South Africa, 2010: Casillas’ toe

My World Cup obsession hadn’t lessened since 2006, but in the summer of 2010, I wasn’t able to let that obsession run rampant. I was planning on keeping another notebook, but I didn’t have time. I had graduated high school, had just returned from a party holiday in Spain to mark the occasion and, was getting ready to go to university.

This was the last World Cup I would experience in the house I grew up in, on the couch with my dad and brothers during every match that was even slightly interesting. Together, we watched Siphiwe Tshabalala score an amazing goal in South Africa’s opening game against Mexico. We saw the North Korean XI cry their hearts out during their national anthem, before they fought bravely but hopelessly against Brazil. We were our usual coach potato selves when the Netherlands beat Keisuke Honda’s Japan 1-0.

But, unlike in 2006, I also watched a lot of matches somewhere else. When I could see my exam results for Arts class, Mister Reijven was streaming Greece-Nigeria on the wall of the classroom. Oranje’s comfortable 2-0 win against Denmark I watched at a friend’s house, who had put his TV in the garden. And when we won 1-2 against Cameroon (with Eto’o still the star player), I was at a bar in Zwolle (at the other side of the country). If I would have wanted to fill another notebook, it would have been challenging.

But the 2010 World Cup was mostly a return to the ‘Oranjegevoel’ (a feeling of love for the Dutch team) as I had last felt it in 1998. Unlike in the intervening years, this time we once again had inspiring players and moments to be proud of. Instead of DENNIS BERGKAMP we had Sneijder scoring a header against Brazil, who we did manage to defeat this time. And instead of fearing that one Achilles back then, that Best Football Player In The World, this time we were scared of The Best Football Team In The World: Spain.

Before we would meet them, we had to make our way through Slovakia, Brazil and Uruguay to reach the final. And by making our way through, I mean literally. We had transformed in the other direction than the Germans had. Die Mannschaft played beautifully, with gifted players like Thomas Müller, Mesut Özil and Lukas Podolski, while we just defended and destroyed. We had some great talent, we called them the Big Four: Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart. But their genius was overshadowed by the discipline and aggression of Nigel de Jong, Mark van Bommel and Dirk Kuyt.

At the bar with a beer in our hands, this didn’t matter to me and my 16 million countrymen. Our hatred for Germany had faded away and some of us even admitted that we now played ‘like Germans’. At the bar, nothing much mattered anyway. There had to be beer, nobody should walk in front of the TV screen, and we had to score more than those other ones. After the final whistle, the party started.

Not long beforehand I had broken my brain on my Maths exams, but now all the complexity of life had been reduced to just three variables. The amount of beer. The visibility of the screen. The scoreline. Life can be so simple sometimes.

Still, this World Cup to me was more than just a repeat of 1998 lived in the body of a near-adult. Because my obsession from 2006 was still there. Apart from the Dutch, I also closely watched nearly every other team. There were thrilling matches, like Germany-England (4-1) with Frank Lampard’s controversial disallowed goal, or Uruguay-Ghana (which Uruguay won on penalties) starring Luis Suárez in his breakout role as an international super villain. Plus, we maybe saw the best football ever played on a World Cup.

What the Spaniards did was well known and by that time analyzed into oblivion, but nobody had figured out what to do about it. When Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets started passing around, it was nearly impossible to recover the ball. And they had Cesc Fàbregas and David Silva on the bench. Up front, David Villa and Fernando Torres were two of the most cold-blooded strikers of this century, while in defence they were magnificent, with Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos. In goal, they had the best goalkeeper of that moment: Iker Casillas. With patience and precision, the Spaniards smothered all opposition. Even the swinging Germans were no match.

But we, we were different. We weren’t Germany. We played in an ugly, pragmatic fashion. We didn’t play football, we kicked you in half. De Jong’s karate kick against Xabi Alonso’s chest perfectly encapsulated our World Cup. By no objective criteria we would have deserved to win that final. But the whole of the Netherlands had become one big bar, where we clenched our beers while trying to get a good view of the screen. Only one thing still mattered to us: we’re Holland, so we deserve to win.

Casillas’ toe prevented Robben’s goal; Iniesta handed Spain their victory. Half an hour later, a bunch of teenagers swept up the broken glass, mopped the floors and put away all the orange decorations. We had lost another final…

Despite this disastrous ending, this might have been my nicest World Cup experience. After a period of obsession, I had married my one true love and this was our honeymoon. Not a care in the world. It took me years to realize that even then our relationship was quite unhealthy, but I was blinded by love. I could have seen the South African World Cup’s rough edges, but I didn’t want to see them. In between my exams and my start at university, I wanted a summer without fuss. I just wanted to enjoy a nice tournament. South Africa 2010 turned out to be the last time I succeeded at that.

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