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world cup

Oh, To Be Dutch and On the Pitch

Josh Dean, one of the founding editors of the late PLAY, The New York Times Sports Magazine and occasional sportswriter for Rolling Stone and Outside, will be writing every weekday for The Sports Section about the World Cup. Today, love for those crazy soccer freaks from Holland

Game One: Holland versus Denmark

This day's first match featured two of the most pleasant, peaceable nations in the World Cup, separated by just a few hundred miles but united by their dueling populations of tall, attractive people with a love of bicycles and herring. On paper, it wasn't much of a fair fight, but on the grass, well, it was even less of a fight.

The Dutch didn't exactly blow the roof off the joint; in fact, writers around the world seem to be calling the performance "so-so" and "lackluster", but the team won 2–0 and never really looked stressed. For 90 minutes, they just kicked the ball around as if playing some pregame keep-away, while the opposing squad of healthy northern Europeans chased until their faces matched their red jerseys.

Oh, to be Dutch. So good is this team that there are men on the bench who would almost certainly be the greatest players ever to play for the United States, if only they were American (warning: This line may be recycled in write-ups about Spain, Brazil, and Argentina, because, sadly, it's true).

One of those benchwarmers, Eljero Elia, changed the game the minute he came on the field, subbing for the ineffective Rafael van der Vaart, and it's clear he should be in the lineup going forward. When the U.S. played Holland in a friendly last spring, Elia absolutely torched the left side of our defense again and again, and he did the same to the Danes. I'm not sure who should sit when Arjen Robben — probably the least good-looking guy on this team of Zoolanders — comes back (maybe as soon as next game) but it shouldn't be Elia.

The one thing about the Dutch game that bugged me was the eagerness of the players, especially Wesley Sneijder, to shoot the ball from way, way outside the box. It's beyond clear now that this jet-powered spaceball teams are playing with (at altitude, in most cases) isn't going to dip into corners from way out. Once rising, the Jabulani just keeps rising; at a certain height known only to Adidas engineers, its thrusters kick in and carry the ball into orbit, until a drop in atmospheric pressure triggers a parachute that deploys, allowing the ball to drift gently down into the opening of a vuvuzela in the upper deck.

On the other hand, low-bouncing liners continue to look dangerous, even when they shouldn't be. Maarten Stekelenburg and the Cameroonian keeper bobbled shots that should have been easy to corral. Robert Green, you look less cloddish by the day.

By the way, I picked the Dutch to win this thing before I read Michael Sokolove's excellent New York Times Magazine story about the famed Ajax academy, which selects out the best tiny clog-wearers and grooms them into soccer ninjas who will one day wear the Oranje of the national team, including such current stars as Robert Robin Van Persie and Wesley Sneijder. It's no wonder the Dutch are so consistently awesome, and to a man seem to have an otherworldly sense of the ball, as well as an ability to control it with every body part.

Sokolove describes a process in which children as young as four are plucked like tulips from the gardens of Holland and locked in tiny rooms where, for five hours a day, a robot leg kicks balls at them that must be deflected, controlled, and then passed into a slot in the wall barely larger than the ball. If they fail at this, or cry more than three times in a single month, they are shipped off to Denmark, and become members of the Danish team. I think that explains why this game wasn't really even as close as the score.

Game Two: Cameroon versus Japan

Africa, I'm sorry. I jinxed you yesterday with that post about how well your countries were doing. Japan stumbled into this game like a team of drunken trombonists competing in a potato-sack race, while Cameroon was considered the strongest African team in the competition, led by the prolific goal-scorer and frivolous vowel enthusiast Samel Eto'o. Alas: Japan won, powered by Honda — ugh, I'm sorry — when Keisuke Honda scored in the 39th minute.

The MVP of the second match was the goal itself; Japan hit a post, then Cameroon's Mbia unleashed a shot as hard as I've ever seen a ball struck. It hit the upper left corner and the goal was still shaking 30 seconds later.

But a near miss was as good as it got for Cameroon, and Asia is undefeated. At least until the North Koreans play Brazil today.

Game Three: Italy versus Paraguay

It sounded promising. The defending World Cup champions, featuring a stultifying defense and one of the oldest lineups in the tournament, versus one of South America's two landlocked countries, playing without its star striker, who was shot in the face in a Mexican bar last spring. (Salvador Cabañas is thankfully alive and well, but won't be suiting up for this tournament.)

Then the game started. I would like to suggest a resolution banning forever matches between former World Cup champions from Europe nicknamed "the blues" playing against South American countries that end in "guay." Like France versus Uruguay, Italy against Paraguay was a listless snooze of a game. Midway into the second half, announcer Martin Tyler (or was it Ian Darke? Who can tell — all English people sound the same***) said that the Italians appeared to have run out of ideas. Um, when did they have ideas? All they did for the preceding portion of the game was clank the ball around until someone got free around midfield, at which time he would boot it up into the penalty box and hope that maybe someone would accidentally bump his head into it. It reminded me of the old American strategy — utilized as recently as the 2006 World Cup — of "kick it far and hope Brian McBride can get his giant melon on it."

Anyway, Paraguay scored a nice goal in the first half, then gave it back in the second, when the team's goalkeeper overran a corner kick and allowed an easy goal for Daniele De Rossi, the dick who elbowed McBride in his giant melon in 2006, earning an ejection and the permanent scar of having the egregious act mentioned every time his name is raised in front of Americans.

*** and yet are to a man far better commentators than their American counterparts, who feel the need to fill every moment of dead air with bloviation and tend to overexplain every nuance of soccer, a game featuring eleven men per side who attempt to kick a basketball-size ball into a net without using their hands. It is the world's most popular game.

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Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images