may playmaker Juan Román Riquelme.
This is a rare chance for European fans to see Tevez. The 1.68m-high striker is largely unknown here, because he plays for Corinthians in Brazil, but though only 22 he has been voted South American footballer of the year three years running, and impressed with a goal as a substitute against Serbia.
Argentina’s 18-year-old prodigy Lionel Messi did too. However, he will probably start on the bench again today. This will please the Dutch, who prefer to face Cruz, once a rather boneless forward at Feyenoord Rotterdam. As for Messi, his Barcelona teammate Giovanni van Bronckhorst told the Dutch television pundit Hugo Borst: “Two years ago we played with part of the first team against the youth team. He played for them. Sixteen years old. Man, I didn’t know what I was seeing. There are players who can’t be marked. Of course I’ve tried at Barcelona practices, either marking short or with space. In the end he always beats you once, and it’s always decisive.”
Van Bronckhorst, who has been fooled by lesser men than Messi, may be pleased to skip Argentina. He is one of five Dutch regulars being rested with a yellow card, along with Arjen Robben, John Heitinga, Joris Mathijsen and Mark van Bommel. Their replacements will likely include full-backs Tim de Cler and Kew Jaliens, who spent last league season playing in front of 8,000 spectators for AZ Alkmaar. Today’s game will be the
one they tell their grandchildren about.
Dirk Kuijt, a right-footed centre-forward, will replace Robben at outside-left. The Dutch newcomers with the best chance of winning regular places are the Hamburger SV teammates Khalid “The Cannibal” Boulahrouz, a centre-back, and Rafael van der Vaart.
The latter could soon oust Wesley Sneijder in midfield, if fit. Today Sneijder and Van der Vaart will probably play side-by-side. Given their littleness and lack of pace and the fact that they will be accompanied in midfield only by 35-year-old Phillip Cocu, winning his 100th
cap, Argentina ought to swamp them.
“We are playing a great team, loyal to its history and its football,” says Argentina’s manager José Pekerman. The game is a re-run of the 1978 World Cup final. However, that means little to most Dutchmen, for whom 1978 is “the forgotten final”, whereas the loss to West Germany in the 1974 final is endlessly mythologised.
What matters to Holland today is winning the match and thus the group. The winner will probably meet Mexico or just possibly Angola in the second round, while the second-placed team in the group can expect Portugal. Holland would fancy Mexico, whom they defeated in a friendly three weeks ago, but not the Portuguese, who outclassed them in a Euro 2004 semi-final.
Argentina are probably too good to worry about impending opponents. In any case, should they lose today and finish second, then their game in the round of 16 will be in Nuremberg, a short drive from their camp in Herzogenaurach.
Holland do not expect victory, though. They recognise the game the Argentines are playing here. It’s a version of Dutch total football, attack with constant positional changes, whereas the Dutch themselves now play in rigid lines. Today Holland might accept defeat with honour.
The last time these teams met in the World Cup, in the quarter-finals in 1998, Holland won 2-1 with a last-minute outside-of-the-foot goal from Dennis Bergkamp after a 40-yard pass from Frank de Boer. Tonight, with Robben rested, the only players on the pitch capable of such brilliance will be wearing blue-and-white.