NUREMBERG, Germany - Elbows and cleats flying. Players pushing and shoving. Coaches jawing and sniping. Yellow and red cards whipped out as if the referee was having a sale. Even a couple of brief skirmishes on the field.
So much for the beautiful game.
Portugal and the Netherlands got a year ahead of themselves Sunday night. Rugby’s World Cup is NEXT summer. This was supposed to be two traditionally strong nations playing soccer’s more genteel version, in the greatest spectacle in all of sports.
Oh, it was a spectacle all right. Sixteen yellow cards in all, tying a record for a World Cup match, and four reds, setting a tournament mark.
“It’s a pity that in the second half, very little football was played,” Dutch coach Marco van Basten said. “Also a pity that a referee in such an important game should take decisions in this way.”
Referee Valentin Ivanov did look as if he was trying to fill his World Cup card quota in one match. But that doesn’t excuse the boorish behavior — by both teams.
Portugal has a long history of beating up on the Dutch, winning six of the teams’ 10 meetings. It’s been 15 years since the Netherlands had a victory against Portugal. Add to that the pressure of trying to get a spot in the quarterfinals, and the game was bound to be somewhat physical.
There were hard tackles at both ends of the field, dives worthy of the Olympic springboard, and pushing and shoving more suitable for American football. That kind of nonsense is hardly a new thing at this World Cup, with players acting as if they’ve been mortally wounded anytime an opponent gets within 3 feet of them.
But these teams plummeted to a new low in the second half. Forget the World Cup slogan of “A Time to Make Friends.” A time to mediate would have been more like it.
“We showed we didn’t want any problems,” Portugal midfielder Maniche insisted.
Portugal captain Luis Figo — no innocent himself with replays showing he headbutted Mark Van Bommel — was running with the ball when Boulahrouz elbowed him in the face in the 64th minute. Figo grabbed for his nose as he fell to the ground, and there were plenty of words exchanged by players from both teams.
Just when things appeared to be calming down, Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder came running in and shoved Portutgal’s Petit. Even 8 year olds playing in rec leagues know you can’t do that.
“Many times the Dutch pushed the Portuguese and there was retribution,” Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said. “It was a difficult game.”
And it wasn’t done yet.
In the 78th minute, Deco lolly-gagged with the ball so long that Phillip Cocu didn’t bother waiting for the referee. He reached in and tried to grab it away, setting off another shovefest.
While the referee gave Deco his second yellow card, players yapped at one another. On the sideline, Scolari was livid, coming almost onto the field and yelling at someone, presumably Van Basten.
“It’s a typical game for those who don’t know the South American game, which are very rough,” said Scolari, a Brazilian. “It’s a war, and today was very similar.”
By the time the slapfight was over, both teams were down to nine players and Portugal had a 1-0 victory that sent it to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1966.
When the final whistle sounded, the Dutch lay flat on the ground, while the Portuguese players celebrated as if they’d won the final. When a camera crew trailing the jubilant players got too close to Sneijder, Mark van Bommel yanked angrily at their cord.
But with the game over, so was the fight. Though they skipped the traditional exchange of jerseys, the Dutch and Portuguese eventually got around to congratulating one another. Tiago, Fernando Meira and Paulo Ferreira even gave Arjen Robben a hand getting up, giving the Dutch forward’s head a friendly rub.
“All I can think of today is the heroic victory, this marvelous victory,” Scolari said.
His joy might be short-lived. England is up next in Saturday’s quarterfinal, and Portugal will have to play without both Deco and Costinha.
Good luck with that.
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