Oranje fail to convince, but party hard

Netherlands 2 South Africa 0

The action off the field on Sunday was so much more satisfying than the action on the field as the Netherlands brushed past a wasteful South Africa at the Sydney Football Stadium to tee up a quarter-final clash with Spain. A fortunate goal from point-blank range by Jill Roord and freak shot by Lineth Beerensteyn that went straight through the grasp of goalkeeper Kaylin Swart were enough to seal the win, but the performance and the spectacle, despite the amazing scenes pre-game through Moore Park, was nowhere near the levels we have come to expect in this incredible FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The day started early, gathering along with the Netherlands fans at the very corner of Moore Park next to the light rail, where a special event had been advertised and put on by some forward-thinking souls. A DJ was cranking, the TV cameras were out, everyone got a flag and there was the typical raucous techno music that we associate the orange-clad fans with as an atmosphere of celebration enveloped the growing crowd. This was a chance for the proud Dutch people to come together and celebrate like only they know how, and a conga line to the drilling beat had smiles on everyone’s faces before the march began. Samba beats then accompanied the march to the stadium, a mass of orange through the trees, under a threatening sky but in warm humid conditions. It was a sight to behold.

Detouring via the Captain Cook hotel for something to quench the thirst (okay, breakfast beers), it was then on to the media tribune to take in this fascinating match up. Surely Holland would be way to strong for surprise package South Africa, but nothing was certain, and we have seen plenty of interesting results already.

Great view, even if through unnecessary panes of glass

The pre-game routine went off without a hitch, until the countdown to kick off, and the referee had to restart the game as the crowd roared, presumably for encroachment into the opposition half. The ambience in the stadium was unusual. The thumping music and background sounds giving way to an eerie silence on kick off, perhaps just a bit of background murmur, and I almost put it down to being behind some glass panels, but I wasn’t the only one to comment how quiet it was.

There were a lot of empty seats, although it did fill up more by 15 minutes into the game. By which time, we’d seen some relatively poor football – the South Africa no 13 Bambanani Mbane aiming an aimless punt upfield before playing a second ball to no one in particular. There were a few cries of Holland, Holland, but they quickly ceased. The game was settling in to a contest, the neutrals all secretly going for South Africa as the underdog, and Swart had made her first good save when disaster struck. A stray boot sent a dangerous cross into the air and there was Roord on the line to touch the ball into the empty net almost apologetically to give the Netherlands the lead.

Two major injuries for South Africa blighted the first half, and from one of them, the players congregated by the bench treating it as a drinks break. Four South African players were caught on the sideline as the referee restarted play, which could have been very costly for the African champions. Passes were going straight out and the control of some of the players was lacking; it was quite puzzling and perhaps a sign of fatigue. Swart made a great save with her legs from Danielle van der Donk, then livewire Thembi Kgatlana broke into the Dutch penalty area with multiple stepovers, but couldn’t beat Daphne van Domselaar who pushed the ball away for a corner.

Another stoppage for the injured Mbane allowed the fans to execute the perfectly timed Mexican wave – yes, a lengthy stoppage in play used to full effect; have the crowds finally understood what the Mexican wave is for? The amazing Kgatlana then broke through one-on-one, but van Domselaar saved again, pushing the rebound away too. The crowd was now awake. Kgatlana did a Bergkamp-esque flick to get around her player and was fouled; a great moment that was appreciated by everyone. The referee had been a little harsh on South Africa, and the crowd was increasingly on their side, but 1-0 it stayed at the break.

A long wait kept us guessing for the second half to kick off, the blaring music stopping at the kick off and we reverted to the faint uncomfortable murmur of a sedate crowd. The referee was being strict against players carrrying the ball away from the scene of a foul; perhaps a directive has gone out to nip time-wasting in the bud, and it was a noticeable tactic that kept play moving. Holland did score a second time, but it was offside; everyone in the stadium could see it was offside, the South African players were non-plussed, but play looked to be restarting from halfway until VAR finally intervened. The replay showed just how close it was, but it was offside, not by the country mile we all thought it was.

The crowd remained subdued, but hopeful for an equaliser. That changed all of a sudden, when Beerensteyn broke through. Swart was out of her goal and backpedalling, and it looked an ideal opportunity for a chip. However Beerensteyn shot straight at Swart. In an instant though, the ball had squirmed through her hands and was bouncing towards goal. A brief instant of disbelief came over the stadium before the ball bounced in for the softest of goals ever. What a disaster! That goal effectively changed the game for the worse, just as we were hoping for a goal the other way. Holland pressed for more, but couldn’t find a shooting opportunity, while Kgatlana continued to be a threat right til the end, forcing another good save from van Domselaar with seconds remaining.

In the end 2-0 was probably about right, but the manner of both goals, the injuries in the first half to two key players and the general apathy of the midday crowd made this a less-than-satisfying afternoon at the Sydney Football Stadium. Indeed, the crowd had thinned out alarmingly before the end of the game, and had this been the first game of the tournament that you had seen, you would have been asking what the fuss was about.

Pleased and relieved. Workmanlike.

Heading down into the media pit, there was laughter and smiles in the Netherlands media; what looked like Chelsea jackets turned out to be Dutch national team issue blue jackets, much to my amusement. The beautiful Damaris Egurrola spoke in English, and said that her team got what they needed and got what they wanted. In relation to the fans, she was happy that they created a party wherever they went. Indeed her family all got together to watch. Her team needed to be sharper in the next rounds, but they had played so well against the US. The rest of the players speaking in Dutch sent me into the press conference. Egurolla’s story is an interesting one, and it came up as coach Andries Jonker was quizzed. She qualifies to play for three countries and chose to represent Spain. She applied for a switch though after only a single senior cap, playing all her youth international football for Spain, and has since only represented her mother’s country. The fact that Spain are the next opponents was not lost on the eager media pack, and coach Jonker was clear when he said that she was just like any other member of the team. Of course her knowledge of the Spanish team would come in handy!

Daphne van Domselaar was the player of the match and answered one question in English before reverting to her more comfortable Dutch; she was so happy to be recognised for her efforts today.

Desiree Ellis then came to the stage and thought her South Africa team should have won with their first half performance. A familiar subject arose regarding the lack of a professional league and the lack of investment in women’s football in South Africa. This could easily have been the Canadian team in the press conference. When asked what she would like her team to be remembered for at this world cup, she had two points. Firstly, this was a team that lit up the World Cup. Secondly, this was a team with incredible spirit and wonderful singing! She reiterated that they could and should have won today. When assked about player payments, she said she was 100% confident that the players would get their payments for the World Cup, despite all the conjecture that has gone before.

If press conferences had a round of applause at the end, this one would have been prolongued. Instead, she disappeared quietly through the side door and that was the end.

And that was the end of Sydney Football Stadium’s involvement in the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023. All games in Sydney are now at the soulless Stadium Australia. Today wasn’t a good example of a fervent crowd though; what we need on Monday night is an intimidating arena that gives Australia the edge against Denmark. Think Socceroos v Uruguay or the Asian Cup final. How exciting is this going to be? Bring it on!

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