Dispatches From South Africa: Netherlands' 2-0 Win Not Spectacular Enough For Some

JOHANNESBURG - The news reports I've read from Monday's Dutch win have me a little bemused today.

Apparently, starting your World Cup campaign with a 2-0 win over Denmark, a good, mid-level European side, just isn't good enough. Not if you have a reputation to uphold as the brilliant Orange.

Me? I like Holland's businesslike approach to the World Cup opener. It's a long tournament, and presumably, manager Bert Van Marwijk and his men of Oranje came here to play six or seven matches - not simply one breathtaking one.

I do understand the deep places from which the frustration boils. No nation can so reliably fascinate and simultaneously frustrate its legion worldwide fans like the Netherlands.

For such a small land, Holland has crafted a dazzling volume of talent over the last 40 years. The pioneering Dutch teaching systems, rooted in the Ajax way, created generations of technically adept performers, cozy on the ball wherever they happen to play on the field.

That's why everyone loves the Dutch - well, that and the festive fans of orange outfits, orange wigs, funny orange hats and all other manner of goofy orange props that are generally completely irrelevant to soccer.  Truly, they are among the world's best supporters.

So we stir it all up, compounded by the excitement of the World Cup, and we want the Dutch to entertain and fascinate. Then again, we complain when they don't win, perennially admonishing the architects of a team arranged to fascinate rather than to win!

We ask, "Where have you gone Rinus Michels, with your innovative total football and your unique ability to tame the high-maintenance gathering of Dutch talent?"

Well, which one is it? What do people want? A side that wins or a sideshow carnival act delivering value for the price of admission?

Besides all that, anyone who criticizes the way the Netherlands went about yesterday's match must have Rip Van Winkled their way through European qualifying. Holland's businesslike qualifying campaign neatly resembled yesterday's match of calm and control.

Van Marwijk's side was more defensive-minded than previous versions, and the Oranje wore it well. Do you realize how rare it is to go through European qualifying completely unblemished? Holland trotted through barely impeded, permitting just two goals during eight wins in eight matches. The wins over the middling and the minnows were convincing, even if not awe-inspiring; the results at home landed at 2-0, 3-0, 4-0 and 2-0. Take away home field advantage, and those probably translate to 1-0 and 2-0 on neutral grounds - much like Monday's result in Johannesburg.

Goofy things can happen in the opening games. Just ask England and Italy.

Their opponents, the United States and Paraguay, are roughly equal in strength to Denmark. Today, Holland is sitting top of the Group E alongside surprise winners Japan.

Denmark and Paraguay are in the third tied of teams here, not considered rank outsiders in the way of North Korea, Australia, Honduras and such, but certainly not in the assembly of favorites or even among the second-tier members, the short list of "dark horse favorites" such as Netherlands, Italy or Germany.

Italy should not tied Paraguay. England should not have tied the United States. Now their camps are full of question marks and threatened with a certain creeping doubt. Those results are hardly devastating, but they do affect things. Those draws reduce the margin of error over the next 10 or so days for the Italians and the English. And those nights of mediocrity increase the chances of a second-place finish in the group, which likely means a tougher second-round foe.

So, the Netherlands did exactly what was needed - managing the match and winning comfortably in the end.

From my seat in the wonderful Soccer City grounds - shiny new and retro in appearance all at once - it looked to me like the Netherlands' plan was to manage matters, not hurrying forward rashly in the early stages. The casual pace of throw-ins and goal kicks told you everything you needed to know about the even-handed Dutch approach. Holland looked like a team quite confident that if nothing silly happened, they would eventually walk out of Soccer City with a relatively comfortable result, probably along the lines of 2-0.

Which is exactly what happened.

Rafael van der Vaart on the left? Yes, it struck me as a conservative choice - but so what? The 23-year-old Eljero Elia, wearing the look of a classic Dutch winger, did come in and seriously enliven a somewhat dull contest. Again, I would say it was necessarily dull from the Dutch side, as Denmark clearly saw the wisdom of a defend-first policy. So, surely the idea for Van Marwijk was to use the more experienced van der Vaart, ensure that his team had its thumb on the match and then see what the match demanded from there.

Going forward, Elia might make a good choice, depending on the opposition strength and weakness. Or, what a wonderful, nuclear-tipped weapon to introduce in the 70th minute, as weary legs would surely struggled to match his pace and direct approach.

My guess overall: We'll see some brilliance from this Dutch team. Maybe not the memorably electrifying outings that we've seen once or twice in World Cups and Euro Championships past, but a good 3- or 4-goal thumping over Japan or Cameroon.

The Dutch have that in them. They just don't need to show it every single match. 

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