On any occasion that a player’s participation in a major tournament is cut short courtesy of an accumulation of yellows, the empathetic aftermath often unites the watching world in a way unlike most footballing matters.
The repeat offender, painfully aware that should his team progress he shall be relegated to the role of spectator by the powers that be, has sullied many a grand occasion. Put plainly, nobody likes to see a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity ended prematurely by a technicality.
Devoid of a deserved red, even as the fires of rivalry burn brightly in the hearts of the opposing supporter, it takes a cantankerous soul to applaud the awarding of a suspension-incurring caution.
But when the cards flew during Portugal and the Netherlands’ last-16 tie at the 2006 World Cup, leaving two players suspended for the following round, the public wasn’t quite so eager to lambast the rule makers. This is because, over the course of their 90-minute match, Russian referee Valentin Ivanov was forced to issue a World Cup record 16 yellow cards and four red cards, as the sides stopped short of nothing in their attempts to secure a place in the quarter-finals.
In a World Cup contest quite unlike any other, few players escaped unscathed from the Battle of Nuremberg.
As international rivalries go, Portugal and the Netherlands share very few of the characteristics required to stir up the type of animosity a genuine rivalry thrives upon.
The two nations are sufficiently distant in geographical terms as to not encroach upon the other’s liberties. Their last armed conflict met its end as far back as the 17th century. Their international football teams have never contested the final of any major tournament, from which either side could have retained any bitterness or feelings of resentment. Furthermore, and better still, in Portuguese eyes the Netherlands aren’t Spain and, in the eyes of the Dutch, Portugal aren’t Germany. In both countries, there are far more important rivalries to worry about.
With this in mind, it was hard to imagine the last-16 fixture between Portugal and the Netherlands playing out as anything other than the intriguing stylistic match-up it appeared to be. A meeting of two famous footballing nations, expected to be as fairly contested as all that preceded it.
But when the Netherlands’ notoriously ill-disciplined Mark van Bommel picked up the game’s first booking less than two minutes in, having scythed down Portugal’s key man Cristiano Ronaldo from behind, the gloves came off. Weapons drawn, the duel had begun.
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Still recovering from Van Bommel’s poor tackle, Ronaldo was then subjected to another just four minutes later thanks to Khalid Boulahrouz, who ensured his studs planted firmly into the Portuguese winger’s thigh. The referee, eager to have the medical staff remain in their seats on the bench for as long as possible, issued another caution, adding Boulahrouz’s name to the book directly below his compatriot.
Portugal’s first booking arrived in the 20th minute as the Dutch insistence on roughhousing seemingly began to catch on with their opponents. As van Bommel attempted to control a pass into feet, a knee to the lower back from Maniche made sure he met the ball with his face to the turf. The referee had no choice but to issue his third yellow card of the match.
As the tie entered the 24th minute, the fouling ceased for long enough to allow the game’s only goal to be scored. After some fine footwork from Deco on the right wing, the ball was fizzed into the Dutch box where it was met by the expert control of Portuguese striker Pauleta. His first touch took it down, while his second set it into the path of the marauding Maniche who cushioned the lay-off with his left, then nudged it beyond a Dutch block with his right, slaloming into enough space to fire the ball firmly beyond Edwin van der Sar and into the Netherlands net.
Just as he had in Lisbon two years before at Euro 2004, Maniche scored the goal that would eliminate the Netherlands. But before the final whistle could confirm the night’s result, a further 13 bookings awaited the game’s impromptu pugilists.
Ten minutes after Portugal had taken the lead, Maniche’s defensive midfield partner Costinha levelled the number of bookings at two apiece with a rash slide tackle on Phillip Cocu. Before the half was done, Costinha earned himself the honour of the game’s first red card having blocked an attempted upfield pass with an outstretched arm that was far from subtle. His second yellow, and the game’s fifth.
The rising heat of the occasion was evidently wreaking havoc with the internal wiring of the players; suddenly, kicking, pulling, shoving and blocks of passes that belong only on a volleyball court appeared to have supplanted go-to duties such as passing, moving and intercepting as their instinctive actions of choice.
Managers and officials alike hoped the half-time break would help to quell the lunacy and for a time it appeared as though it may well have, as Petit’s 51st-minute booking for a pull on Van Bommel remained the second half’s only caution until close to the hour mark.
Portugal had already seen Ronaldo leave the pitch injured during the first half, clearly unable to shake the pain from his two early brushes with the Dutch enforcers, and neither side wished to lose any others. Then, however, the floodgates opened and a further nine bookings were awarded in the space of 20 minutes.
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A mistimed lunged at the ankles of Deco earned Giovanni van Bronkhorst one of the game’s more honest bookings, though the resulting fracas saw many players on both teams square up to one another, with one particular staring contest rudely cut short when the ever-present Van Bommel found himself on the wrong end of a Luís Figo headbutt. Weak as it may have been, the headbutt was enough to send van Bommel to the floor, clutching his face, seemingly using the pitch for an improvised acting audition.
Despite Van Bommel’s best efforts to extract the maximum punishment for Figo’s impudence, the referee saw fit only to give the Portugal captain a yellow card which left the justice-obsessed Boulahrouz without any option but to enact his own cathartic brand of punishment on the offender.
As Figo outmuscled Rafael van der Vaart and looked to surge down the left wing, in came Boulahrouz, attempting to both win back possession and leave the impression of his elbow on Figo’s face. Unfortunately for the Dutch defender, the referee didn’t take kindly to the latter as he issued Boulahrouz his second yellow card – the game’s ninth – sending him off and reestablishing numerical parity on the field.
With the referee running out of space in which to write the booked players’ names, things only got worse when another flare-up saw three players booked for their roles in one incident.
Deco defied his diminutive stature by getting stuck into Johnny Heitinga, who was sent barrelling by the reckless challenge, enabling Deco to pick up his very own yellow card for his troubles. Still a crumpled figure on the floor, Heitinga received a swift chastising from a group of Portuguese players that felt aggrieved at his stylistic rolling. In an instant, to his defence leapt van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder who chose to act as some kind of tandem battering ram, saving Heitinga from an earful and sending Petit tumbling out of view.
Once the cameraman had found his bearings and zoomed in on the battlefield once more, the sight of a further two yellow cards for the Dutch aggressors was greeted by Portuguese cheers. With unsporting behaviour, handball, dissent and persistent fouling already ticked off of the referee’s bingo sheet of bookable offences, to the delight of completionists everywhere, Portuguese goalkeeper Ricardo obliged to add time-wasting to the collection in the 76th minute.
Over the following two minutes, Portugal established for themselves an unassailable lead in the disciplinary standings. Already 7-6 in the lead, a needless foul from Nuno Valente added a further yellow before another ridiculous handball earned Deco his second yellow and his team’s second red of the night.
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With over 10 minutes plus stoppage time remaining, the now nine-man Portugal may have feared for the longevity of their slim one-goal advantage. But no equaliser came. The only talking point of the game’s final moments came in the form of yet another booking, as a petulant trip on Tiago was enough for van Bronkhorst to be granted an early egress to join Costinha, Boulahrouz and Deco down the tunnel.
As the game drew to a close, bemused onlookers could do little but pause to catch their breath and attempt to rationalise the scenes they had just witnessed. A truly pulsating occasion, more Total Annihilation than Totaalvoetbal, it took a little longer than usual for the adrenaline to subside this time around.
In the game’s immediate fallout, then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter sought not to tackle the players’ rife indiscipline or lack of sportsmanship, instead choosing to deflect the blame by berating the referee’s officiating of the match.
When interviewed in Portugal shortly after the game, Blatter said: “I consider the referee was not at the same level as the participants, the players. I think there could have been a yellow card for the referee. This was a game of emotion, with exceptional drama in the last instant, with a deserved winner. But it was a great show with intervention by the referee that was not consistent and had a lack of fair play by some players.”
In the days following his comments, Blatter did inform reporters at a FIFA daily news briefing: “I would just like to say that I regret what has happened. I regret what I said about [the referee’s] actions in the match between Portugal and the Netherlands.”
His partial retraction failed to prevent referee Valentin Ivanov from being dropped by FIFA’s Referee’s Committee for the remainder of the tournament.
Though the Netherlands exited the World Cup that very evening and Portugal followed them at the semi-final stage, the eventual end of the two nations’ ruthless pursuits of glory signalled no such termination to the violence elsewhere at the tournament.
Further on-field troubles marred the climax of the quarter-final contested by Germany and Argentina, in which a mass brawl erupted between opposing players and staff following their tense penalty shootout, before, nine days later, the tournament’s final played host to one of the most infamous events in World Cup history: Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt on Marco Materazzi.
As for Portugal and the Netherlands henceforth, their tempestuous clash seemingly left few with grudges to bear. The two nations have since played each other twice – the first in the group stages of Euro 2012, followed by a friendly in 2013 – and with just five bookings shared between the teams over the course of the two matches it appears the hatchet has been buried well.
While the two countries have since returned to their old ways, their eternal rivals Spain and Germany once again the object of their fans’ so-called affections, The Battle of Nuremberg ensured that, even for just one game, the two became the best of rivals, at the centre of a contest likely to live on in the minds of its spectators for generations to come.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp