• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Best losers

Get real - a World Cup win matters more than how you play the game.

For a few weeks, twin interests in football's World Cup ensured being a sports-obsessed "Dutch Kiwi" living in New Zealand was just about as good as it gets.

While the All Whites were ruffling reputations, achieving way beyond most sane people's expectations, the Netherlands - or Holland, as so many Dutchies still refer to the country - were on an irresistible run all the way to their third appearance in a World Cup final.

In the end Spain's Andres Iniesta destroyed Dutch hearts and minds, derailing the ride in the last few minutes of the tournament. With one strike he provided la Roja with their first World Cup win in their debut appearance in the final while the Oranje were left with the grim reminder they'd failed in three finals after disappointments in 1974 and 1978.

The loss was galling for all Dutch supporters, not the least because of English referee Howard Webb's influence on the outcome through his own ineptitude. It was also unpalatable to hear the mindless ranting before, during and after the final about Holland's tactics.

Some observers saw it as something akin to a crime against humanity that Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk and his players hatched a combative game plan patently designed to grind the talented Spaniards into submission. There was much tut-tutting from the moral right, who made appropriate noises about the Dutch approach being at odds with the way the game should be played; they were the same people blathering on about the best team - Spain - winning.

This business about playing sport the so-called right way and the need for the best team to prevail really is so unrealistic in this age. On a stage like football's World Cup final, winning really is all that matters; "whatever it takes" is a reasonable mantra with so much hanging on the result of such major events. There has, after all, been nothing too pretty or memorable about the way successive Rugby World Cup finals have been played.

Where style is and must be a secondary consideration now, it used to be the priority, and the distinguishing feature of Dutch football teams in years gone by. It even became a bit tiresome to see the constant references during this World Cup to the "total football" philosophy the Netherlands were known for previously. It made them popular, but they lacked the killer edge in defence needed to overcome the best opposition; they had it in 2010, undoing Brazil, and all but repeating the feat against Spain.

Van Marwijk might have been speaking for coaches in any sport with his comment: "You play a match to win. I would have loved to have won that match [the final against Spain], even with not so beautiful football." Honesty at last, not to mention common sense.

The All Blacks would do well to subscribe to the same formula. For them winning the Rugby World Cup 2011 won't be a matter of how, but must. New Zealand rugby union's constituents crave and demand victory by any means.

The same was true of the Netherlands at the World Cup, the best football nation never to win the World Cup. It would have been one of the great triumphs if their plan had worked; sporting romantics wouldn't agree, but sometimes they really do need to get a grip on reality.