Ryder Cup 2014: Europe look stronger but underestimate USA at your peril

watson ryder

Tom Watson’s preparations for this Ryder Cup have been far from serene. Losing two of his key players in Jason Dufner and Dustin Johnson to injury and self-imposed professional exile respectively, the USA captain was also relieved of the opportunity in picking Tiger Woods after he ruled himself out.

On top of that, Watson was left to lament that he made his three picks before the FedEx Cup after seeing Billy Horschel and Chris Kirk’s spectacular form in the season-ending series of tournaments. When put against the underwhelming form of some of his team, Watson may have felt in-form players could have added confidence to his team.

Yes, it looks as though Europe have the stronger team on paper. Current US Open, Open and PGA champions (Martin Kaymer and Rory McIlroy) as well as the world no.1 (McIlroy again) add gloss to a formidable squad of players that boast Ryder Cup experience, major championships and quality in abundance. As well as that, they are on home soil which bodes well for them as the Americans have not travelled well in recent times.

However, with all the focus on McIlroy and Ian Poulter as leaders of what people are predicting as the inevitable European charge, it would be foolish to write off their trans-atlantic foes before a ball is even struck. Looking down the roster of American players, it is clear they possess sufficient fire-power to spoil the party at Gleneagles and exact revenge for the Miracle of Medinah two years ago.

Phil Mickelson is now playing in his tenth Ryder Cup, having made his début in 1995 when Rory McIlroy was six years of age. His experience is key and has shown that he is adaptable in partnering players of varied styles. In 2012, he forged a productive partnership with then rookie Keegan Bradley, winning all three of their fourball and foresome matches (including a 7&6 trouncing of Lee Westwood and Luke Donald) before being rested, maybe regrettably so, by Davis Love III. Watson is likely to continue that pairing in Friday morning’s fourballs with genuine hope that they will deliver a point.

Mickelson will feel as comfortable as ever on Scottish soil after clinching a stunning double in the Scottish Open and Open Championship last summer and Bradley has shown himself to be a smooth operator away from home as well with two top-20 finishes in his last two appearances at the Open. Watson will be confident that they can tip the scales in USA’s favour throughout Friday and Saturday and put them in a commanding position going into the singles- a format the Americans have historically excelled in.

Then there is Rickie Fowler. The American answer to McIlroy in many ways, Fowler has already signalled his intentions of ultra-competitiveness by shaving USA into the side of his head. A mark of war, perhaps, but Fowler is not merely trying to ruffle feathers, he has the game to match it. The world no. 10 has shown brilliant consistency this season and will bank on his superior form instilling the confidence and mindset required to topple the Europeans. Finishing outside the top-20 once (tied 23rd at the Deutsche Bank Championship) since the US Open in June, Fowler is one of the hottest players on the planet right now and is a force to be reckoned with.

Mickelson’s experience is nicely complimented by a similar war-horse in Jim Furyk. The 44-year-old is appearing in his ninth tournament and will likely be a great point of support and comfort for rookies Jimmy Walker, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed before they approach the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the opening tee for the first time. Furyk is likely to be partnering Spieth at some point who, at 21, is the youngest American competitor of all time but is very much a rising star in the world of golf and has shown he is capable of coping with the pressure of the big-time even at this tender stage of his career.

Interestingly, one of the beneficial aspects of the American team is the absence of Tiger Woods. Throughout history, captains have wanted Tiger Woods in their team to intimidate and strike fear into the hearts of Europe. However, it is a plan that has largely backfired. Woods’ record in the Ryder Cup makes for dismal reading if you’re a fan and there have been some commentators pointing out that the Americans won comfortably the last time Woods did not play in a Ryder Cup in 2008 at Valhalla. Woods in a team environment has never seemed like a comfortable fit and his non-attendance at Gleneagles can only make for a more congenial atmosphere in the team room.

woods ryder cup

Having Mickelson as the most illustrious player makes more sense for Watson and for the USA team as a whole. He is someone the younger players look up to as mentor and confidant. He consoled Hunter Mahan in 2010 after losing the pivotal singles match to Graeme McDowell and stepped in to answer questions for him. That showed Mickelson for who he really is; a true team player and man of universal popularity. Woods has never boasted that popularity among his fellow pros- not least of all Mickelson- and his absence can only serve to boost the credentials of the so-called “underdogs.”

Europe are the bookies favourites and the media coverage over here seems to have been packaged in a way catering for the hopeless romantics vying for a Guinness-soaked McGinley triumph but to undermine the Americans is to risk cataclysmic humiliation. The Americans are strong, the Americans are experienced and the Americans are fully-charged and hungry for revenge so do not flutter with disbelief if they hoist the golden trophy high on the terraces at Gleneagles on Sunday evening.

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Enigmatic rookie Victor Dubuisson may prove to be Ryder Cup surprise package

DP World Tour Championship - PreviewsWith all the star quality on show in Europe’s Ryder Cup team, it is hard to imagine that question marks would appear over one of the tour’s most consistent performers in the last year. However, that is exactly what Frenchman Victor Dubuisson is experiencing. The Ryder Cup always brings up a wildcard here and a fluke there (Pierre Fulke, Chris Riley, Brett Wetterich), but Dubuisson has already shown his might in the heat of battle and may surprise a few nay-sayers come the weekend.

It has been well-documented in the build-up to the event that, despite his undoubted talent and flair, Dubuisson is an odd character and an overall mysterious figure. “Does anyone really know Victor?” asked fellow team-member Thomas Bjorn. The fact is that nobody really does.

In the aftermath of his breakthrough victory last November at the Turkish Airlines Open- when he held off challenges from Tiger Woods and Justin Rose among others- golf journalists and writers én masse began circulating the Frenchman in the hope to gain unprecedented access into one of golf’s emerging stars. Dubuisson, in an act of now seemingly characteristic quirkiness, granted several high-profile interviews only to fail to attend them. It seems that wherever he goes, he leaves a trail of head-scratches and quizzical looks.

Dubuisson comes from a sporting family. His uncle was Herve Dubuisson, one French basketball’s greatest sons, and Victor has indicated that he was never interested in a team sport- something which may alarm Paul McGinley should he read it considering the core values of the Ryder Cup.

However, for those that are meticulously analysing his every mannerism, expression and statement should refrain from their forensic style. Dubuisson has a brilliant natural talent for golf and has shown it at the highest levels. Ultimately, that is the most important thing about him for this week.

For all his eccentricities and his secretive off-course profile, V-Dub- as he is known to fellow pro’s- is quickly establishing himself as one of Europe’s hottest golfing properties. At 24, he is the youngest member in the team and has already achieved a great deal. Along with the aforementioned triumph in Turkey, he showed a glimpse of his mercurial talents at the World Accenture Matchplay Championship in Arizona back in February when, he played pitch shots from near-impossible positions and roused thunderous acclaim from the American crowd who were still getting to know him.

Playing in the final of the prestigious event against Australian Jason Day, Dubuisson seriously overcooked his approach to the par-4 1st hole and found his ball lying deeply embedded in a cactus. “I don’t know how he’s going to play this shot,” muttered American broadcaster Jim Nantz as Dubuisson weighed up his options. Then, as Nantz and Nick Faldo continued their discussion, Dubuisson eliminated all fuss and played his shot. He got the ball to four feet and made the resulting putt. Everyone watching was stunned.

The maestro Dubuisson plays a magical shot from  a cactus during the WGC Accenture Matchplay Championship final in Arizona

The maestro Dubuisson plays a magical shot from a cactus during the WGC Accenture Matchplay Championship final in Arizona

Dubuisson was not done there though. He repeated the feat on the 18th, when faced with an identical situation, he plucked the ball from the root of  a cactus to within seven feet. Again, he sunk the putt. Incredible was the word on the lips of everyone who had just witnessed it.

Some even compared him to the immortal Seve Ballesteros, who first garnered his reputation as a swashbuckler from all corners of the golf course when he sprayed drives left and right en route to his famous 1977 Open Championship triumph at Royal Lytham.

While comparing him to the great Seve may be brash thinking, he does accumulate a similar type of excitement with his devil-may-care approach and sorcerer-esque powers of recover and goes a long way in explaining why he has been embraced by golfing patrons across Europe.

He also notched top-10 finishes in the Open Championship and PGA Championship over the summer to show that he was worth his place in the team. The fact is that he continues to play good golf and is already arousing great interest in the game over in France now that they have a golfing poster-boy. Expect Dubuisson to be a pivotal part of the 2018 Ryder Cup- when it is to be played at Le Golf National in Paris (the first time Europe will host the event outside Great Britain since Valderrama in Spain in 1997).

Captain McGinley has said of Dubuisson: “He’s a really great guy. I like him. I think he’s got flair. I think he’s got charisma. I think he’s got Hollywood looks. He could do as well in Hollywood as he would on the golf course. There’s something special about him and I kind of like the fact he’s different.”

Not exactly sure about him starring alongside Michael Fassbender in a crime thriller in the coming months but one thing is for sure, he can pull off the Hollywood golf shots.

The question for McGinley quickly became; who do you pair with this mysterious individual? Do you thrust him into the limelight with Rory McIlroy? Do you ease him into it with a seasoned veteran like Lee Westwood? Or do you get his heartbeat racing by pairing him alongside the ferociously competitive Ian Poulter? The rumours swirling about seem to suggest that Graeme McDowell will be the man charged with easing this rookie into golf’s most intense amphitheatre.

“I’ve heard him described as an enigma, and just a tough guy to kind of get your head around what he’s thinking,” McDowell responded when asked about the potential partnership. “He obviously doesn’t lack talent. His sort of relaxed mood, personality could be confused with maybe intimidation and nervousness.

“I’ve kind of been trying to sort of get close to him the last few months, and spend a little time with him. He’s a great guy. Victor I think can bring a huge amount to the team this week. I would very much embrace the task of blooding a guy like Victor. I would love to play with him.”

McDowell’s words almost make it a guarantee that they will go into battle together. However, do not expect them to be firing up the crowd on the opening morning. Being a rookie, Dubuisson is likely to be eased into proceedings by Captain McGinley in the afternoon foursomes on Friday.

A lot has been said about the unknown quantity in the European ranks this week but, on the evidence of his golf in the past 12 months and his unflappable calmness in the face of pretty much anything, do not be surprised if Victor Dubuisson is a key contributor to Europe’s bid for a third successive Ryder Cup.

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Ryder Cup 2014: Day 1 Four-ball Analysis and Predictions

Everything is now set in motion for the Ryder Cup to get under way at Gleneagles after captains Paul McGinley and Tom Watson announced their pairings for the first morning’s fourballs.

There were a few surprises, most notably the separation of Ian Poulter and Justin Rose for the Europeans while Watson also raised a few eyebrows by omitting more experienced players — Jim Furyk, Matt Kuchar and Zach Johnson — in favor of his three rookies — Jimmy Walker, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed.

The captains did deliver a thrilling prospect for the fourth match though as they opted for their strongest pairings to anchor the morning’s play. Rory McIlroy and Sergio García taking on Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley is a four-ball that will surely make for ultimate golfing theatre.

Match 1: Justin Rose & Henrik Stenson vs Bubba Watson & Webb Simpson

Opening fourball; Stenson & Rose vs Watson & Simpson

Opening fourball: Stenson & Rose vs Watson & Simpson

A mouth-watering opening match will kick things off at 7:35 a.m. local time with four major champions. McGinley caused a minor shock at the opening ceremony when Rose’s name was not followed by Poulter. But in Stenson, Rose has a formidable partner and they look a good duo to lead Europe through the morning.  Stenson has failed to win either of his previous two fourball encounters at the K Club and Valhalla but comes in to this year as a much stronger player, after an all-conquering season in 2013.

Watson and Simpson were a pairing waiting in the wings and one of the worst kept secrets in the build-up to the event. They put in a strong showing at Medinah, punctuated by two 5 & 4 victories in the fourballs which shows exactly why captain Watson wants them out first in the same format. There has been a lot of talk that Simpson was drafted in as a pick solely to play with Bubba and their dazzling play at Medinah justifies Tom Watson’s insistence on making them a pairing once again.

Prediction: American win

Match 2: Thomas Bjorn & Martin Kaymer vs Rickie Fowler & Jimmy Walker

This is probably Europe’s weakest pairing in the opening session. Bjorn’s form of late has been indifferent and whether or not he can gel with Kaymer remains to be seen. Kaymer showed some solid form in the FedEx cup but they will have to be at their best to overthrow a highly-charged Rickie Fowler.

Fowler has been a mainstay on the leaderboards this season and made a statement of intent by emerging from the team’s private jet on Monday with U-S-A shaved into the side of his head. Fowler missed out on selection in 2012 and has said that he is driven by the prospect of facing off-course friend Rory McIlroy at some point during the week. For now, however, he will have his hands full with a German and a Dane before trying to take down the Northern Irishman.

Although Fowler failed to win either of his three matches at Celtic Manor in 2010, he is a vastly improved player now and is likely to win his team multiple points this week. Jimmy Walker has had minimal exposure to Scottish golf and even less to the Ryder Cup so it is difficult to gauge how he will fare.

Prediction: European win

Match 3: Stephen Gallacher & Ian Poulter vs Jordan Spieth & Patrick Reed

Match 3; Poulter & Gallacher vs Spieth & Reed

Match 3: Poulter & Gallacher vs Spieth & Reed

This looks like a European win all over. A smart move by McGinley putting Mr.Ryder Cup alongside the home favourite in a match that is likely to draw massive crowds. Poulter will love every second of this and will relish his chances against a double rookie pairing that Tom Watson picked so the guys “could wet their feet.” Well, they are likely to get a hefty splash from Poulter and Gallacher.

Spieth has proven himself to be a top player and nearly bagged his first major at the Masters earlier this year while Reed is known to be supremely confident in his abilities so they may cause an upset. When Spieth and Reed were called out together, it came as a surprise but after further consideration, putting all three rookies out in the morning makes sense to give them a taste of the action and atmosphere as early as possible.

With fourballs being an “easier” format, it’s good for the rookies to get out and hit as many shots as possible and give Watson the best indication of their form. However, it may just be too much for these two guys and Poulter’s Ryder Cup mastery is likely to shine through and deliver Europe a point.

Prediction: European win

Match 4: Rory McIlroy & Sergio García vs Phil Mickelson & Keegan Bradley 

Match 4: McIlroy & Garcia vs Mickelson & Bradley

Match 4: McIlroy & Garcia vs Mickelson & Bradley

This is blockbuster golf. The glittering prospect of pairing two of the greatest players in the world right now proved to good to resist for McGinley. Perhaps interesting to some that they were not the first pair out but their close friendship is well-documented and McGinley is hoping that they can feed off each other’s positive energy.

McGinley said in his post-ceremony press conference that McIlroy and Garcia were bonding off the course as well as playing a lot of golf together on it so it seemed obvious to pair them together.

However, they by no means have a free pass to a point as they come up against the USA’s strongest pairing. Bradley and Mickelson won all three times they played together at Medinah and are determined to lead their country’s bid for revenge. It is likely to be a very close match as Mickelson and McIlroy can become birdie-machines when they turn on the style but Bradley’s sensational putting display in 2012 suggests that he will not be forgotten about.

Prediction: Draw

Final Verdict

An engrossing session awaits viewers, that is for sure. With a blend of experienced players and hungry rookies, Friday morning is poised to produce some stunning golf. Eyebrows have been raised at McGinley for leaving out Lee Westwood- Europe’s most experienced player- likewise to Watson for opting not to send Jim Furyk out in the morning. However, that will all become irrelevant when putts start going in and the roars echo through fairways. It will surely be close, but I expect Europe to edge out the Americans going into the afternoon’s foresomes. Europe 2.5 USA 1.5

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Ryder Cup 2014: Europe look stronger but underestimate USA at your peril

Ryder Cup 2014: Europe look stronger but underestimate USA at your peril.

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Ian Poulter poised to unleash his passion once again and lead Team Europe to victory

poulter mcilroy

Ian Poulter has always been a good professional golfer, but more importantly for this week, he has always been a terrific Ryder Cup player. To say that the 38-year-old’s career is defined by his superlative displays this unique event would be to neglect the impressive accomplishments spread throughout his career on tour. 12 European Tour wins, two PGA Tour victories including triumphs in two World Golf Championships illustrate a player who has achieved a great deal but it is the passion, intensity and ultra-competitive energy of the Ryder Cup which shows Ian Poulter in his truest form.

The Ryder Cup has always formed part of his passion for golf, even from a tender age. When he was 17, he watched Europe’s triumph at the Belfry in 1993 and so began his obsession with being part of golf’s greatest event. He watched with astonishment as Nick Faldo made a hole-in-one at the 14th, setting off a cacophony of roars and cheers that echoed through the fairways and left an indelible mark on Poulter’s ambitions and personality. Poulter had never seen golf in this form. This, for him, was the ultimate combination of the sport he loved and the competitive edge he thrives on. He knew he needed to be a part of it in his lifetime.

Not to pour cold water over the prestige and allure of the four major championships, the Fed-Ex Cup or the Race to Dubai but Poulter has always looked ahead to this team event more than anything. In his own words, he lives for it. Since making his Ryder Cup bow in 2004 at Oakland Hills Country Club in Michigan, ‘Poults’ has found himself completely besotted with this glorious exhibition match. He adapted almost instantaneously to the highly-charged atmosphere of the tournament and ascended admirably to become what he is now; Europe’s leader.

Taking on the mantle from Ryder Cup greats like Seve Ballesteros and Colin Montgomerie, Poulter feels entirely comfortable in being the go-to guy when it comes to putting points on the leaderboard for Team Europe. A now infamous pre-match interview with Sky Sports’ Tim Barter showcases, in the starkest possible manner, his untouchable self-belief and confidence when it comes to crucial times during the matches.

In 2010, with things delicately poised heading into Sunday’s singles, Poulter declared on live television: “I WILL deliver my point.” A bowled over Barter replied “You’re that confident?” Poulter merely repeated the statement with an intense glare. Displaying no qualms about upsetting his opponents, the frank response from the Englishman was the perfect summation of his character and attitude. He has always been divisive, especially with the Americans, and has never shied away from making contentious remarks, usually on social media, but he has never backed down from a challenge either.

After his declaration of intent in 2010, he went on to hammer Matt Kuchar 5&4 and set Europe on their way to regaining the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in Wales. His comments were regarded as disrespectful by some in the American quarters but Poulter simply did not care; he wasn’t at the Ryder Cup to maintain friendships, he was there to win. Steve Stricker, a vice-captain for the Tom Watson’s USA team this year, said that Ian Poulter was the last European he wanted to lose to simply because he was the pulse that had to be flat-lined. This is at the core of what drives Poulter on. He took being the target man for the American supporters in his stride in 2012 and will live for the support of the home crowd this week at Gleneagles. Whatever the response from the crowd, Poulter feeds off it, he uses it as either adrenaline or resolve. Inside the ropes, amidst the sea of red and blue, he shines as the definitive team competitor.

In golf, nothing comes close to matching the drama and excitement generated by this wonderful event and in 2012, Ian Poulter, almost single-handedly, provided a superb example of why viewers are so absorbed throughout its three days of play. With Europe looking down and out as early as Saturday afternoon, Poulter rolled in five consecutive birdies to ensure a point for himself and Rory McIlroy- who had played somewhat dispiritingly to that point- and ensured Europe had something to cling on to going into the final day. They were trailing 10-5 to a trailblazing American side, themselves pumped up on the voracious support of the Medinah patrons, but held on to the hope that a comeback was within the realms of possibility.

Wearing Seve on their sleeves, Jose Maria Olazabal’s men went out and achieved the greatest comeback the Ryder Cup has ever witnessed. Admittedly, the USA have matched the comeback in terms of rescuing the deficit when they ran riot on Sunday at the ‘Battle of Brookline’ in 1999, but Europe’s ‘Miracle at Medinah’ stands taller in the folklore for being on their counterpart’s home soil and it was a Poulter-inspired charge. It was 2012 that effectively rubber-stamped Poulter’s claim to a future captaincy and it was the year when everyone recognised him as the beating heart of the European side. Gladly accepting his role as talisman, Poulter defeated Webb Simpson in the singles at Medinah which set of a chain reaction of European victories, ultimately ending in a stunning victory of 14.5 to 13.5.

On Friday, Paul McGinley will make tough decisions regarding selection for the opening fourballs but one guarantee is that Poulter will be there, making putts and pumping fists. McGinley knew from the very beginning that he needed Poulter in his team. He may not be in the greatest form of his life but he inevitably steps it up after he walks into the team locker-room. He has earned his nickname as Europe’s “Postman” (because he always delivers). He has gone from being a wide-eyed rookie in 2004 to becoming the consummate Mr. Ryder Cup figure. He has played 15 matches over four previous appearances; won 12, lost 3. It is a truly remarkable record and one that he will look to add more points to come Friday. Europe, as a whole, are regarded as the stronger team and are favourites to retain the trophy but nothing is guaranteed in this great event. What is a surety, however, is Ian Poulter’s firebrand spirit absorbing us once again and forming an exhilarating part of golf’s most electrifying week.

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On this day in World Cup history: Ireland defeat Romania on penatlies to reach quarter-final at Italia ’90

o'leary

The Republic of Ireland’s first ever experience in the World Cup is one the nation will likely never forget, as they managed to engineer their “agricultural style of football” into the quarter-finals of Italia ’90.

Ireland were not fancied at all going into the tournament, widely regarded as one of the weakest teams to appear at the tournament. However, they defied expectations and scepticism to bring their fans on a journey of ecstasy that lives long in the memory, even if the quality of football was questionable at best.

Arguably, the defining image is David O’Leary,- the archetypal rock-at-the-back leaping in the air after firing the winning penalty against Romania inside a packed Stadio Luigi Ferraris Stadium in Genoa in the last 16 knock-out phase. It was the end of another long night of tense, anxious football punctuated by long-balls and hard-tackling for the Irish but they showed the world their nerves of steel in one of the most pressure-packed penalty shoot-outs the World Cup has ever witnessed.

After 120 minutes of laboured football, Ireland and Romania refused to be separated and so, on they went to an edge-of-your-seat showdown from 12 yards.

The atmosphere continued to create unrivalled excitement inside the stadium on a sunny and physically draining afternoon on the Italian Riviera. The Irish fans let out a great cry of support for Packie Bonner, Ireland’s ever-dependable goalkeeper, who walked nervously towards the net to face the first penalty of the shoot-out. The wait for Bonner and the Irish fans was not helped by the time taken by Hagi in approaching the penalty area to take the opening kick. Bonner paced back and forth, constantly adjusting his right glove and looking up to see the Romanian talisman creep closer and closer to the penalty spot.

Eventually, Hagi produces a wonderful penalty, thumped high into the roof of the net and beyond the reaches of Bonner to pile the pressure immediately back on to Irish shoulders in the shape of Kevin Sheedy. Ireland’s no. 11 takes an identical run-up to Hagi’s and dispatches the ball high in to the net, only this time, sending Silviu Lung the wrong way in the process. As the ball rustled the net, a tremendous roar ripped through the stadium courtesy of the 5,000 Irish fans on the terrace directly behind the goal. This was footballing box-office for them, the camera cutting to their faces, painted green,white and orange, waving flags and embracing each other in the spirit of the World Cup. Each Irish penalty was met with thunderous acclaim by the ocean of green inside the stadium.

ireland fans

Lupu took Romania’s second penalty, and how. The substitute demonstrating his mental freshness by strolling up to the ball and slotting it brilliantly to Bonner’s left. Nestled safely in to the corner for Romania to take a 2-1 lead. Ray Houghton takes Ireland’s next kick, choosing a decidedly quicker approach in the run-up and managing to fox the keeper. Not a great penalty- if the keeper had guessed the right way he probably would have saved it. Nevertheless, Ireland remained level. Matching the Romanians blow for blow under the most intense pressure imaginable. Houghton cracked a smile as he walked back to his team-mates, accepting a handshake from his captain, Mick McCarthy upon his return. Houghton’s smile told the entire story; thank fuck that’s over.

The penalties continued to fly in; Rotariu found the top corner before Andy Townsend replied for Ireland. Again, like Houghton, Townsend strolled back to the squad puffing his cheeks and letting dawn on his face a rye smile signalling his immense relief. Penalty shoot-outs are the cruellest method of deciding a football match but remind everyone of the drama and roller-coaster of emotions involved in being a professional footballer at a major tournament.

Lupescu’s penalty is too much for Bonner to handle and Romania take the lead 4-3. Bonner thumps the ground in frustration but in truth, there weren’t too many professional goalkeepers in world football that could have prevented that kick reaching the top corner. Cascarino continued the trend for Ireland, rifling the ball low and hard, sending Lung the wrong way once again.

Then came the moment of pure elation for Ireland. The crystallising moment that made it clear they were on the verge of something spectacular. Daniel Timofte of Dinamo Bucharest stepped forward to take Romania’s final regulation penalty. The midfield man wasted no time in placing the ball and running up to take it. However, he turned away in disgust as the Bonner turned the ball away. The man from Donegal dived to his right to punch the ball to safety and ensure that Ireland had their fate in their own hands. The Irish fans erupted in near disbelief. The screams of delirious Irish hearts encircled the stadium as Bonner leapt up in the air, punching it in delight.

packie bonner

Jack Charlton refused to display many emotions on the touchline, looking passive and curiously unshaken by what was one of the biggest moments in his footballing life.

The crowd regained their composure. Settle down was the cry. The time was now.

David O’Leary stepped up towards the jittery Lung in the Romanian net. The tension developed into something unbearable as the Arsenal man took an eternity to place the ball on the spot. Perhaps, somewhere in the darkest corridors of the mind, thoughts percolated in the form of O’Leary ballooning the ball high and wide because of some rogue lump of turf near his foot. The ultimate fear for any penalty-kick taker; watching as the ball sails away and with it any sense of dignity.

Once the ball was on the spot, however, O’Leary wasted no time. Sprinting up to the ball and side-footing it into the top right-hand corner, Ireland were through. O’Leary collapsed the ground, letting all the emotions floor him in that moment of pure footballing joy for him and his country. Team-mates, coaching staff and near enough everyone involved with the team in different capacities flooded the pitch and huddled round O’Leary.

They were eliminated in the quarter-finals by hosts Italy but that fateful afternoon in Genoa was forever inscribed on to Irish footballing history, showing fearlessness and courage to down the Romanians. They were hailed as national heroes when they returned to Dublin. They are yet to show such determination and heart on the biggest stage since.

The country waits to feel that euphoria once again.

 

 

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Luis Suarez shows his deplorable side as Uruguay down Italy to advance

Suarez-bite

Luis Suarez finds himself at the centre of another storm of controversy following Uruguay’s 1-0 win over Italy, as he appears to have bitten down on to the shoulder of Giorgio Chiellini.

The saddening aspect of the latest in a reel of disreputable incidents involving the Luis Suarez is that it highlights the ugliest side possible of both himself and the World Cup in a wider context. 24 hours ago, the watching world let their hearts melt and conform to the utter ecstasy of Mexico and their effervescent manager, Miguel Herrera. The Mexican national side, Herrera especially, have been lauded for their passion, adventure and bravery in dismantling Croatia, providing sure to be a most enduring memory of this summer’s tournament. Thousands of Twitter feeds and news articles showered praise on the unity expressed by the Mexicans in their quest for knock-out World Cup football and it became increasingly apparent that this is why we watch football; for the thrill, for the upsets, for the joy it brings to an entire nation.

24 hours later, in Natal, Luis Suarez stands buck-toothed, hands on hips and panting profusely following the intense finish to the match. Yes, Suarez can be applauded for his tireless performance in attempting to unlock the Italian barrier and defeat a shining Buffon in nets. However, nothing will be said of it. Rather, the PFA Player of the Year is likely to be universally vilified for clamping down on an opponent for the third time in his career. FIFA are likely to review the incident exhaustively and come to a swift and correct conclusion, as they always can be trusted to do.

The image of Suarez throwing his fist in frustration after the immediacy of Uruguayan elation had settled down on the pitch is stark. It is not a man who is celebrating in the glory of his team’s triumph, nor is it a player who is looking forward to the prospect of further football. On the contrary, it is a man furious with himself. Knowing that he is likely to be handed a severe punishment considering his track record of incidents involving biting other players which could possibly lead to the end of his tournament, or his World Cup career for that matter.

The video evidence is conclusive enough- as Cavani holds the ball out wide for Uruguay, Suarez and Chiellini lock shoulders in the penalty box anticipating the cross. As they clash lightly, Suarez turns towards the defender and appears to open his mouth and feast upon the Italian’s trapezius, prompting him to fall down clutching his left shoulder in apparent agony. Suarez’s reaction is to sit on the ground holding on to his incisors, immediately letting the watching world know that he has used his teeth as a weapon once more. Suarez will have been hoping that his reaction would have theatrically masked the bite on Chiellini for an elbow on himself, making him the victim of the incident. However, the existence of one angle on the video evidence clearly showing Suarez’s intention will more than likely mean retrospective action be taken against the Uruguayan.

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Following the match, the ITV punditry brigade were aghast at what they had just witnessed. Lee Dixon looked befuddled at anchor Adrian Chiles as he addressed the issue meanwhile Glenn Hoddle adopted the Helen Lovejoy approach and asked “will somebody think of the children?” Finally, Ian Wright, opted to conduct a comprehensive analysis of Suarez’s psyche by stating: “There’s gotta be something wrong with ‘im, innit?”

The collective sense of bemusement and perturbation will speak for the minds of millions in that it can not exactly be explained why Suarez has decided to behave in such a manner again after being slapped with a lengthy ban for previously taking a chunk out of Branislav Ivanovic’s forearm during a Liverpool Chelsea match in the Premier League in 2013. Glenn Hoddle, for all his frightened mothering act, speaks the most sense. How can football continue to let someone of this mindset play in the biggest stadiums, in front of the largest crowds and for one of the most decorated team’s in sporting history, as well as being chased by a few more.

Rewind back to 2010. The World Cup, again. Suarez handballs a header from a Ghanian player to prevent the Africans more or less progressing to the semi-final of the competition- what would have been an unprecedented accomplishment. He was correctly sent off and Ghana had the chance to extinguish the anger with a penalty. However, it was not so much the handball which was looked at disparagingly rather Suarez’s outpouring of emotion as he watched from the tunnel, seemingly oblivious to the plight of the Ghana players, coaching staff and fans.

The “do anything to win” mentality which he claims to adopt led him to bite Ivanovic that fateful afternoon in Anfield and in spite of a lengthy ban and virulent castigation from the English media, he continues to stand above the rest as a poster-boy for the Premier League, reeling in barrels of trophies, distinctions and individual achievements. Adopt the Hoddle school of thought; millions of children are idolising this man for his football because the enormity of his talent and ingenuity veils a darker, almost psychopathic side.

He is undoubtedly one of the most gifted footballers of his generation but more importantly, he is also one of the most dangerous. Unfortunately it will dominate the headlines for a while in what has otherwise been a thrilling World Cup full of goals, upsets and gripping football. The jury is out. Over to you FIFA.

 

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Croatia’s creative axis out to ruin Seleção’s homecoming

Croatia’s creative axis out to ruin Seleção’s homecoming.

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Croatia’s creative axis out to ruin Seleção’s homecoming

 

Modric will be crucial to Croatia's hopes throughout their World Cup campaign

Modric will be crucial to Croatia’s hopes throughout their World Cup campaign

On Thursday, hundreds of millions will tune in to the World Cup’s opening ceremony and curtain raiser; Brazil v Croatia. For Brazilians, it will be the glorious homecoming of the World Cup to its greatest nation and a chance to banish the demons of 1950- the only other time Brazil has hosted the World Cup, when they were stunned in the final by Uruguay. However, for their opponents, it is the perfect opportunity to re-establish themselves as a feared side and prove that they can go further than what it is being predicted (last-16 at best).

Amidst the feverish expectations of Brazil once again rubbing shoulders with giants such as Germany, Italy and Argentina, their opponents in Group A have gone largely under the radar. The reality is though, barring some footballing catastrophe, that Brazil will comfortably progress through their group that pits them against Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon. Arguably, the strongest of that trio is Croatia. Perhaps not as strong as in 1998 when they reached the dizzying heights of the semi-finals and Davor Suker went home with the Golden Shoe, the Croatians under new boss Niko Kovac look to their terrifying playmaker axis as the biggest hope they have to rock Brazil in the tournament opener.

Niko Kovac is inexperienced but can trust his creative players to deliver against any side

Niko Kovac is inexperienced but can trust his creative players to deliver against any side

Due to the absence of Mario Mandzukic, the top-scorer in qualifying, through suspension (he was sent off in their play-off against Iceland), the attacking threat will largely come from Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. Playmaking maestro’s, Modric and Rakitic will thrive in the “4-2-3-1 come 4-1-4-1” described by Kovac. During Croatia’s sluggish qualifying campaign that saw them fail in a bid to gain automatic qualification, Igor Stimac destroyed morale and confused the players with his incessant tinkering of tactics and shape. There was zero cohesion and Croatia’s momentum suffered badly as a result. What Kovac has done has restored tactical responsibility, intelligence and a sense of leadership to the side. This leadership quality has stayed with Kovac after he was the country’s captain and talisman under the popular manager, Slaven Bilic, at the 2006 finals.

Kovac’s lack of managerial experience did not deter the players from placing their trust in him and so far it has paid off reasonably well. The shape he has restored to the team will allow Modric, Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic, Inter Milan’s rising star, to gain plenty of possession for Croatia and feed the lone striker, most likely to be Eduardo, the former Arsenal man, or Nikita Jelavic, who still plays in the Premier League for Hull City.

Croatia know their limitations. In terms of technical ability, star power and muscle, they don’t quite match up to Brazil but they will utilise this by playing on the counter. Croatia’s lack of muscle in midfield means that attempting to go toe-to-toe with Brazil’s Paulinho and Ramires would be a thankless, and ultimately, pointless task. What Croatia do have, however, is speed and cleverness. Their team is packed with smart players that can make use of the little chances they will have in front of goal. Rakitic, for one, is blessed with an array of attacking qualities. Fresh off a stellar season with Sevilla, where he helped guide them to Europa League success, he has rapidly developed into one of the hottest properties in European football and reports are claiming that he is on the verge of completing a big-money transfer to Spanish giants, Barcelona. Whether or not he remains at Sevilla throughout the summer, however, will not affect his importance to the national team.

Rakitic could be one of the tournament's top-performers after a brilliant season with Sevilla

Rakitic could be one of the tournament’s top-performers after a brilliant season with Sevilla

Rakitic has a brilliant range of passing and an eye for goal, having bagged 15 last season for Sevilla, but is also extremely hard-working in the middle. In September, he impressed everyone in the Camp Nou with his tireless work-rate and attacking threat, scoring one and setting up another. It was perhaps the perfect audition and expression of talent for a team who looks to have won the race to sign him.

Working alongside Rakitic will be Luka Modric, arguably Croatia’s most pivotal asset. Modric is the string-puller-in-chief for his country and they will rely on his creative scheming. Modric is also coming into this year’s tournament on the back of an excellent campaign with Real Madrid. Modric struggled to impress after signing for Madrid under Mourinho but Carlo Ancelotti’s introduction of a fluid 4-3-3 has enabled Modric to dictate games in the centre along with Xabi Alonso. For Croatia, Kovac will ask Modric to play a slightly deeper role but that will not completely stunt his abilities. Once Croatia get the ball and flood forward, Modric will be able to feed the more advanced Rakitic, Kovacic and Perisic on the wing. Modric boasts a 90% passing accuracy rate for Real Madrid, which exceeds any other regular starter in the team and it is this quality that will make Croatia tick.

A lack of depth and balance in the squad coupled with a slow and sloppy defence will make wrecking Brazil’s party a difficult task but Kovac has plenty of experience and quality in the likes of Rakitic and Modric that could see them post a serious upset and provide great drama from the very beginning of the tournament.

 

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Muller, Total Football and the ‘Lost Final’: The Story of the 1974 World Cup Final

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It was the show-piece for international football’s most intense rivalry; the 1974 World Cup Final between West Germany and Netherlands in Munich is still regarded as one of the most dramatic and shocking finals in the competition’s history. For the Dutch, it will always be remembered as the final that never was. Their unique vision of Total Football captured the imagination of millions but it ultimately ended in heartbreak as they failed to get Oranje hands on the Jules Rimmet trophy.

Suddenly, with a typically quick turn and finish in the box, Gerd Muller set West Germany on their way to their second World Cup triumph. One precise swing of his right boot was enough to shatter the Netherlands’ hopes of claiming their first Jules Rimmet trophy and with it, sent the revolutionary style of totaalvoetbal tumbling into the footballing abyss. It was a defeat Holland couldn’t quite stomach. They swept the 1974 World Cup with consummate style and swagger and their team are, to this day, regarded as one of the finest teams ever to grace the World Cup. But for all their brilliance, they had nothing to shoe for it at the end of a dizzylingly entertaining tournament. The Johan Cryuff-led Dutch insurgency crumbled in the face of German ruthlessness and efficiency, typified by Der Kaiser- Franz Beckenbauer. Muller, the captain’s trusted lieutenant on the front line, conducted the greatest last act as a German international footballer by quashing the Dutch charge and ensuring that the sea of orange would have to wait, at least another 4 years, before completing the job and conquering the world. 

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That Holland side are seen as the perhaps the greatest innovators in terms of footballing tactics. Carlos Alberto, who captained Brazil to their 1970 triumph, once said: “The only team I’ve seen that did things differently was Holland at the 1974 World Cup in Germany. Since then everything looks more or less the same to me…. Their ‘carousel’ style of play was amazing to watch and marvellous for the game.” Not for the first time, Calros Alberto seems to have got it absolutely right. The Dutch national side of 1974 were a team of immeasurable talent, virtuosity and artistry, who set the world’s greatest sporting competition alight 40 years ago by abandoning the stiff rigours of footballing tactics and affording unprecedented liberation to their players with the ultimate goal of leaving their opponents bereft in the ways of combating it.  

The man behind the brilliance was Rinus Michels- the creative director and commander-in-chief of a Dutch vision that shook the World Cup 40 years ago. Michels had a clear apotheosis of thought when he came to the realisation of how the game should be played. He started to encourage his players to interchange positions, with the view that a different player would always be available to cover the position left vacant. It was, as Alberto said, a very ‘carousel’ style of football. But it worked. Michels took advantage of an improved infrastructure of sports science and nutrition in the post-war era to enhance his team’s physical prowess, conditioning and all-round fitness. The goal was to enact a dramatic metamorphosis and turn the Dutch into a relentless pressing machine. Michels altered the way the Dutch trained, placing particular emphasis on fitness, ball-work and drills that increased technical proficiency. It was a team very much modelled in the mould of Michel’s Ajax side of the 60s. At the heart of both systems lay the one underlying core principle; control space on the pitch, make it big when you have the ball and small when you do not and it becomes far more difficult for the opposition to keep it.

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Drawing sharp contrast from the fortunes of the Dutch in the World Cup are their arch nemesis; Germany. West Germany, to be specific in that era. West Germany’s World Cup history makes for more jovial reading. They revelled in the Miracle of Berne in 1954 when an imperious West German side famously ended the 36-match unbeaten run of Ferenc Puskas’ Hungary and then there was 1974, for which the Germans will eternally be straddled with the reputation as the party poopers of the Dutch express. West Germany were the reigning European champions at the time and boasted a significantly impressive squad; Beckenbauer, Vogts, Bonhof, Heynckes and the immortal Muller.

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Under the managerial leadership of Helmut Schon- who holds the record for most World Cup matches won by a coach (16)- West Germany found it tough going on their own turf. They scraped past Chile 1-0 in a tentative opener in the Olympiastadion in West Berlin but found a team ripe for a hammering in Australia in the next match. They duly obliged and thumped them 3-0 without breaking a sweat. Their next match, however, went down as one of the most iconic moments in modern football. A match permanently etched into the German national consciousness for its importance and its politics; West Germany vs East Germany. Incredibly, it was their Eastern counterparts who came out on top with a 1-0 victory courtesy of a Jurgen Sparwasser strike in the 77th minute. It was a result that the crowd in Hamburg and rocked the tournament by allowing East Germany to progress to the next round as winners of Group 1. It was an historic moment considering the history and the context, but in the specific context of that World Cup’s landscape, East Germany’s charge was to be halted whilst the West marched on with machine-like fluency and aggression. 

West Germany’s passage through the second round group phase was slightly more serene. They amassed the maximum points following defeats of Poland, Yugolasvia and Sweden. It was the 4-2 spanking of Sweden that alerted the rest of the tournament to the scary realisation that the Germans were peaking at the right time. Arguably the most surprising aspect of that match was that Muller failed to register on the score-sheet but it was irrelevant as the most important thing for Germany was that they had the whole team working in tandem. Sweden came up against a team which had been harshly criticised for not exactly setting the tournament on fire thus far and they hit back vehemently, starting with a thunderous volley from Wolfgang Overath. Bonhof, Grabowski and Hoeness added three more to add gloss to the final scoreline and it became increasingly apparent that West Germany where a team with something to prove at home. Writing them off was a foolish mistake. 

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What West Germany inflicted on Sweden mirrored the demolition enacted by the Netherlands on Bulgaria in the first group phase. A 4-1 rout, with Johan Neeskens providing two penalties before Johnny Rep and Theo De Jong confirming the Oranje superiority. It all seemed to be perfectly in place for Holland in 1974. According to David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange: the neurotic genius of Dutch football, “Holland clicked immediately the 1974 tournament began.” The excitement as to what the Dutch could achieve caused a feverish atmosphere back in Amsterdam where passionate fans watched their teams electrifying performances in technicolour on TV (the first time the World Cup was televised in the Netherlands). Their dominance in the first phase of the group stages continued into the second as they blew Argentina away with a 4-0 smashing in Gelsenkirchen. Argentine defenders were reduced to quivering wrecks by an irresistible flow of Dutch attacks inspired by the inimitable Cryuff. Four days later, they ended East Germany’s run by dispatching them 2-0 and setting up a hotly anticipated collision with the reigning World Champions Brazil in Dortmund. 

Needing only a draw to reach the final, Holland went one better and comfortably outplayed Brazil in a 2-0 win, with goals coming from once again from Neeskens and Cryuff. A performance that once again entranced the footballing world, making the World Champions of 1970 look unrecognisable and forcing them to try and foul their way to victory. It was a plan that was swept aside with ease by the Dutch as they set up a mouth-watering finale with West Germany. 

And, almost like a cruel act from the footballing gods, the final was shroud in controversy following revelations on the eve of the match that there had been a ‘naked party’ in the Wald’s Hotel swimming pool prior to the Holland-Brazil match whereby unnamed Dutch players partied with German girls. The German tabloid Bild Zeitung published the story and claimed to have photographic proof of the incident (although the pictures never appeared) and it was slammed by Michels during his pre-match press conference as a vicious and cunning act of waging psychological warfare on his team in the build-up to the biggest match in Dutch footballing history. The pool story now has attached to it a legendary status and is offered as an explanation by many Dutch people for the main reason why Holland lost the 1974 World Cup Final. The story is believed to have triggered discord in the Dutch camp and unsettled several of their key players, including Cryuff. Legend has it that Cryuff received a phone call from Danny, his wife back home in Holland, which kept him up all night before the final. Versions of this tale attribute much of the blame to Danny for causing Johan to crucially lose focus at such a critical juncture in the World Cup campaign. In addition to this, it is said that she informed Cryuff’s decision to announce his retirement from international football, leaving Holland without their talisman for the Argentina World Cup in 78′.

With the tabloid storm slowly settling, people began to realise that there was a match to be played. The match, as previously touched upon, was the conclusion of two contrasting fates. Holland had captured the imagination of millions with totaalvoetbal whilst West Germany had, with the exception of one match against Sweden, rather stuttered their way to the final in a distinctly unspectacular fashion. However, they were armed with two pieces of the most formidable footballing weaponry; Der Kaiser and Der Bomber (Beckenbauer and Muller). Muller is still considered by many to be the most devastating striker in the history of football. He certainly stands proudly in the pantheon of truly great goalscorers. He was blessed with a low centre of gravity, enabling him to bob and weave into space with perfect balance and poise and also utilised his blistering acceleration to free himself from the shackles of man-marking centre-halves. But above all else, he could score goals. His record reads as 365 in 628 for Bayern and 68 in 62 for Germany including 14 in 2 World Cups (surpassed only by Brazil’s Ronaldo).

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“I have this instinct for knowing when a defence is going to relax, when a defender will make a mistake. I have a voice inside my head that says Gerd go that way or Gerd go this way. I don’t what it is.” – Muller’s explanation for scoring with such lethal profligacy.

The final started with Holland dictating the tempo, controlling their passing much to the frustration of the Germans. That frustration boiled over after only 2 minutes as Uli Hoeness trips Cryuff in the box and English referee, Jack Taylor points to the spot. As expected, Neeskens converts the penalty with due precision, putting the Oranje in the driving seat early on. No German player had managed to touch the ball before that moment, it was the start millions of people back in Holland where dreaming about. After the goal, West Germany struggled to muster an effective response as the Dutch arrogantly stroked the ball back and forward in a sustained spell of controlled possession. They showcased plenty of technical superiority but their arrogance with ball led to no second goal. For all their possession, the Dutch didn’t create many openings. Apart from one. An absolute golden opportunity that haunts them to this very day. 24 minutes in, Cryuff breaks clear and is bearing down on a hideously exposed German defence, he slips the ball selflessly to the left, which is picked up by Johnny Rep. Rep had been in a rich vein of form throughout the tournament and was unquestionably one of the Dutch’s finest and most consistent performers but he could only manage to stab the ball straight at German keeper Stefan Maier. 

What happened next vaulted Rep’s miss into the realm of a miss of epic proportions. Holzenbein, occupying the left side of a three-pronged German attack, cuts inside towards the Dutch penalty area and is brought tumbling down by Wim Jansen, desperately trying to stop the forwards run. Jack Taylor once again points to the spot. Paul Breitner steps up. 1-1. The tide is pivotally turned. The German attacks flood in and Netherlands don’t look as though they will withstand the pressure. Then, the moment Der Bomber strikes. Like an assassin waiting in the shadows, Muller had been teetering on the periphery of proceedings for most of the first-half. He was being watched diligently by Rijsbergen and Arie Haan at the heart of the Dutch defence. But not for long. Bonhof, in a moment of typically effective wing-play, screeches past Ruud Krol down the right and drills a low cross in towards Muller. He gets his foot to the ball but the pace of the ball causes it spring backwards once his boot makes contact. For a split second, maybe Dutch blushes are spared. But it was not to be, as Muller pounced on the loose ball inside the box to hit it on the turn low and beyond a frozen Jan Jongbloed. Muller sprints towards his team-mates and leaps into the air. Jon Champion for the BBC exclaims: “Gerd Muller makes history. He is the most prolific striker in World Cup history. That is his fourteenth goal.” It doesn’t matter to Muller, however, he only cared about the match.

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It was shattering for the Dutch. A cataclysmic conclusion to the first-half. The Dutch are irate with Jack Taylor for rewarding the German a ‘soft’ penalty which allowed them to equalise. Cryuff is booked for his protests as the players descend down the tunnel for half-time.

The Dutch looked somewhat regrouped in the second half as they generated a few opportunities following some solid play. Rep once again spurns a glorious opening, only this time he is guilty of not passing the ball back to Van Hanegem, who was in a better place to score, not to mention unmarked and screaming for the ball. Rep shoots and wide and throws his hands to his head in exasperation. Then, Neeskens unleashed a ferocious volley that is somehow turned away by Maier for a Hollan corner. The Germans are defending desperately. Last-ditch. They are bombarded by an endless flood of orange but somehow manage to hold on to that slender advantage. At the final whistle, German players sink to their knees and throw their arms up in jubilation. 

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The desolation and anguish which encapsulated Dutch hearts is perfectly summed up by Bastiaan Bommeljé: “It made an immense impression on me to see grown men cry because we had lost to Germany, but then no one spoke about this game for a decade.” 

The tournament ended in utter disarray for Netherlands but that 1974 team is still universally regarded as one of the greatest. They stunned the world playing a type of football that teams couldn’t comprehend. They fought valiantly and came out second best. Michels and his players were greeted as heroes upon their arrival back at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and were greeted in a banquet at the Royal Palace by the Queen Juliana. But the grief was insurmountable. It was a footballing rivalry that had its roots deep in the history of the Second World War. It was something that, for many people, went far deeper than football. It set up what has become one of the fiercest rivalries in football today but it always seems to go back to 1974 for the two nations. Germany tricked the Netherlands. It was and always will be the Lost Final for Oranje.

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