Marco van Basten’s face as he watched his Netherlands squad come apart at the seams on June 25, 2006 World Cup is one you can’t unsee.
It’s the face of a young coach who cannot understand both the loss of control in his squad and one who has no understanding of how they got there. Van Basten’s face — fingers pressed to his lips and eyeballs as large as dinner plates — reflected the devastation for two sides who would each end up with nine men by the end of the night, a far cry from the Dutch philosophy of “totaal voetbal.”
The match, now dubbed “the battle of Nuremberg” set a new World Cup record of four red cards, and equalled another record of 16 yellows. Headlines would later repeatedly use words like “stormy,” but better words would be “bonkers,” “inappropriate,” and “embarrassing.”
The slogan of the 2006 World Cup was “Die Welt zu Gast bei Freunden” — German for “A Time to Make Friends,” and this match was a disconcerting example of what not to do.
By the end, you couldn’t barely remember who had done what in the flurry of scuffling; one marvelled that Russian referee Valentin Ivanov had time to write it all down. Those first few yellow cards he flashed set in motion a veritable Rube Goldberg machine of reactions that only boiled hotter as the minutes ticked on. After Portugal’s Maniche scored the eventual matchwinner in the 23rd minute, the whole thing melted down into a pantomime of football.
Then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter would tell Portugal television following the match, “I consider the referee was not at the same level as the participants, the players. I think there could have been a yellow card for the referee.”
When Ivanov was later asked if he thought he’d made mistakes, he answered, ”I don’t know. I haven’t seen the video yet, but I called the action as I saw it.”
He blamed the Dutch, saying, ”You would expect some dirty tricks from the Portuguese. They are known for time-wasting or hitting from behind. But I was unpleasantly surprised by seeing such things from the Dutch. More so, they were the instigators.”
Ivanov and his insulting remarks faded away after that; technically he retired because he’d reached the mandatory 45-year age limit, but it’s not hard to believe the match ended his career.
Petulance takes over
Ivanov was not helped by thuggish behaviour from the players, complete with dramatic falls and silly challenges. There were ridiculous fouls and pay-back scuffles; Cristiano Ronaldo whined after the match, “Considering what happened, I don’t think this official should referee any more games in the World Cup.”
The cards flowed thick and fast from the start of the match. Mark van Bommel was booked in the second minute — and followed shortly afterwards by compatriot Khalid ‘The Cannibal’ Boulahrouz. ‘The Cannibal’ would later be sent off for a combination of a scrape with Ronaldo and a second half foul against Figo, one that kickstarted a melee.
It wasn’t limited to the Dutch. Match-winner Maniche was booked in the first half as well, followed shortly by Costinha — who decided he wanted an early shower and saw his marching orders in the first half.
It wasn’t just the defenders or tough tackling midfielders getting involved. Even Figo got involved. He headbutted Van Bommel during a scuffle kick-started by Boulahrouz, and was lucky to receive a yellow, with the ref having his back turned to the initial attack.
Deco then completely mistimed tackle his tackle on John Heitinga (or timed it perfectly if he was trying to make a point) sweeping the defender’s legs as he surged down the right wing.
Cue the wide, disbelieving eyes of Van Basten here.
Then a fight erupted as Heitinga lay on the ground. Wesley Sneijder took offence to Petit’s shove on the prone Heitinga and decides to push back. Cue another series of cards.
At this point, one takes a deep breath and hopes there isn’t more. There is.
Portugal’s goalkeeper Ricardo got a yellow for time wasting; this was followed by Portugal’s left-back Nuno Valente for a nasty chop on Robin van Persie. Deco seemingly decided he wanted to join Maniche for some rest and relaxation on the sidelines and was sent off after getting in a stupid tussle with Cocu. To round it all off, Van Bronckhorst was sent off in injury time for a foul on Tiago.
The match was van Basten’s first competitive defeat as the Dutch coach. Luiz Felipe Scolari had been in similarly rich form; he enjoyed a perfect run of 11 unbeaten matches at the time of the match. Having previously led Brazil to the World Cup in 2002, Scolari had the experience and should have had better control of his players as a result.
Neither manager shook hands at the end of the match, although footage shows van Basten attempting it and Luiz Felipe Scolari refusing it.
It isn’t clear from media reports whether anyone — player, coach, or referee — learned lessons from the atrocious behaviour. One hopes that the players looked back at the tapes and felt shame.
What does remain apart from the laundry list of cards, is that look on Van Basten’s face to remind us that football need never be reduced to a schoolyard scrap. There is integrity to uphold and a job to perform and anything else disrespects fans and professionals alike. Otherwise, you get what happened that balmy June night at the Frankenstadion in Nuremberg, Germany.