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Goal Net Is Neverland for Netherlands

TIMES STAFF WRITER

That was 25 years of Dutch soccer wrapped up in one exasperating 90-minute package Saturday night at Stade de France--so much skill, so much promise, and so very, very little to show for it at the end of the day.

The big Oranj tease opened another World Cup with all of the Netherlands in a dither over the prospects of the month ahead, with Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars and Clarence Seedorf poised to finally deliver what Johan Cruyff, Ruud Gullitt, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard never could.

Instead, Bergkamp began the World Cup on the bench and on a rain-drenched night in Paris, the Dutch slipped, slid and fell flat on their aspirations, tossing away prime scoring opportunities like confetti and failing to score against border rival Belgium--which, disappointing no one back home, failed to score as well.

The 0-0 draw had Belgian players hugging and laughing in delirious relief while the Dutch trudged off the field with heads bowed, facing a long sleepless night in Paris--unless they decided to try counting shanked shots on goal.

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The Netherlands outshot Belgium, 23-6, and put seven shots on net to only two for Belgium, a team it had beaten twice, by a cumulative score of 6-1 during World Cup qualification. The Dutch offense also entered this match on a roll--scoring 10 goals in its last two tuneups--but wound up so thoroughly frustrated that striker Patrick Kluivert threw an elbow into Belgian defender Lorenzo Staelens’ chest to draw an 81st-minute red card.

Yet, even down a man, Holland generated two more scoring chances. In the 88th minute, captain Frank De Boer uncorked a 30-yard blast that had Belgian goalie Filip De Wilde scrambling back to palm over the crossbar. And on the ensuing corner kick, Philip Cocu flicked a slicing volley that beat De Wilde--only to have fullback Eric Deflandre, stationed inside the right post, clear the shot off the line.

The game, by all rights, should have been decided in the seventh minute, after another hard shot outside the box, this one unleashed by Ronald De Boer, forced De Wilde to dive on his belly to knock it away.

That left Dutch striker Jerrell Hasselbaink, starting in place of Bergkamp, alone with the ball four yards from the goal, with De Wilde flat on his face and the entire goal open.

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How badly do the Dutch miss Bergkamp when his hamstring forces him to miss an opening whistle?

Hasselbaink’s horrible shank across the goal mouth was an accurate measure, a badly squandered opportunity that seemed to set the tone for the result of a desultory evening for the Dutch.

“This result is not good for us,” Frank De Boer glumly, and accurately, assessed, realizing the Dutch, with one point, were now looking up at Mexico, a 3-1 winner over South Korea, in the Group E standings.

“If you look at the way we played for the first half-an-hour, we played some really good football. But the last 15 minutes or so, when they were one man up and put seven men behind the ball, it was very difficult for us.”

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Belgium packed it in from the start, sketching out a game plan that demanded little more from the players than “Defend Till You Drop.”

So defensive was Coach Georges Leekens’ strategy that he kept his best attacking midfielder, Enzo Scifo, on the bench and pulled starting right back Bertrand Crasson off the field after only 22 minutes for failing to keep pace with Dutch winger Overmars.

Deflandre replaced Crasson but fared little better against Overmars, who was dangerous the entire match, sprinting in to deliver crosses that, too often, yielded a Dutch pop fly over the crossbar or a damp squib to De Wilde.

Holland’s attackers had immense difficulty with the wet field, especially Kluivert, who continually stumbled in the Belgian penalty area when he wasn’t tripping over his own feet while trying to trap passes sent his way.

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The angst of the evening got the best of Kluivert in the 81st minute, when he began heatedly arguing with Staelens, then walked away, then circled back and delivered the elbow that got him ejected from the match.

“He said something that really affected me,” Kluivert said. “I can’t say what it was, but it was a stupid thing for me to do.”

Bergkamp, sidelined six weeks because of a pulled hamstring, was summoned in the 65th minute by Dutch Coach Guus Hiddink with simple instructions: Forget everything you’ve just seen, son, and please put something, anything in the back of the net.

But Bergkamp, too, was dragged into the evening’s extravagant waste--punting a volley attempt from eight yards out over the crossbar in the 83rd minute.

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The Dutch players appeared stunned by the result, but Hiddink already had begun spin control, claiming, “I don’t think this is a blow for us because we know Belgium has improved its worth over the last month.”

The Belgians, however, know better.

As midfielder Marc Wilmots so accurately observed, “They thought they were going to eat us. But they didn’t.”


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