Monday, June 14, 2010

"Where did you go...?"

IT’S a good job the Soccer City seats are orange, all the better to look like Dutch fans, because today’s match was another marked by curious no-shows.
Fifa claim stadia are indeed sold out – or near enough, anyway – despite all those embarrassing patches of empty seats.
So evidently many people have bought tickets but for some reason not turned up – or not been able to make their way in.
Organisaing officials also this morning insisted new traffic management guidelines would solve the gridlock problems that delayed many fans for the opening game last Friday.
Yet the fixture between the Netherlands and Denmark this lunchtime certainly looked rather more sparse than such promises – or official figures – might suggest.
The attendance was announced as 83,465 – 1,035 below the stadium’s World Cup capacity – but there looked to be at least 2,000 missing in the hospitality sections alone.
To be fair, the atmosphere – as on Sunday, in Pretoria – hardly seemed to suffer, despite the action on the field being only attractive in phases.
Since organisers insist the tickets have been sold, then concerns about high prices are only semi-relevant here.
From tomorrow, stadia for all games bar the lunchtime kick-off will open four hours ahead of kick-off, rather than three, in another attempt to get people in and settled down punctually.
Those going AWOL from Soccer City today did not necessarily miss much in terms of football, whether they arrived late or not at all.
Despite a stereotypically bright enough start from the Dutch, too often the likes of Robin van Persie and Rafael van der Vaart got a little bogged down in selfishness or over-elaboration.
After spending the first quarter of the match defending stoutly, if unambitiously, the Danes did approach half-time in a more expansive frame of mind.
Nicolas Bendtner, despite at times making Peter Crouch look elegant, dropped very deep into midfield to help sweetly and suddenly switch the play goalwards.
And some raking cross-field balls from left-back not only found their man – and found their man able to trap the ball and move ahead with it, unlike, say, South Africa’s Modise on Friday or Serbia’s Krasic on Monday.
Not quite the 1986 vintage Danes, then, but encouraging as the opening half drew to a close – only for the start of the second to wipe that all out.
Simon Poulsen – one of three non-related Poulsens in the squad – blotted his encouraging first-half copybook by nodding a Van Persie cross into his own net, less than a minute after the restart.
Actually, perhaps Daniel Agger will be ‘given’ the own goal, since it brushed in off his back – but the guilt was all Poulsen’s. At least he was involved, however unhappily – usual attack-dog Christian was anonymous in midfield.
After that, Denmark hardly looked like coming back into the match, even when introducing much-hyped 18-year-old Christian Eriksen as a sub.
At least he didn’t do what Ajax team-mate – and fellow creative ‘wonderkid’ – Nicolas Lodeiros did, as a Uruguay sub last Friday. But doing something, anything, might have helped – ah, it’s still early days, of course… And the circumstances hardly helped.
Especially once Dirk Kuyt had tapped in for a Dutch double, following perhaps the most incisive move of the match – and a rather shoddy failure to play catch-up by Simon Kjaer.
The final through-ball came from Wesley Sneijder, named man of the match and yet still looking to be playing on cruise control – with several more gears still to be moved up into.
This was certainly a steadier start for the Dutch than their entry into the Euros two years ago, though whether they exit similarly might depend on whether their defence gets better-tested.
Surely it must, with the likes of Van Bronckhorst and Mathijsen vulnerable to pacier and classier opponents than today – even if they did have the best defensive record in Uefa’s World Cup qualifiers.
Many – especially goalkeepers, surprisingly enough – have been complaining about the ball, though often simply getting their excuses in early (or late and implausibly, in the England camp).
But perhaps the altitude of some games is more to blame for the slightly-reserved nature of performances so far – not that players are puffed out already, but taking things as cautiously as possible to preserve their strength.
The most exciting performances – and matches – have been those played at less-debilitating sea level, the lucky in Germans in Durban above (so to speak) all.
The Italians, despite only drawing in Cape Town tonight, certainly ended the match robustly enough, as had South Korea in Port Elizabeth and even England and the USA in Rustenburg.
Maybe a better idea of just how wunderbar these German tyros really are will come not only when they meet someone less abysmal than the Aussies, but when forced to move up on to higher ground.
With, hopefully, full houses hitting the lofty heights too.

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