"In the second half we didn't play football, it was only chaos." This was how former Netherlands coach Marco van Basten reacted in the immediate aftermath of a game that took place ten years ago at the World Cup in 2006.
Portugal versus the Netherlands was set up to be one of the stand-out fixtures in the Round of 16 at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ – two footballing superpowers with ambitions of winning the tournament coming face to face. The contest did indeed go down in history but for completely different reasons: the match was so violent and uncompromising that Russian referee Valentin Ivanov was forced to brandish 16 yellows and four reds, a record for cards shown in a single match at a FIFA tournament.
Rafael van der Vaart, one of the five Dutch players who received a booking in the game that came to be known as the Battle of Nuremberg, has since admitted that he "had never experienced such a dirty match".
The tone of the evening was established as early as the second minute when Mark van Bommel was shown a yellow card for foul play. Just five minutes later, Khalid Boulahrouz went into the referee's notebook for a foul on Cristiano Ronaldo, who was later forced off with injury before half-time. An intense atmosphere dominated the first half, and shortly before the interval Costinha picked up a second yellow for handball. Three more expulsions followed after the break – Boulahrouz, Deco and Giovanni van Bronckhorst all going in for an early shower – and as a result the winning goal from Portugal's Maniche was far from the most discussed aspect of the tie.
"It was a tight match that was sometimes too rough," said Luiz Felipe Scolari after the final whistle, "but it was also a nice game with chances for both sides. For me as the national coach of Portugal, it was the first time in three and half years that two of my players were sent off."
Portugal defender Fernando Meira also offered his thoughts on the encounter: "It was like a brawl which amused the players and the fans. I will never forget the pressure and emotions."
Ivanov, the man in the middle attempting to keep a lid on it all, was 44 back then, and it was his last appearance as an official in an international fixture. It also turned out to be one of the most difficult. "You can definitely say that this was the toughest match of my career," he admitted in an interview to FIFA.com a decade afterwards. "I had officiated many games both in Russia and on the international stage and had dealt with loads of different situations. However, the environment I found myself in during that game was unlike any other I’d experienced."
FIFA.com: When you were preparing for the contest, did you have any idea it was going to be this bad-tempered?
Valentin Ivanov: I was preparing for an extremely high-pressure game. The Netherlands and Portugal were both teams that had set themselves the target of winning the tournament, so defeat in the Round of 16 was out of the question for both of them.
What do you think caused such aggressiveness from both teams?
I'd be interested in finding that out myself, I'd like to ask the players what exactly got them so fired up. You do get moments in games when your decisions can inflame the situation, for example, giving the players more reason to fight among themselves. However, in this scenario I don't think the atmosphere in the game was connected to my decisions.
What was the most difficult moment for you?
I will only say, that it's really difficult to oversee these matches in an ideal manner. You have to adapt as the game pans out and try to neutralise the situation.
What was it like being in the middle of these confrontations?
I had a lot of experience and I understood that in such a pressurised environment it's particularly important not to go too far in one direction, so nobody can say that one team won because of the referee's mistakes. If you show a card to a player from one team, you have to show a card to another player from the other team for a similar situation. And to a certain extent I managed to do this. I didn't have any time to worry about anything. I was only thinking about having to keep my wits about me and pay close attention to the decisions that I had to make. Plus, I knew that it was going to end soon, the game wasn't going to last forever.
What happened after the final whistle?
The most surprising thing is that as soon as the match ended, the players calmed down as if nothing had happened. I blew the final whistle and there was silence. Show's over, thanks for coming! All the players were completely calm and nobody had any complaints. Even the players I had sent off were calm. Another surprise for me was when I chatted to fans in the airport on the way home. Can you believe that many of them enjoyed the game, in spite of the violence, and they were disappointed it didn't go to extra time?
What memories do you have from the 2006 FIFA World Cup and this game in particular?
Just like the teams, referees aren't afforded the luxury of fully soaking up the festival atmosphere that the fans experience at a World Cup. Unlike the supporters, the officials feel nerves and are constantly thinking about the matches and their jobs. However, anybody who has anything to do with football dreams of finding themselves at a World Cup: it's the apex of their career. So I can say that I'm happy and proud that I managed to achieve this.