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Soccer

The Netherlands Blew It, Again

Matthijs de Ligt of Netherlands looks dejected after being shown a red card during the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Round of 16 match between Netherlands and Czech Republic at Puskas Arena on June 27, 2021 in Budapest, Hungary.
Tibor Illyes - Pool/Getty Images

There is no international soccer team I like or support more than Venezuela, but there is no team I care about more than the Netherlands. For reasons both adorable and mostly out of my control, I have been a fan of the Oranje for as long as I can remember, thanks to my grandma buying me a stuffed hippo in Amsterdam when I was one. I carried Toto around like Linus’s security blanket, and once I learned what Amsterdam was, I also carried a love for the Netherlands in a similar way.

On Sunday, that same team broke my heart for the umpteenth time, this time losing the Czech Republic, bowing out of the 2021 Euros thanks to a listless 2–0 loss aided and abetted by an incredibly dumb Matthijs de Ligt red card early in the second half:

If you squint and look at the play through orange glasses, there’s an argument to be made that de Ligt, a bright young star for the Dutch, was fouled by Patrik Schick, and that his wild swing of his arm hit the ball only as a consequence of that infraction. That is the type of rationalizing I have become used to as an adopted fan of the Netherlands. It’s the same type of reasoning that argues that Andrés Iniesta’s 2010 World Cup–winning goal shouldn’t have occurred because the Netherlands should have had a corner right before. It might be justified, but it never matters. Being a fan of The Best Nation To Never Win A World Cup means always having to be on the lookout for the next big disappointment.

This time around, there’s little to blame beyond the team itself, except perhaps the terrible manager. There’s a reason that José Mourinho once called Frank de Boer “the worst manager in the history of the Premier League,” and it’s not (just) because Mourinho is an asshole.

Against the Czech Republic, de Boer set up his team like an underdog, with five defenders and a focus on counter-attacking. That doesn’t make sense in a vacuum, but doubly so when considering how much better the Dutch midfield is than the Czechs’. It also seems like a failure of tactics that a majority of balls to the wingbacks, ostensibly there to provide width, ended up back with goalie Maarten Stekelenburg for a long kick down the field.

De Boer’s substitutions made even less sense. With the game still tied but with the Netherlands down a man, he brought on Quincy Promes for Donyell Malen, an attacker-for-attacker swap that makes little sense when thinking about how 10-man teams usually need to play. By the time he took out Marten de Roon, a defensive midfielder, for Wout Weghorst, the match was lost. De Roon was just about the only thing keeping the Czechs at bay, and they simply strolled to their second goal seven minutes later.

I don’t want to speak for a nation that isn’t mine, but I feel confident in saying that every Dutch fan felt pure dread from the minute de Boer was hired. This manager has failed monstrously everywhere he’s gone since leaving Ajax, and having him at the helm in a knockout match where only tactics could salvage something was exactly the doomsday scenario all his skeptics were worried about. The blame isn’t solely on de Boer, to be fair. Several key Dutch players dropped stinkers on Sunday. Gini Wijnaldum was invisible, and new Barcelona signing Memphis Depay couldn’t make anything happen. Those are two of the team’s three best players—Frenkie de Jong played fine, if not well—and their malaise trickled down to the rest of the side.

I could also just take the easy route and blame Dutch history. Just since I can remember becoming a fan, the team has lost in excruciating fashion in every single tournament. (That’s true of all Dutch history, minus the glorious 1988 Euro-winning side.) I don’t remember the 1994 World Cup all that clearly, but I do remember the Dutch going out on penalties against Brazil in 1998, the embarrassment of missing the 2002 edition, the Battle of Nurnberg loss against Portugal in 2006 (which is still the worst soccer game I have ever watched). And then there’s the 2010 final. I love Arjen Robben but his one-on-one miss against Iker Casillas still haunts me. The 2014 World Cup was more of the same, that time going out against Argentina in the semis on penalties. And they didn’t even make the 2018 World Cup.

The Euros haven’t been much better. The one in 2000 had another semifinals penalty exit to Italy; 2004 was another Portugal nightmare; in 2008 Russia bumped them in the first knockout round; 2012 was a group stage exit; 2016 was another non-qualification. It’s been a brutal ride every two years, oscillating mostly between frustratingly early tournament exits and agonizingly close late ones. I wouldn’t even put the loss to the Czech Republic in the top five of most painful defeats. The fact that it was mostly self-inflicted does hurt, though, because this team had flown through the group stage, one chunk of nervy play against Ukraine aside.

In my bracket, I had the team losing to Belgium in the final. I was ready for heartbreak, but not this soon, and not this stupidly. Seeing one of the best center backs in the world try to play volleyball and get himself a red card was not on my misery bingo card. Dutch fans can console themselves by thinking that it was actually Virgil van Dijk’s injury that cost them the tournament, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from supporting the Netherlands this long, it’s that there is always a reason to believe the next tournament will be better. After all, the team could and should make it out of a tough group to book a ticket to Qatar, and perhaps de Boer won’t be the manager for much longer. This was supposed to be the summer of the Oranje, but I’ll believe in next winter instead. It’s the only way to support this team without it driving you insane.

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