Bert van Marwijk seemed to see it coming. He kept shaking his head, rolling his eyes. It was the 23rd minute. His Netherlands squad was dominating the game. It had 73 percent of possession. The chances it had created already numbered in double digits. Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, two of the hottest attacking players of the past club season, had wasted enormous opportunities. As often, they were blowing chances for their national team. Van Marwijk seemed to know, it was going to be that sort of game.
Not quite a minute later, the dominant Dutch were somehow behind. Simon Poulson picked the ball up by his own back line, with a slight touch of his hand gaining him the necessary control and surged up the field, untethered from the negligent Robben. His run was eventually stopped by right back Gregory van der Wiel, but the ball rolled free to Michael Kron-Dehli, who zipped past Johnny Heitinga and cleanly finished between Maarten Stekelenburg’s legs.
Following the goal, Denmark got more ensconced in the game, prying more possession from the Dutch clutches. It also managed to gradually slow down the pace of the game to the disadvantage of the much more technical Dutch side.
As the game progressed, the Dutch continued to mass-produce chances. But the forwards likewise continued to be imprecise in the final third and sloppy in their finishing. So erratic grew Robben and van Persie that it almost became comical. Not even the insertion of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, the super striker held captive on the bench in favor of van Persie, made the difference, as he too wasted a masterful 74th-minute long ball from an excellent Wesley Sneijder, who created no fewer than 10 chances.
A sense of impending doom was drawn on the Dutch faces throughout the game. A hush descended over their otherwise boisterous fan base as the team in front of them grew both desperate and lethargic from the efforts in vain and the heat and humidity. And as the clock ticked toward the final whistle, possibility begat inevitability and the Danes registered the first upset of the tournament.
That they fell to the Danes is, on balance, perhaps unsurprising. Few teams are as extensively schooled in the Dutch ways as the Danes are. Krohn-Dehli, Dennis Rommedahl and Christian Eriksen have spent their formative years at Ajax. Poulson plays for AZ. Lasse Schone, a late substitute, will join Ajax this summer. And Danish coach Morten Olsen is a former Ajax manager. They understood that ceding the wings but cluttering the center of the pitch would be effective. That slowing down the game would be favorable to them. That forcing Oranje to send crosses into the box, where they would be faced by the ironclad Simon Kjaer and Daniel Agger, would take the sting out of their attack. They knew, most of all, that there was a weakness in the Dutch defense to be exploited.
Because if the Dutch were going to be undone this tournament, the back line was always going to be the culprit. It’s the only line where the Dutch don’t have several world-class players. Although Jetro Willems performed admirably, filling in at left back as he became at just 18 years and a few months of age the youngest starter at a Euro game of all time. To his right, Ron Vlaar, a replacement for the injured Joris Mathijsen, was less secure. While Heitinga, the leader of this vaunted line, surrendered the space that allowed Krohn-Dehli to score the game’s only goal.
The Dutch defense was just as problematic during the 2010 World Cup. But therein, at least, it held up until the final. And it was helped by an attacking machinery that scored enough goals to cover for the malpractice in the back.
Whether the Netherlands being out of sorts was due to the racism row following an open training on Thursday, when the black players in the Dutch side were allegedly treated to monkey noises from Polish fans, is unclear. What is clear is that the Group of Death has handed Oranje a terminal prognosis, as games with Germany and Portugal now await.
During Euro ’88, the only major tournament the ever-wasteful Dutch have ever won, they dropped their opening game too. To the Soviet Union, whom they would beat 2-0 in the final. The Dutch will have to glean some optimism from that fact. Because with the odds now casting a long shadow over them and their much-praised offense faltering, that may be all they have.