Patrick Viera’s role on ITV’s panel is increasingly to give reassurance to the others that France are worse than England, which should be money for old rope but, after the Algeria game, isn’t. Attempts to shoehorn Edgar Davids into a similar role representing the Dutch are foundering, as they are now two wins out of two insipid performances. Davids’ voice sounds like mine does the morning after a heavy, heavy drinking session, but he seems entirely sober – although alongside Kevin Keegan, this is hardly “your mission, should you choose to accept it.”
Inevitably, the build-up is all about the night before the morning after. Matt Smith has to say, eleven minutes before the kick-off: “We will talk about Holland and Japan, I promise.” I suppose I should be used to this by now. But it would be nice if Gabriel Clarke’s “news from the England camp” would, just once, acknowledge the first three letters of the word “news.” For a while, though, Holland are England, except with a nicer kit (apart from the shirt numbers, which are out-takes from a failed school art project, or are from the last piece of letraset left on the planet).
Early in the game, Jon Champion seems convinced that Japan’s Yuichi Komano is feigning injury, greeting the appearance of a stretcher with “this usually sparks a recovery.” But two replays have already showed Komano being kicked in the throat by a stray Robin Van Persie boot after a trademark Robin Van Persie dive. The first Mexican wave gets going on 14 minutes, but to that point the game hasn’t been that bad. From that point, until half-time, it is that bad. Holland have Barcelona-levels of possession but have overlooked the flowing football bit. Craig Burley notes, correctly, that “only one side is showing a semblance of ambition.” Yet the Dutch are scarcely more threatening.
Taking their cue from the BBC’s disgraceful stereotyping of Japan manager Takeshi Okada as a misery guts, Champion says, without a “semblance” of evidence that Okada has “never knowingly smiled.” Given that Champion would not have been able to pick Okada out of a police line-up a week ago, it seems unlikely that he knows this. So why say it? He makes no comment when the cameras turn on Dutch coach Bert Van Marwijk and his assistant Frank de Boer… and they look furious. Presumably Capello has “never knowingly smiled,” because he looked grumpy yesterday, even though it was his birthday.
It could only have been worse if Champion resorted to calling Okada “inscrutable” and labelled his team’s stifling first-half tactics “a fiendish plot.” Just after half-time, he did. The Heineken half-time ad needs more over-dubbing (with apologies if you don’t know the one I mean). “England 1 USA 1” was met with a shrug and a “that’s all right” – which it was, sort of. In the updated version, “England 0 Algeria 0” is met with the same stoicism, which doesn’t appear to capture the mood of the nation.
The Dutch have more about them after the break and score when Wesley Sneijder’s 20-yard late inswinger makes Japanese keeper Eiji Kawashima inside edge the ball into the net. There’s a spurious debate about whether the ball or the keeper is to blame, although all the evidence – including a picture which traces the flight of the ball – clearly shows it swung about a glove’s width at the very last minute, which explained everything the keeper did. Keegan later suggests that the keeper was at fault because “he dived past the ball.” Keegan used to be England manager, you know.
The cliché about a goal being what the game needed turns out to be true, as Japan chase the game and make the rest of the second half, to use the current buzzword, “watchable.” Two halves like this and it would have been a good game. Two halves like the first and even I’d have been watching Royal Ascot by now. Japan’s Yoshito Okubo has three efforts in quick succession, all of which leave him grabbing his hair and rolling his eyes in identical exasperation. Burley praises the Japanese for “keeping the Dutch honest” but from the 61st minute onwards, Champion is talking as if the Dutch have already won.
Holland’s tactical strait-jacket is eventually released, though more by the introduction of Ibrahim Afellay than the long-called for appearance of Eljero Elia, who seems as popular with ITV’s commentary team as Joe Cole at the moment. Afellay could have had a couple within seconds of coming on, his second effort saved but then nearly turned in by two hesitant Japanese defenders – which for some reason reminds me of the choice between Matthew Upson and Michael Dawson to play alongside John Terry against Slovenia.
Van Persie fails to get his second consecutive totally unmerited man of the match award from ITV viewers. Sneijder wins it instead. “He’ll have got that for the goal,” notes Burley, sniffily but correctly. Davids later warms to the theme, suggesting Afellay would have bagged the award “for five minutes” if he’d taken his two chances. A Japanese player is penalised for a foul throw, the first one I’ve seen given but the 365th of the tournament – North Korea didn’t manage a single legitimate throw-in against Brazil, all of them pushed back into play off the throwers’ noses. Guess what? Okada “will not be smiling now” as Shinji Okazaki fires Japan’s last chance over. The camera turns to an exasperated, “scrutable” Okada as defeat beckons. Then, back in the studio, Matt Smith says “the future’s bright…” and no-one at all is “smiling now.”
Thanks again to Historical Football Kits for the kind use of their graphics.