Holland v Argentina, ITV1
Since before the tournament, it is Group C that he caused the most feverish neutral excitement. Many were hoping that Serbia & Montenegro and Cote d’Ivoire would live up to their dark horse billing, but most will have expected this coming together to be group decider and so it has come to pass, with the Ivorians fairly unlucky and the Serbs pretty hapless in their attempts to come between these titans. The suggestion has been that this game could be, like their tussle eight years ago, one of the matches of the tournament. Certainly ITV has been hyping it in this way, laying down ads like trump cards.
Plenty to be excited about then, but ITV can ruin any occasion, of course. They have been to this World Cup what a Labrador drilling a stream of urine cake-wards is to a 6 year olds birthday party. Tonight, once more, it’s that man Pleat in the seat, always a threat to anyone’s candles. Still, there is indeed the game, “a classic encounter” says Steve Rider by way of an opener, and I hope he’s right.
Needless to say, mention has to be made of England, and Steve subtly squeezes one in by suggesting this group is like Englands. Argentina need only a point, while if Holland win they would top the group. All set up nicely, and the VT shows the ’78 final and Bergkamp’s ’98 classic. Out of that, Steve asks Ruud Gullit as to the nature of the Holland/Argentina rivalry? “One of respect” says Ruud, disappointing our host, his collection of hoolie-lit stashed behind his chair.
Sam Allardyce then waxes lyrical about Lionel Messi, his mind clearly ticking about how many lies he could possibly tell the young Argentinean about sunny Bolton. Steve then looks nervous attempting to pronounce ‘Dirk Kuyt’ in front of Ruud Gullit. “We’d all better learn how to say his name” says Steve, suggesting Ruud may also be struggling with the intricacies of Dutch phonetics.
“Mixed emotion in Cologne” is the ominous link as we return, and that is followed by those words that fill us all with dread, no not “Michael Owen’s World Cup is over,” I mean “Gabriel Clarke.” The wizened gnome, usually found lurking in League One car-parks, has been reporting from the England camp as though he’s stood outside a Crown Court. Gabriel is, I think, solely responsible for introducing the tide of solemnity into the England party. He speaks to a few and they all look pretty miserable and unwilling to elaborate. He asks Rio Ferdinand, “can we win the world cup without Michael Owen?” Rio, iPod ear-piece dangling: “yes.” Revealing!
As soon as you hear Steve Rider utter the word “fans”, you know what’s coming and, indeed, it’s off to Nedley, outside with some boisterous fans from either side. An Argentinean fan covered in appropriate shades of body paint shouts “Look out Germany” into the mike, as though he’s into a Robin Williams stand-up routine. The Dutch fans try to compete for volume. As he hands back, stuffy Steve says “respect between the fans, if not a great deal of dignity.” He can expect better behaviour from Ruud who is also, once again, decked out in his lucky orange shirt. “I hope we’re going to see a good day” whispers Ruud, repressing the urge to let off an air horn and belch violently.
Steve, clearing a large frog from his throat, links us through to Peter Drury who says “memories are made of this,” over a picture of the teams stood stock still in the tunnel. Aye, that will stay with me. Out in the stands we see Maradona, Argentina’s Delia Smith, this time molesting Michel Platini. During the anthems, Marco Van Basten is caught looking as though he’s just that second been impaled with a harpoon, and daren’t look down to survey the damage. “It’s a clash between two of thee football nations” says Drury before making one of his more shocking suggestions: “Enjoy David Pleat.” There may have been some punctuation in there. You’d hope.
The tempo is fairly decent but I don’t catch much of it as I am forced to look away quickly each time Carlos Tevez on the screen. “Barrel-chested, big necked, big muscles” is Drury’s description, failing to add “recently glassed” or, indeed, “barrel-faced.” I am given some relief as Holland begin to attack, Van Persie brushing the ball arrogantly down the right with his studs, eventually winning a corner and as he prepares to take it, performs some necessary adjustments to what Drury describes, with a hint of arousal, as his “undershorts.”
Holland also have the first clear chance of the night, after 17 minutes, Nicolas Burdisso getting caught in possession by Dirk Kuyt in the corner, who then dribbles into the box and unsuccessfully tries to beat Roberto Abbondanzieri at the near post despite the presence of Van Nistelrooy in the centre. Up the other end Tevez causes all sorts of trouble at the touchline, robbing defenders and eventually winning a corner, “little bull of a striker” says Drury, getting closer to the Phantom of the Opera truth.
Argentina’s best chance of the half sees a Riquelme free-kick slice through the box, deflecting off Khalid Boulahrouz onto the post. A minute later Maxi Rodriguez sends a fizzer just past a fully stretched Van Der Sar’s far right hand post, “Maxi danger” says Pleat, like a timid wrestling MC. We cut to a shot of the intense Van Basten letting his guard down a little, inspecting the little finger he has just demobbed from an inner ear investigation.
For the remainder of the half, the sides kind of neutralise each other, only a shot from Messi causing anything close to mild worry in either camp. Fearing a mass switch-off, Drury suggests the potential, “it is a major game that is on the simmer for now, but these are the sort of players who can bring it to the boil in the second half.”
After all my talk of ITV being a deliverer of birthday ruining piss, its not been a bad first half show, Drury okay and Pleat not saying much. Hazzah. In a further slap to my cynicism, they actually spend most of the interval discussing the game at hand. Thankfully order is restored early in the second half, Drury informing us once again about Michael Owen’s injury, before dictating an open letter. “and if you’re sitting, rather dolefully, in your lounge at home watching this [Michael], commiserations to you. I hope you’re living off the memory of, amongst other things, that wonderful goal you once scored against Argentina, 8 years ago”. What kind of damage can a crutch do to a brand new plasma screen, do you think?
The game doesn’t do anything to allow this nadir to be overcome either, although there are flashes; Riquelme skidding one just past the far post; Rafael Van Der Vart doggedly winning the ball in the area, the ball spinning to Phillip Cocu who forces Abbondanzieri into a near post save; Tevez firing a real stinger for Van Der Sar to keep out; and a Van Der Vart free-kick zooming past the near post. When we cut again to the bench, there is yet another shot of Marco Van Basten in that thousand-yard stare mode, which suggests his long break from football may have been due to him serving jail time for murder. To quote the comic Tony Law; “once you’ve killed you’re fourth homeless guy, it all gets a bit too easy, doesn’t it?” Any thoughts, Marco?
Despite the disappointing game, Stuart Pearce is undiminished in his love for the Argentineans, “I’ll stick my neck out, I think they’re nailed on to win the World Cup” he says, before Steve says goodnight with his final thought “Hasn’t actually been a feast tonight, but an hors d’oeuvres, that reminds us that Argentina will be pretty tasty through this tournament” which it appears he would have said even if they’d been tonked for 8.
As is always the case with these hyped things, the game, although it has its moments, cannot live up to the weight of expectation, which isn’t really its fault. In that respect, perhaps there is a similarity with England after all.
Pee Wee’s Playhouse secret word: evocative
Referee (Luis Medina Cantalejo, Spain): "But how do you and your neighbour get on about the disputed right of way?" said Mr. Jarndyce. "You are not free from the toils of the law yourself!"
These things I believe: I imagine there’s not a brisk trade in wall posters of Carlos Tevez -- Re: Esteban Cambiasso. Was ex-Reading gaffer Jimmy Quinn anywhere near South America during the latter months of 1979? -- Argentina still look pretty hot stuff, but neutralizable, so we needn’t all pack up and go home after all. -- Forgot Ruud Van Nistelrooy was playing until his substitution. -- Fabricio Coloccini. Now at Deportivo la Coruna after a stint on the road with Styx.