France, 1998: Love at first sight

I was seven years old. My heroes were Julio Ricardo Cruz and Jerzy Dudek, the stars of my dad’s favorite football team Feyenoord. That summer they were replaced by new heroes: Dennis Bergkamp, Zinédine Zidane, Michael Owen. But one man stood out even among them. When he received the ball I shuddered, because anything was possible when he had the ball. Every adult told me, when watching his team Brazil play: “That’s the best football player in the world.” In hindsight, he was even well on his way to claim the title of ‘Best football player ever’. Ronaldo. The real one.

But I only really got to know the Best Football Player In The World pretty late into the tournament. Before facing Ronaldo, the Netherlands had to beat lesser teams. Wikipedia tells me we placed first in a group with Mexico, Belgium and South-Korea. I can’t remember any of that. In the round of 16 we played Yugoslavia, of whom I remember the fearsome striker Savo Milosevic. But apparently my memory is confusing that match with the one at Euro 2000, because in ’98 Milosevic was an unused substitute.

My first undisputed memory is from the quarter final: Holland vs Argentina. Even if I would have been two years old, I don’t think I could have ever forgotten that match. Where and with whom I watched it, I don’t know – probably with my dad and younger brother. Maybe some uncles and nephews were there. But the match itself feels like it happened yesterday. “DENNIS BERGKAMP, DENNIS BERGKAMP, DENNIS BERGKAMP! OOOOHHH!” Of course, we didn’t have that commentary because we didn’t listen to Jack van Gelder on the radio. But watching Frank de Boer’s long pass, the first touch, the seemingly simple cutback past Argentina’s best defender, Roberto Ayala, and the perfect shot with the outside of his boot… Watching that felt exactly like DENNIS BERGKAMP, DENNIS BERGKAMP, DENNIS BERGKAMP! OOOOHHH! Van Gelder’s screams perfectly captured the feeling of being a seven-year-old boy definitively and unconditionally falling in love with a sport.

DENNIS BERGKAMP proved to be the killing blow for the mighty Argentinians, with their Batistuta, their Verón and their Ortega. I remember the feeling after that game. If we can beat them, then surely, we can beat anybody? We have Bergkamp and Patrick Kluivert up front, a midfield with Phillip Cocu and Edgar Davids in their prime, De Boer and Jaap Stam in defence and Edwin van der Sar in goal. Against Argentina, Clarence Seedorf and Marc Overmars didn’t even make the starting IX. Who can beat us?

That’s how the Trojans must have felt from behind their walls, when the Greek armies were at their doorstep. Dennis Bergkamp was our Hector, who up until that moment had defeated all his challengers with great show of force. But in the semifinal we were up against a mythical hero who appeared simply unbeatable. We faced Achilles long before his fatal weakness was known (his knee, not his heel). We faced The Best Football Player In The World: Ronaldo.

I vividly remember how scared I was of that man. I’ve never since experienced such a feeling of fear mixed with fascination and admiration while watching a football player. Ronaldo was a predator: always lurking, always ready to strike. If Stam or De Boer let him out of their sights for just a moment, if he was given just a little bit of space to roam freely, I immediately saw our chances for glory turn to dust. For the adults had told me that you should never give Ronaldo even an inch of space, because then he would be deadly.

But, as a unit, Stam, De Boer, Cocu and Davids managed quite well to keep Achilles and his Patroklos, the almost equally magnificent Rivaldo, quiet. Yes, Ronaldo scored a goal, but you knew he would in advance. Kluivert’s equalizer just before full time cancelled it out. Then, I first experienced the extreme tension of extra time followed by a penalty shootout. And I first experienced bitter disappointment, when Cocu and Ronald de Boer misfired.

The matches after that are a blur in my memory. My parents probably didn’t let me watch the other semifinal, Croatia vs France, because it was past my bedtime. Following that match, ‘Oranje’ lost to the Croatians in the battle for third place, but I barely remember that either. I think I also wasn’t allowed to watch the final, because I have a vague memory of watching the highlights the next morning and being surprised that Brazil hadn’t won. Not Ronaldo but Zidane reached the peak of Mount Olympus. Ronaldo even played poorly, I was told. Only in recent years I found out about the mysterious food poisoning he had suffered before the game.

But none of that mattered much to me. I was in love. I still liked Cruz and Dudek and their ill-fated attempts to become Dutch champions, but from that moment on they didn’t give me butterflies like before. When Feyenoord won the UEFA Cup three years later it was the most beautiful football experience in my life, but even then I knew it would be eclipsed by my one true love. My only real lover in football: the ultimate tournament, the World Cup. Four long years I had to wait before I could see her again…

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