Netherlands makes way to final despite clear lack of chemistry
Baseball teams can overcome bad chemistry, soccer demands players all in tune
Netherlands has reached World Cup final despite feud between top two stars
Feud between Dutch stars dates back to training scuffle for Euro 2008 tournament
I recently spoke with a number of baseball people about the concept of "makeup," which is one of those things in sports that everyone thinks both exists and matters, but about which everyone has a different opinion as to how to define it, and how to measure it, and precisely how much it matters. Makeup is essentially the catch-all term scouts use to describe everything about a player that cannot be considered a physical tool, everything that's not, say, the strength of his arm or the keenness of his batting eye. Scouts try to analyze literally hundreds of factors -- a player's intelligence, his work ethic, his family history, his diet, and on and on and on -- that they believe will tell them something about whether he will one day make for a successful major leaguer.
One of the most important makeup-related characteristics for which scouts look is how a player relates to his teammates. One scout told me that in the past he has left the game of a prospect he'd come to see before the first pitch was thrown because he could see that none of his teammates liked or respected him, nor he them, and it is always true in baseball that for a team to be successful, it has to have players who get along and support each other. Until it is not true. "I've been reading a lot about the late-1970s Yankees," a different scout told me. "Those guys couldn't stand each other. They weren't friends off the field. They weren't even friends on the field." Despite featuring bitter rivals like Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson, those Yankees made three straight World Series between 1976 and '78, winning the latter two. "One thing I came away with is that there are so many ways to judge makeup, we don't really have one," said the scout.
I was thinking about the idea of makeup, and particularly about the importance of fielding players who can make nice with their teammates, as I watched the Netherlands play Uruguay in their World Cup semifinal on Tuesday night in Cape Town. It seems to me that the ability to relate positively to one's teammates ought to be even more important in soccer than it is in baseball. Baseball is, at its heart, a solitary sport, and while it might be nice (and generally helpful) for teams to have a "we're all in this together" mentality, much of the time it doesn't really matter. You're going to try to drive in the guy on third whether you like him or not, and hit the cutoff man whether you like him or not, and so on.
Soccer is different -- more fluid, obviously, with far fewer prescribed "right" moves. If a player simply does not like one of his teammates, perhaps he will be less inclined to pass the ball to him, even if making that pass is the best of his alternatives. Perhaps he will desperately want to score instead of the other guy, even if that leads him to take ill-advised shots. On a more abstract level, perhaps it will be more difficult for the teammates to make that subtle, instinctive connection -- that sense of how to position oneself in relation to the other guy, of timing, of knowing exactly when and how the other guy is going to make a run.
This we know: two of Holland's biggest and most important stars, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie, are, at the very least, not friends. It's difficult to know how deep their mutual antipathy runs, because they play soccer, and in soccer members of the media are forbidden from going into the locker room or getting at all close to a team to see what is really going on, and it seems a valued part of the game for coaches and players to see how deeply they can convince the media and fans to not believe things that are, in fact, true, and vice versa. But the Dutch national side has a long history of internecine conflict -- "Total Football" apparently includes cattiness within its totality -- and Sneijder and van Persie might very well despise each other.
It all goes back to at least Euro 2008, when van Persie made a dirty tackle on Sneijder in a training session, an event that then-coach Marco van Basten denied had occurred until he was informed that Sneijder had complained about it on his personal web site. In the quarterfinals of that tournament, against Russia, the two bickered about who would take a crucial, late free kick. Van Persie prevailed, took a shot and missed, and the Oranje was ousted 3-1 in extra time. Then, two Mondays ago in Holland's round of 16 win over Slovakia, van Persie was miffed at being pulled from the match in the 80th minute instead of Sneijder, expressing as much, in no uncertain terms, to coach Bert van Marwijk.
Sneijder, 26, is one of the best all-around players in the world, a crew-cutted bulldog type who can create and capitalize upon chances all by himself, as he has shown time and again in this World Cup: his five goals have him currently tied with Spain's David Villa for the tournament lead, and it's impossible to think that the Netherlands would be playing in Sunday's final without him. Van Persie, also 26, is also a supremely gifted player, often named among the world's best strikers, but his is a very different sort of talent than Sneijder's, one that relies on the service of his teammates to reveal itself. In this tournament, van Persie has been, as they say in soccer circles, useless. Through six matches he has mustered just six shots on goal and has scored only once, in Holland's basically meaningless 2-1 win over Cameroon that completed its opening round.
A portion of van Persie's struggles might be attributable to the state of his health. He managed to play in just 16 games with Arsenal this past season, and suffered an elbow injury during Holland's quarterfinal win over Brazil last Friday. It's difficult to tell how much his injuries have affected him, of course, because injuries are another thing about which soccer teams are as transparent as construction paper. But van Persie, clearly, is not in peak condition.
Still, it was obvious watching the Oranje beat Uruguay on Tuesday night that something else is going on here, and that it might just be related to van Persie's relationship with Sneijder. The two barely even seemed to look at each other on the pitch. When the team celebrated -- after each of their three goals, and after the final whistle -- the two hugged, but only after hugging everybody else, and they were those perfunctory, one-armed hugs, like the way the rest of the Yankees hug A-Rod, and he hugs them. Worse was that they were simply not connecting during play. Sneijder almost never found van Persie with a pass -- just twice against Uruguay, according to official FIFA statistics -- and that continued a tournament-long trend. Through six games Sneijder has passed the ball to van Persie 17 times, a remarkably low number. (By way of contrast, Spain midfielder Xavi had in five games found his striker, Villa, 39 times.) The result was that when van Persie did touch the ball, he seemed so desperate to score, to assert his alpha dog-ness, that he'd do something ill-advised -- such as in the 16th minute, when he received a pass deep behind the Uruguay defenders, wide of the goalmouth, and instead of crossing to one of his many on-rushing and better-positioned teammates decided to go it alone, and eventually lost possession without taking a shot.
It was enough for the Netherlands to defeat Uruguay, a side that was lucky to have even made the semifinals and was competing without one of its two best players (the suspended Luis Suarez), and to extend its international unbeaten streak to 24. After the match, van Persie indirectly downplayed his feud with Sneijder ("If you put a camera in our team hotel, you would find everyone is getting on with each other and making jokes, everyone is working hard to achieve things," he said), thereby continuing that grand soccer tradition of publicly saying things that we can plainly see are not true, or at least completely true. What we can see is that both Sneijder and van Persie want to be the straw that stirs the Oranje, and that at least part of each of them doesn't want the other to be. This isn't Reggie versus Thurman. It's Reggie versus Reggie.
Whichever side Holland draws in the final -- Spain or Germany, to be decided Wednesday night -- will present a far greater challenge than Uruguay. While Sneijder and van Persie don't have to suddenly become "broers," they will likely have to operate in a symbiotic way that they have yet to achieve in this tournament if their nation is to become the eighth to take home the 13 pounds of gold that constitute the World Cup trophy.