Sunday was the night the Netherlands, with complete premeditation, killed football, or at least did their level best to do so. Everyone, except their own short-sighted and indignant fans, knows this to be true, including – as Jeremy Robson, pictured with his young ‘un, points out – a certain Dutch master of the Total Football at which his country once excelled …
I’ve always been a huge admirer of Johann Cruyff.
As a player, he was sublime. The now famous “Cruyff turn” which he introduced to the world in 1974 is a practice drill for aspiring footballers the world over. Hard to believe that up to 40 years ago, this move had never been witnessed on a football field.
Cruyff is never reluctant to offer his opinion about anything of a football nature, and it’s usually worth listening to. His condemnation of the Dutch approach to the World Cup final was uncompromising.
“This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style, yes it served the Dutch to unsettle Spain. If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they ended up losing. They were playing anti-football.”
His criticism of the referee Howard Webb has been no less restrained. “When we say, often, that we do not like talking about referees, it is true and, above all, because only refereeing like that last night by the Englishman Howard Webb can create in us a state of such indignation that then, yes, it is necessary to comment.”
On this occasion Cruyff is understandably upset, but also wide of the mark.
“Because you can referee wrongly, make a mistake, but what you cannot do is create your own sense of justice and, even worse, invent a very personal application of the rules. Not only did he not send off two Dutchmen but he also looked the other way at times when he should have involved himself.”
It’s difficult with the benefit of hindsight to argue with his point of view. At the start of this game however Howard Webb could scarcely have imagined the battle that he was to officiate over, He has since described it as “the most difficult two hours of his career”.
Howard Webb has never been my favourite referee, but he emerged from this game with a great deal of credit, if only for preventing a complete meltdown into a mass brawl from which the sport of football would have been forever tarnished.
Johann Cruyff hasn’t (at least not yet) provided any comment about the consequences of more dismissals in the biggest football match between 2006 and 2014.
There was a serious danger of discipline evaporating even further on Sunday night and the prospect of the game being abandoned as a result.
Cruyff’s criticism of Howard Webb for effectively taking the law into his own hands is certainly not without substance. Mr Webb controlled the game by brandishing yellow cards and by communicating with the perpetrators of challenges that have no place in the beautiful game that Cruyff loves so dearly.
At some point in that game Howard Webb realised that having the game played responsibly requires the input of the players and not just one man with a whistle. Cruyff understandably laments the fact that Holland played “anti-football,” and the death “total football” which the Dutch national side have for so long been associated.
From what I saw on Sunday night Mr Webb managed to almost single handedly save the broader game. There’s no doubt that he got some of the later decisions wrong, but he had been the sole adjudicator amidst scenes of the most appalling provocation and brutality seen on the world stage for decades.
Had Mr Webb conducted himself in the manner that Johann Cruyff is demanding, then he would have been administering football’s last rites, and that’s nobody’s resonsibility.