So why did the number four in FIFA’s world rankings lose at home to number 96? Why did a country, widely rated as one of the favourites to clinch this summer’s European championship suffer defeat at the hands of a team that even failed to qualify? A team that ended bottom-of-the-list in qualifying group D, scoring just three goals in eight matches?
Here are five reasons:
“Holland looked pretty exhausted to me,” a reporter for French sports magazine l’Équipe said after the match. His words echoed remarks made a few days ago by Netherlands boss Bert van Marwijk, who intimated that a week of tough training may have led to his team’s 3-2 defeat at Bayern Munich. “Don’t mean this as an excuse, but we have definitely done quite some heavy training this past week, sometimes twice a day,” Van Marwijk said.
Remember Denmark at Euro 1992? The country hadn’t even qualified for the finals and most of their players were on holiday when they was called in to replace Yugoslavia, whose qualification was annulled for political reasons. The Danes only had two weeks to prepare for the tournament. They knew they had little to lose and many of their players were utterly relaxed. The upshot: Denmark went on to claim the trophy with a 2-0 win over Germany in the final.
2. Air travel on match day
Both in Munich and Amsterdam this week, the Dutch squad flew in on match day. Both their opponents had prepared in the same city for a few days, including one or two training sessions in the stadium. As a result, they were much better accustomed to the venue, the temperature and the overall atmosphere than the Dutch, who must have felt slightly uprooted in their own country.
With football fever heating up and virtually the entire nation colouring orange, the Dutch may have been too keen. “They couldn’t afford not to give their best,” Bulgaria manager Lyuboslav Penev told the press after the match.
“It was their first home game here in the Netherlands, before an enthusiastic crowd with high hopes, so they were really concentrated. They started very well, but so did we, and in the second half we only got better when we found our rhythm.”
4. Defensive play
It’s about time Holland coach Bert van Marwijk found an adequate answer to the type of football he so dislikes: defensive play. It’s what the Bulgarians proved to be past masters at: a double defensive line outside the penalty box, with the advanced pressing midfield reducing the playing area to 30 or 40 metres and giving their attacking opponents as little space as possible.
Penev must have watched the Swedes and Swiss adopt the same tactics at the end of last year (3-2 victory for Sweden, 0-0 draw against Switzerland).
5. Fate - the Penev factor
“It was not the first time I beat the Dutch, I did it in 1988,” Penev told reporters with glee. Notice the first person singular? This was a personal triumph. And one he saw coming, as he pointed out at the pre-match press conference.
The Holland match was only his second as Bulgaria manager. A good result was imperative. And former Bulgaria goal-getter Penev knew how to achieve it. After all, wasn’t he the one who scored the winning goal against Holland back in 1988? “The Netherlands,” he added subtly, then went on to clinch the European championship.”
Fortunately for the Dutch, their rivals in UEFA Euro 2012 group B - the "Group of death” - didn’t perform that well either. Denmark lost 3-1 at home to Brazil, Germany suffered a shock 5-3 defeat against Switzerland and Portugal were held to a goalless draw at home against Macedonia.