Friday, June 06, 2008

Ain't That A Kick In The Head

Having spent the last week in The Netherlands, I can testify that Dutch soccer fans are pumped up for the start of the 2008 European Championship as evidenced by prominent displays of orange throughout the country and betting pools floating around the office. But, as a story in today's WSJ notes, this enthusiasm may be sorely tested if the national team finds itself relying on penalty kicks (sub req) to move on:

The Dutch have long been a powerhouse of international soccer, striking fear in the hearts of their opponents with a beautiful free-flowing attacking style dubbed "Total Football."

But the Oranje men, as the team is known for its distinctive shade, have an Achilles' heel that's doomed them to being the eternal losers of major soccer championships. They are terrible at penalty shots, the mechanism used to decide soccer games when the score is tied.

The penalty kick looks easy -- a shot at a target the size of a barn door from 12 yards away. But even the greatest strikers in the world often crumble when their nation's honor is on the line.

Statistically, the Dutch national side is the second-worst team in the world at winning penalty shootouts, after England. In the 1990s the Dutch exited from four major tournaments by botching this most basic of skills. The nadir came in the semifinal of the 2000 European Championships against Italy, when the Dutch missed two penalties awarded for fouls during the game and then flubbed three out of four in the shootout. Alexander Beuker, a 24-year-old fan in Amsterdam, recalls the horror of watching the team's collapse: "I just thought, 'How hard is it to kick a bloody ball?'"

After the game angry fans rampaged through Amsterdam, and Coach Frank Rijkaard wept on the team bus. "It was a national trauma," says Geir Jordet, a sports psychologist at the Norwegian School for Sports Sciences who's worked with the Dutch national teams in recent years to improve penalty performance. "Penalty kicks had just become this huge mountain that the players were incapable of scaling."

The Dutch are good at many things but scaling mountains and penalty kicks are not among them. Here's hoping that the Oranje men find a way to get it done this year, preferably in regular time. Hup, hup Holland.

SP ADDS: Deadspin provides a few more reasons to watch Euro 08. The chance to hear announcers pronounce the names of some of these actual players:

Andreas Ivanschitz (Austria); Jerko Leko (Croatia); Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany); Demy de Zeeuw (Netherlands); Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink (Netherlands); Cosmin Contra (Romania); Razvan Rat (Romania) and finally, Russia's Yuri Zhirkov (say it aloud for full effect).

Ha ha! See, multiculturalism can be fun.

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