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Inside Soccer


The Dutch have found a new way to succeed: by enjoying the game

When defender Frank De Boer of the Netherlands unspooled a long,
arcing pass toward teammate Dennis Bergkamp last Saturday in
sun-baked Marseilles, the resulting goal was less an example of
sublime art than an affirmation of their country's return to the
soccer elite. Two years ago no one could have foreseen the
90th-minute goal that defeated Argentina 2-1, least of all
Bergkamp, the rejuvenated forward who resembles the rock star

The win put the Oranje into the World Cup semifinals for the
first time since 1978, and it also immortalized Bergkamp, who
had been known mainly for his steadfast refusal to travel by
airplane and his lackluster performance with the Italian club
Inter Milan from 1993 to '95. While his fear of flying
persists--the Dutch players arrived in Marseilles by train,
thank you--his stock has skyrocketed since he was transferred to
Arsenal in 1995. Last season he was the player of the year in
England's Premier League.

Holland coach Guus Hiddink credits Bergkamp's revival to
discovering a joy in soccer that runs counter to the Dutch
temperament. "In our country it's dangerous to tell players to
enjoy the game, because a lot of people will say, 'Oh, they're
getting nonchalant,'" Hiddink said last Saturday. "But if they
are enjoying the game, they play like they should. Right now
Dennis is enjoying the game."

So, too, is Edgar Davids, the Juventus midfielder whose future
with the national team once appeared hazier than an Amsterdam
hash bar. During the '96 European championships, Hiddink sent
Davids home after he alleged that the coach favored the team's
white players. Davids rejoined the team for Cup qualifying after
apologizing to Hiddink, and his nascent maturity showed when he
kept quiet after riding the bench in Holland's Cup opener
against Belgium. Last week Davids was the player of the
tournament, scoring the game-winner late in a second-round, 2-1
win over Yugoslavia and owning the midfield against Argentina.

According to midfielder Ronald De Boer, Frank's twin, the team's
newfound harmony can be traced to two speeches by Hiddink--one
before the start of qualifying and the other on the eve of the
tournament--in which he outlined what Ronald calls the rules.
"The most important rule is that we must play with 22 players,
not 11," Ronald says. "If you're not in the starting 11, then
you can be disappointed, but don't react to the other players.
Be positive. Everyone knows there's only one goal, and that's to
have the gold thing in our hands."

In the postgame interview room last Saturday, Davids
accidentally bumped into Hiddink, who turned and threw his arm
around the midfielder's thick shoulders. The two men smiled,
revealing a joy in soccer that seemed perfectly natural, if
imperfectly Dutch.

Italy's Curse

Luigi Di Biagio was wiping away tears a half hour after the
misfire. "I'm sorry," he said last Friday, after his penalty
kick had hit the crossbar, sending France past Italy in the
quarterfinals. "This is the worst feeling ever." Such sadness
was nothing new to Italy, which has exited the last three Cups
on penalties. "When you go out this way, you think it's not the
right way to settle a game," said midfielder Roberto Di Matteo.

Yet even in the wake of the horrid '94 final, a scoreless draw
decided by penalties, FIFA has done little to resolve a similar
situation should it unfold in Sunday's championship game. The
most obvious solution would be to keep playing until someone
scores. When asked about that possibility last week, FIFA head
spokesman Keith Cooper looked as if he had swallowed sour milk.
"Impossible," he said. "You would be putting an unbelievable
physical burden on the players. Penalty kicks have to be the
ultimate tiebreaker."

Cooper also strongly disagreed with Italian coach Cesare
Maldini's postgame characterization of penalty kicks as a
lottery. "Penalties still test the three qualities needed in a
footballer: technique, physical conditioning and mental
conditioning," Cooper said.

Nonsense. How would that explain an exquisitely skilled team
like Italy losing on penalty kicks in three consecutive Cups? Or
England going out the same way in two Cups this decade and in
the '96 European championship? Last Friday, Maldini offered what
was surely a better reason. "It seems like we might be cursed,"
he said.

U.S. Coaching Vacancy

If U.S. Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg follows
through on his intention to hire a foreigner as the national
team coach, he'll be making a mistake. What more could D.C.
United coach Bruce Arena do to deserve the job? He's the Vince
Lombardi of MLS, having won the league's first two
championships, and he has shown he can develop young players
both with United (Jaime Moreno, Eddie Pope, Tony Sanneh) and at
Virginia (five NCAA titles in a six-year stretch). Arena's
single foray into international soccer was as coach of the '96
U.S. Olympic team, which went 1-1-1 but didn't escape the first

So far, the foreign coaches believed to be candidates for the
national team job are unimpressive. Former U.S. coach Bora
Milutinovic may have alienated even more American players than
the recently ousted Steve Sampson. Portugal's Carlos Queiroz
couldn't qualify his own country for World Cup '94, so why would
anyone think he could help the U.S.? Former Brazil coach Carlos
Alberto Parreira became the first coach in memory to be fired
during the World Cup when Saudi Arabia dumped him last month.
What's more, while Arena was building an MLS powerhouse, Queiroz
went 12-12 as coach of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in '96
and Parreira went 13-19 with the MetroStars the following year.

The debate has centered on whether the U.S. should hire a
foreigner because of his international experience or a
supposedly inferior American because of his nationality. Here's
a different take: Arena is the best man for the job--period.

Croatia's Upset

In hindsight Croatia's shocking 3-0 tour de force against
Germany in the quarterfinals last Saturday shouldn't have been
so startling. Croatia's roster includes four players from
Yugoslavia's storied 1987 under-20 world champion team and nine
starters who perform in one of the world's top four leagues
(Italy, England, Spain or Germany). Moreover, Germany was the
oldest team in the Cup (average age: 30.3), and its lineup had
hardly changed since Euro '96. In that tournament Germany
eliminated Croatia 2-1 in the quarterfinals. "We learned a lot
from that game," said Croatian defender Slaven Bilic last
Saturday. "They have only one creative player, Thomas Hassler.
If you stop him, you only have to deal with the flanks, and we
concentrated on them very well tonight."

In fact, the truly stunning development in Lyons was the
Germans' uncharacteristic churlishness after the match. They
targeted their wrath at Norwegian referee Rune Pedersen, who had
ejected German defender Christian Worns in the 40th minute for a
bone-rattling foul on striker Davor Suker. "He is responsible
for this picture of misery," German defender Lothar Matthaus
said of Pedersen. Prominent in that locker room picture was
Worns, who bawled ceaselessly despite being consoled by German
chancellor Helmut Kohl. "It's a joke," Worns muttered later.

In a Cup that had been short on surprises until last weekend,
Croatia's win may have signaled the beginning of a new world
order in soccer. Three countries with a combined eight world
championships (Argentina, Italy and Germany) lost in the
quarters to three countries that have never raised the trophy
(the Netherlands, France and Croatia, respectively). Suker sized
up the moment when he compared Croatia's victory with its loss
to Germany two years ago. "It was David meeting Goliath then,"
he said. "Now, who is who?"

COLOR PHOTO: LIONEL CIRONNEAU/ASSOCIATED PRESS SIDE EFFECTS A charged-up Davids (right) outdueled Argentina's Matias Almeyda. [Edgar Davids and Matias Almeyda in game]

COLOR PHOTO: ROSS KINNAIRD/ALLSPORT TOE-TO-TOE Suker (left) and newcomer Croatia were not in awe of Germany's Matthaus. [Davor Suker and Lothar Matthaus in game]