The entertainment and excitement is due to be elsewhere this evening. The Netherlands against Cameroon sounds, at a distance, as if it should be a match of colour and flair, but Cameroon are already out and the Netherlands are already through, and this year’s Netherlands team has been perfunctory rather than exciting so far. Bert Van Marwijk’s team is built to pick up results with the minimum of fuss, but it has seemed unlikely to set the world alight in the way that the Dutch team that reached two successive World Cup finals during the 1970s did. So far. To anyone watching from England, that a team should be criticised when it has two wins from two matches at the World Cup finals may seem extraordinary, but Van Marwijk’s side has been criticised for not playing with enough flair. This sort of criticism is the legacy of that great team. The Dutch press requires results and flair this summer, but can this team fulfil their demands?
Cameroon, meanwhile, are on a rotten run of form. Picked by some as the strongest of the African qualifiers, they were hopelessly out of sorts against Japan in their opening match but could perhaps count themselves unlucky to lose to possibly the goal of the tournament so far from Denmark’s Dennis Rommedahl last Saturday evening – a match in which they took an early lead and seemed likely to get something from. However, if the decline of European football has already been discussed to death (and, with Italy’s passing this afternoon, there will be much more of that over the next couple of days or so), to say that the 2010 World Cup has been a wasted opportunity for African nations is similarly true.
Only one of them, Ghana, has qualified for next round, and that was by the skin of their teeth and without scoring a single goal from open play. Three of the other four are already out, two of them – Nigeria and Algeria – in bottom place in their respective groups. The last one, Ivory Coast, will almost certainly be eliminated tomorrow night. If we are to read anything into theories about teams being at an advantage when playing World Cup tournaments on their home continents, the prognosis looks grim for African football. They suffered a similar fate in Germany four years ago, but the mitigation for this was that a number of surprises in qualifying left weaker African teams taking part in the tournament. Apart from Egypt’s play-off defeat at the hands of Algeria this time around, though, there have been no such excuses this time around. The African entrants haven’t been good enough.
Theoretically, there is something to play for this evening. If the Netherlands lose to Cameroon tonight, then Japan could just about sneak top place in the group by beating Denmark in the group’s other match. They have a three goal difference to overhaul if this is to happen. With Paraguay and Slovakia waiting for the qualifiers from this group, however, it seems unlikely that anybody on the Dutch team is going to be straining too much this evening. They haven’t even turned out in their orange and black kit tonight, either – instead, they’re wearing their change of kit of white and blue, which means that you could turn the volume off and pretend that Cameroon are playing England tonight, only with an England team that can actually pass the ball to each other without tripping over their own shoelaces, being distracted by passing wildlife or whatever.
After the national anthems (and it is worth pointing out that the start of the Cameroonian national anthem sounds so much like “La Marseillaise” that any watching Frenchmen must surely have stood up and saluted when it started), the first twenty minutes pass in a haze. The match carries the air of an end of season match between two mid-table sides at which both teams feel under some degree of moral obligation to run around a bit because people have paid good money to get in, but they’re not exerting themselves very much. It rather feels as if no-one is going to injure themselves, lest they ruin the massive contracts that may be lined up once they go home. It takes just over twenty minutes for the first real chance of the match to arrive, a proverbial slide rule pass from Giovanni Van Bronckhorst to Robin Van Persie, whose shot is saved comfortably – rather too comfortably – by the Cameroon goalkeeper Hamidou Souleymanou.
After half an hour has been played, though, the Netherlands brighten up a little. Dirk Kuyt, who looks like he may be made of some sort of wood – pine, perhaps? – shoots narrowly wide from an angle and then, with nine minutes left to play, they take the lead when Robin Van Persie amusingly ignores the offside Kuyt, plays a tidy one-two with Van Der Vaart and drives the ball under Souleymanou, scoring a goal which practically guarantees them top place in the group. Exertions complete, they sit back and run down the clock until half-time. Cameroon even manage to push the ball into their penalty area a couple of times, but this training match reaches half-time with the Netherlands comfortably holding onto their lead.
Cameroon’s World Cup is fairly neatly summed up three minutes into the second half when Samuel Eto’o, chasing a loose ball, treads on said ball and then clatters into a member of his own team. Perhaps the man most to blame here is their coach, Paul Le Guen, who has taken a group of talented individuals and made them into a group of talented individuals that play football as if it’s the first time that they have ever met. In Cameroon’s opening match, he put Eto’o on the right wing and seemed to give the rest of his players instructions to not pass the ball to him. Perhaps the blame lies with La Fédération Camerounaise de Football for taking him on in the first place. After all, Le Guen was a failure in both of his previous jobs, at Rangers and Paris St Germain.
Still, in the early stages of the second half Cameroon at least play with a little purpose and a little pride. Twenty minutes in, Samuel Eto’o finally shows some of the pace and strength that has made him one of the most feared strikers in Europe. His shot is charged down, but Cameroon win a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area. Geremi’s shot is blocked by Rafael Van Der Vaart’s arm and Eto’o plants a perfect penalty into Maarten Stekelenburg’s right-hand corner to bring Cameroon level. Everything considered, Eto’o shows surprising urgency in running to pick the ball out of the back of the net, but it’s no less than Cameroon have deserved for a spirited second half performance.
After this, however, the match starts to drift away. The Netherlands, with Bert Van Marwijk’s attention presumably (and understandably) starting to turn to the next round of the competition, make a couple of of substitutions – the introduction of Arjen Robben, making his tournament debut, particularly delights the Dutch supporters – while Cameroon bring on Rigobert Song. Song, whose probable World Cup claim to fame is having been sent off in two successive World Cups, is playing in his fourth tournament for Cameroon. It would surely have been five, had they qualified four years ago. This, however, has the feel of a cameo appearance about it – an opportunity for Song to say goodbye to the tournament. Because he started so young, he seems to have been around forever, a mirage that is further assisted by his one hundred and thirty-seven caps for his country and the fact that he is the uncle of their defender Alex Song. Even more extraordinarily, they are not the first uncle and nephew to play in the same team in the World Cup finals – that honour falls to Gary Kelly and Ian Harte of the Republic of Ireland, who played together at the 2002 tournament.
With seven minutes to play, Robben gives us an indication of why the Dutch were so excited by his arrival in the tournament. He spins inside on the edge of the penalty area and fires in a tremendous shot that hits the inside of the post and bounces out and into the path of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who rolls the ball into the empty goal to win the game for the Netherlands. The last seven minutes pass by at strolling pace, with one exception. Robben is playing with the pace and passion of someone that has been brought on with ten minutes to play in the final itself. His introduction feels like the final piece in the jigsaw for the Netherlands. Solid at the back, creative in midfield and effervescent in attack, the addition of Robben was a fine sheen of polish to end their evening.
For Cameroon, though, the end to a poor tournament probably couldn’t come soon enough. They put up a reasonable enough fight this evening, but it felt as if the Netherlands had their finger on the trigger for the whole of the evening. It only took the introduction of Arjen Robben to pull that trigger. The Netherlands, meanwhile, will take on Slovakia in the next round of the competition. They will have watched with interest as Slovakia dramatically upped their game to knock Italy out of the tournament this afternoon. The Slovakian team, meanwhile, will have watched this evening and they may well have wondered how on earth they will be able to contain such a team as the Dutch. A World Cup that has been full of surprises may yet make life difficult for the Netherlands, but they looked like genuine contenders this evening.
Thanks once again go to Historical Football Kits for the use of their graphics.