By Ben Brill
England’s travails over the past week or so might seem all too predictable with the benefit of hindsight, but for the most part, this World Cup’s been a tough one to call. Brazil are dull, Spain pedestrian and Germany are missing penalties. It’s a topsy turvy old world.
Zebrano seems to have got itself caught up in the confusion. Off Carnaby Street, it’d normally lay claim to being a slightly classier type of tourist trap, with the type of wood panelling and mock leather banquettes that always remind me of saunas and funky house. To celebrate the World Cup, though, they've plastered a random selection of flags, giant red and yellow cards, and plastic footballs around the bar. It's a confused piece of interior design, but not altogether unappealing. It’s like my adolescent bedroom just before the giant poster of Louise Wener out of Sleeper replaced Lee Chapman as the object of my affections.
It’s the morning after England failed to turn up against Algeria. I won’t lie – I’m feeling a tad tender. An hour ago I was in my living room with head in my hands, tears streaming from my eyes. Only ten minutes ago I was having an existential crisis in the jeans section of Top Man.
Perhaps my fragile state of mind contributes to my choice of meal. The chaps in England shirts at the table next to me are eating burgers. They look delicious. They’re massive, with oodles of crisp-looking salad, and a pile of chips the same colour as the wood panelling in the bar. They’re supping what I hope to be their first pint of the day (it’s just after midday), probably congratulating themselves on having picked up on Zebrano’s ‘burger and a beer for eight quid during the World Cup’ offer. I look down at the red snapper I’ve ordered in a fit of confusion and I feel like crying.
Now, red snapper with mango chutney and coconut rice might be many things, but it’s not what I should be eating right now. I need something that’ll soak up the melancholy that set in last night sometime between the ill conceived skit involving Adrian Chiles, Patrick Viera’s baby’s bottom bonce and two Kevin Keegans, and the point at which I decided that, yes, I really can do a good impression of Wayne Rooney insulting all of England on the ITV cameras. The snapper’s pretty good, I suppose (although the rice tastes of microwaves), but it’s barely touching the sides.
The game’s not particularly inspiring, either. I’ve always had a soft spot for Dutch football. They’re completely neurotic (as am I), and tend towards the sort of cerebral, geometrically precise football that’s mother’s milk to deep thinkers like myself. Their 1974 vintage (the best team, along with the ’54 Hungarians, never to win the World Cup) defined the total football they invented, their propensity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and the odd-headedness that makes them so peculiarly appealing – their goalkeeper, Jan Jongbloed wore the number 8 shirt, midfielder Willy Van Der Kerkhof wore the number 1.
This isn’t a typical Dutch team, though. True, Wesley Sneijder’s an incredibly elegant player, running the show from the heart of midfield, and Van Der Vaart’s as neat a footballer as you’re likely to see. But this is a team that’s characterised more by Dirk Kuyt’s raw-boned athleticism, willful running, and general air of ineptitude as it is by Sneijder or Van Der Vaart’s more subtle charms. All teams need water-carriers, but it’s a shame that this Dutch team allows theirs to be so prominent.
It doesn’t seem to be helping them a great deal – they labour against a neat and tidy Japanese team, too narrow to escape a crowded midfield, too workmanlike to slice through it. In the end, it takes a goalkeeping mistake from Kawashima to put the Dutch in front, and after he’s ducked out of the way of Sneijder’s viciously struck long range effort, you sense the Japanese won’t be able to break down a well organised Dutch defence.
It’s an oddly depressing experience, though. Having grown up watching so many inspired Dutch teams implode, it somehow doesn’t seem right to watch them battle to a 1-0 victory over inferior opposition.
Over to my left, the fellers wearing England shirts open up their gullets to the second pint of the day. What were they wearing last night? Do they have one England shirt for best, and one for weekends? And do they in their quieter moments, wonder what happened to the neurotic genius of the great Dutch teams? When did the beautiful oraanj become so workmanlike? And when did they all start looking like estate agents? It’s a funny old game.