Flying Dutch stun the Azzurri
Two decades have passed since the Netherlands claimed their solitary major trophy to date, as the iconic genius of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten spearheaded the Dutch charge to the 1988 UEFA European Championship in Germany. Twenty years later, the side now coached by Van Basten has awakened realistic dreams of a second continental triumph for the men in orange.
The former striker's team made a stunning start to their UEFA EURO 2008 campaign with a 3-0 victory over FIFA World Cup™ holders Italy, producing a glittering display of attacking football to hand the Squadra Azzurra their heaviest-ever European Championship defeat. The Netherlands' flexible and inventive play evoked strong memories of voetbal totaal, the much-venerated Total Football of the 70s, as the 30,777 crowd at the new Wankdorf stadium in Bern repeatedly rose to hail a display full of skill and endeavour. On this form, the Dutch rate as one of the leading candidates for the continental trophy.
Real Madrid schemer Wesley Sneijder was arguably the outstanding player on the night, providing an assist and netting his side's sublime second goal to hand himself a perfect 24th birthday present. "I never dared hope we'd start the tournament like this. The first group fixture is always important. We played very well and deserved the victory. We'll be confident after winning. We showed how much potential we have, but it's not over yet," commented Sneijder, named man of the match afterwards.
Van Basten was understandably delighted with his team's gala display. "I'm proud," the coach declared, "proud we've beaten the world champions, and proud of the way we did it. ." However, the former striker moved swiftly to dampen any premature euphoria. "All we've done is win a match, the first in our group. Obviously, I'm overjoyed we've seen off such strong opponents, but that was only a first step. We'll start preparing for our other games against France and Romania, and hope we can repeat the performance we've given today."
While the Dutch will now be brimming with confidence, the pressure on the Italians after their heaviest defeat in 25 years is immense. "It's a black day for us. We've let in silly goals, we were very naïve at times, and we've paid for it," acknowledged coach Roberto Donadoni. The absence of injured captain Fabio Cannavaro turned out a profound loss, as the poorly-organised Italian back four often appeared in danger of being overrun. "We have to apologise to our fans. That was our worst performance in the last 12 years," raged keeper Gianluigi Buffon.
Donadoni turned his attention to the future. "We won't give up. We have to recover physically and mentally. The players have to put this defeat behind them and learn from their mistakes. The draw between France and Romania was good for us, but it also shows Romania are a strong team and will be difficult opponents." The world champions are determined to make amends for their opening nightmare when they take to the field again on Friday. "The Romania game is now a matter of pride," commented Buffon.