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Can Africa beat the Dutch?

Joe Opio/The New Vision/Twenty Ten

Location: Johannesburg, South Africa

The Dutch national team took part in its first public training session in Africa at Witwatersrand University on Wednesday. Bert van Marwijk’s team must have been delighted by the large mixed crowd of Dutch and South African fans that rolled out the red-carpet to receive them.

It is heart warming that Total Football, the celebrated Dutch philosophy that revolutionized the beautiful game, is still alive and kicking. One can’t help but wonder, though: What would it take for an African team to beat the Dutch?

Cameroonian coach Paul Le Guen knows that taking three points, or at least sharing the spoils with Holland, could go a long way in securing his team a knockout berth. In that respect alone, the Frenchman will be relieved that the 2010 Dutch version of Total Football isn’t as pure, nor is it as invincible, as its 1974 vintage. Van Marwijk is no Rinus Michels and neither is Robin van Persie, the next coming of Johann Cruyff.

Still, like their 1974 compatriots, this Dutch team displayed sufficient striking firepower to ensure some sleepless nights for Le Guen and his backroom staff. Arjen Robben was not present at Witwatersrand; the Bayern genius is still to rejoin his team mates after an injury he suffered against Hungary. But there was no denying the offensive star-dust glittering from his team.

Wesley Sneijder, the architect of Inter Milan’s Champions League triumph just last month, was central to proceedings at Witwatersrand as van Marwijk took his troops through their paces. The diminutive dynamo sprayed passes left, right and centre, all the while displaying the kind of vision and awareness that makes him the nerve centre of van Marwijk’s operation.

Sneijder’s puppet-master routine was supplemented by Rafael van der Vaart, his partner-in-crime and the man expected to become the team’s creative director in the absence of Robben.

At Witwatersrand, Van Marwijk proved how he intends van der Vaart to operate by handing him the green bib during an impromptu eleven-a-side that had the crowd on its feet.

Cameroon fans hope that the Indomitable Lions had scouts paying attention. Stifling the slippery playmaker’s imagination will be an ingredient in any Cameroonian recipe for success. That imagination was clear for all to appreciate as Van der Vaart’s green bib granted him a neutral role that saw him spearhead attacks when one team had possession and initiate counter-attacks for the opposing team when the side in possession conceded it.

At the receiving end of Van der Vaart’s through-balls was Robin van Persie, the Arsenal hit man expected to forage as a long-ranger in Van Marwijk’s 4-2-3-1 formation.

The trio of Van der Vaart, van Persie and Sneijder had the crowd shrieking itself hoarse. The pervasive vuvuzelas led to a hilarious moment when a sustained blast of the air-horns prompted van Marwijk and Sneijder to gesture to the crowd to tone it down a tad.

Needless to add, the excited fans blew the vuvuzelas even louder in acknowledgment.

Given that this was a mixed crowd with hundreds of Dutch and South African fans, those shrieks of excitement aimed at van Marwijk and his three musketeers can only mean that the Dutch will have no trouble winning themselves new African fans once the tournament starts.

Ibrahim Afellay, Ryan Babel, Eljero Elia and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, all accomplished forwards in their club colours, and will be raring to continue the charm offensive when Van Marwijk hands them the chance. The sinuous nature of Holland’s fluid, forward-centric system should send a shiver down the spines of Cameroonian defenders.

The Dutch attack with pace, and given the creaking limbs that pack Cameroon’s backline, this already seems like a mismatch. With error-prone veteran Rigobert Song meant to shackle van Persie and the ageing Geremi tasked with keeping the Van der Vaart under surveillance, a massacre could yet be on the cards. That will only be averted if Alexander Song and Jean Makoun can smother Sneijder and deprive the Dutch frontline of regular service.

Not that all hope is lost for the West Africans though. A team is only as strong as its weakest link and the Dutch defence appeared vulnerable enough. Maarten Stekelenburg looked competent in training. But despite his large frame, the 27-year-old provides neither the same insurance nor experience Edwin van der Sar would have offered had he been lured out of international retirement.

And if pace is van Marwijk’s most lethal asset in attack, it converts into a liability in the Dutch rearguard, something Cameroonians should exploit. Even at his peak, team captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst was never the next Usain Bolt. Now a veteran, whatever remains of his acceleration will be tested by Samuel Eto’o when the Cameroonian livewire wanders to the left flank before inevitably cutting in.

In the centre, the 6ft1 Joris Mathijsen is imposing. Still, the aerial threat posed by either of Achille Webo and Mohamadou Idrissou should make him earn his match bonus.

Mathijsen’s partner, John Heitinga approached his duties at Witwatersrand with the same take-no-prisoners approach that has become his global trademark. But much like Mark van Bommel, the man posted in front of him, Heitinga, is reckless in the tackle. He is a free-kick magnet and a red card waiting to happen.

Should the Cameroonians tempt Heitinga and van Bommel into the occasional rash tackles both Dutch defenders have been known to indulge in, the Indomitable Lions could secure an opportunity or two to press their advantage while putting their set-piece expertise to good use.

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