A somber day for fans of the Dutch game

Spain reigns ... at the expense of the Dutch.

I was 12 years old when I paid attention to my first World Cup. It was the summer of 1978 and I was finishing every hot evening playing soccer with neighborhood friends. We lived in the city, in an area with a good racial and ethnic mix; I spent a lot of time playing soccer with the Mexican-American kids.

Every day started by reading my father’s sports page, checking baseball scores and looking for stories on my local pro soccer team. And … I started reading that summer about the World Cup going on down in Argentina.

At that time I knew about European history the same way I knew about sharks and UFOs – from watching movies. So I knew just a little about England, Germany, France, Italy and, of course, the Cold War evilness of big, bad Russia.

But that was this "Netherlands" thing? I had a recollection of this country from the war movie A Bridge Too Far (Sean Connery … good flick). I looked it up in the Encyclopedia. "Man, that’s a pretty small country.

Still is, by the way, relatively speaking. At about 16 million, it’s Europe’s 11th largest nation, far smaller thanGermany, France and others. (And about a third of the size of Spain.)

I was fascinated that this land could stand up to much larger countries in soccer. And I felt some sort of kinship with a country that kept bumping up against hard luck. I mean, twice this strange little land of funny wooden shoes may have owned the world’s best soccer team – but twice suffered the misfortune of meeting the hosts in the final. Damn! That’s tough luck.

By the next summer I was a full-fledged soccer geek kid. I had my subscription to Soccer America Magazine; read that bad boy cover to cover every week.  I even put together a math project on a statistical study of soccer matches, which won a city award. The local pro team’s PR man heard about it and gave me a job as a spotter for the home games. (The coach of the Dallas Tornado, Al Miller, was way ahead of his time in compiling player data. He kept a "touch chart," recording every pass, accounting for long and short passes, lost possession, penetrating passes, crosses, etc. My job was to call out numbers to someone writing it all down.)

At any rate, this is about the time Johan Cruyff joined the Los Angeles Aztecs. My team had a Dutch fellow, too, Willi Lippens, a creative left-sided player and a really fascinating dude. He is the only native-German speaker ever to play for Holland’s national team. Born along the Dutch-German border, he spent his entire career in the Bundesliga until arrival in Dallas.

Meanwhile, other Dutch players were sprinkled throughout the North American Soccer League. And they were all such wonderful talents. "What is the deal with this little land? How do so many great players come from this place?"

Of course, we all know now about manager genius Rinus Michels, Total Football and the advanced teaching systems of Ajax. (Advanced at the time, that is.) At the time, all I knew was the Cruyff was my favorite player. I had Cruyff posters on my bedroom wall. I wore No. 14 on my team, even if no one else knew why. I learned to dribble with my head up the way Cruyff always did.

I’ll never forget watching Cruyff take apart my team, the Dallas Tornado, with skill, speed and cunning unknown to most NASL outfits. At Ownby Stadium, I watched in rapt astonishment as Cruyff lined up a free kick from just outside the penalty area. Standing right over the ball, he started bickering. He pointed at the wall and gestured in obvious irritation. Then he started yelling at teammates. Then he yelled at the referee about the wall. Then, with all this intentionally created chaos swirling around him, Cruyff lifted his right foot and calmly deposited his free kick into the upper corner. Goal.

Yep, Dutch players. What a joy to watch.

I’ve learned a lot about soccer watching Dutch teams and Dutch systems through the years.

And, like a lot of people today, I’ve learned about disappointment.

Spain is a great team – the best in the world, truly.  But I’ll continue to keep an eye on all the Dutch players sprinkled throughout Europe. And I’ll be watching their Euro 2012 qualifying effort.

As a journalist, you don’t get to be a "fan" per se.  Maintaining professional distance and detachment is important. But since I really don’t cover the soccer in Europe, I’ve allowed myself to be a fan of one team.  I think it’s important to know what it’s like to be a fan, to empathize when things go badly. It seems important to know what it’s like when you read unflattering things about your favorite team, to filter these things through eyes that are less than objective.  I think it’s important to understand what it’s like to feel real disappointment, to relate to readers that way.

Objective me says: The world gains, because Spain won by playing a wonderful, elegant style. I truly appreciate that. And Spain was my pick to win it all (you can look that up), so I do have that.

Personal me says: I suppose I get something from it, because the ability to empathize is an important tool in any journalist's kit.

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