Despite being from Venezuela, I have always rooted for the Netherlands in soccer. For reasons too personal and stupid to get into here, the Oranje has always been my national team of choice, given my home country’s historical futility in the sport. It is with great displeasure, then, that I must commend Turkey for first stomping and then surviving the Dutch in the first game of the UEFA qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup.
Usually, European World Cup qualifiers aren’t all that exciting. There are enough bad-to-horrible teams in Europe that a group will have at most three teams that have a real shot of making it to the World Cup or, at least, to the next round of qualifiers (first place in a group books its ticket directly, while second place goes into a playoff round against another second-place team). Turkey and the Netherlands are two of those three teams in Group G—Norway, with its great big lad Erling Haaland, is the other—so it makes sense that both teams would approach this first game with maximum intensity. Well, at least Turkey did, at the start.
Leading the way for the Turks was 35-year-old journeyman striker Burak Yilmaz, who swiftly dunked the Netherlands into a 2–0 hole with a first-half brace. He first scored off a shot that bounced into the goal off Juventus center back Matthijs de Ligt, before converting a 34th-minute penalty—which was awarded in spite of protest from the Dutchmen—past penalty specialist Tim Krul. That soft penalty call against Donyell Malen wasn’t the only controversy to go against the Netherlands in the first half, either: De Ligt looked to have gotten one back off a header, but the ball was ruled to not have crossed the goal line, and, inexplicably, the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul had neither VAR nor goal-line technology on hand to verify the matter.
Things got worse on the other side of halftime, as Milan midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu made it 3–0 for the Crescent Stars with a low long-range effort that dipped into the bottom corner, just inches away from Krul. At that point, I had a horrifying flashback to the 2016 Euros qualifier between the two teams, which ended 3–0 for Turkey in Konya. (The Netherlands has a horrid record away at Turkey, given the historical quality differences between the two sides. The Dutch have now won only two games in six tries in Turkey.)
And yet the Dutch gave fans some hope with about 15 minutes left. First, former Everton mid Davy Klaassen made a nice little turn in the Turkish box and slotted one in through Ugurcan Cakir’s hands in the 75th minute, and then Luuk de Jong scored a much-sloppier header from a Memphis Depay cross to make it 3–2:
That would be as close as the Netherlands would get, though, as Yilmaz—Turkey’s second-leading goalscorer of all time—blasted a picture-perfect free kick to push the lead up to two goals again, completing his first international hat trick in the process:
The Netherlands had one last chance to at least improve its goal difference in the dying embers of the match, but could not capitalize on a penalty call in their favor. Depay, who had a pretty bad game by his elite standards, stepped up but shot softly to Cakir’s right, and the 24-year-old shot-stopper saved it rather easily.
As this is just the first of 10 qualification matches, there’s no greater lesson to be learned from either team’s performance. Turkey took advantage of being at home and of Yilmaz playing out of his mind, while the Netherlands will maybe feel a bit hard done by referee Michael Oliver in the first half. If there’s anything to be learned here, it’s that awful coach Frank de Boer is not the man anyone should want at the helm of the Dutch national team as it looks to qualify for the blood money tournament in Qatar next winter.
Unfortunately, it was clear to everyone except apparently the Dutch FA that de Boer was a bad hire even before he got the job, so it’s hard to be optimistic about him getting canned in the near term. (The man failed at Atlanta United, which even MLS stans must concede makes him an odd choice to lead one of the best and most ambitious national teams in the world.) Under de Boer, the Netherlands has now won only two of seven matches, and though easier matches are on the horizon—the Dutch’s next two opponents are Latvia and Gibraltar—it would behoove the country’s soccer governing body to think about a change before the team travels to Norway in September. Otherwise, the team’s struggles in Istanbul might prove less a historical oddity and more a bad omen for a country that finally appeared to be turning the corner after missing out on the 2016 Euros and the 2018 World Cup.