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Hungary 19:45 Romania

Got my Oranje crush

Jon Holmes sees the Group of Death begin at a funereal pace, before a life-affirming Dutch celebration marks Wesley Sneijder's birthday in Berne.

Last Updated: 10/06/08 10:00am

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Dutch fans: Holland frightened the life out of Italy

Dutch fans: Holland frightened the life out of Italy

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France began Euro 2008 with high hopes but must be feeling very low after Monday's mind-numbing stalemate in Zurich. Conversely, the men from the Low Countries are on a high. Amid much talk of death in Group C, Holland offered a vibrant demonstration that the principles of Total Football are alive and well.

That news will have come as a shock to Johan Cruyff, who told anyone who would listen before the tournament started that Marco van Basten's stifling tactics had killed off the Netherlands ideal. "Our quality has diminished," wailed Cruyff. "There needs to be beautiful football." What will the curmudgeonly 61-year-old have made of Holland's exhilarating display on Monday then? The quality was sumptuous, the football glorious to behold. By all accounts, the Dutch qualification campaign had featured some turgid encounters but surely it was too early to write off a team with such classy technicians as Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart.

The day before the game, Sneijder had been presented with an early birthday cake - coated of course in Oranje icing - by a journalist friend. I doubt he's saved a slice for old man Johan.

The Dutch performance against Italy made a mockery of my choice of tortellini for supper, although in truth the ageing world champions played some decent stuff at the Wankdorf (stop it). However, even without injured skipper Fabio Cannavaro, the Azzurri XI was still the oldest team ever fielded in a European Championships match. They may not yet be OAPs like Cruyff, but in a lung-bursting rendition of national anthem 'Fratelli d'Italia', the lyrics only served to emphasise their advanced years. A rough translation: sporting the tight-fitting "helmet of Scipio", Italy has awoken from her slumbers and is ready for victory. But reflecting on how Marco Materazzi and co belted out the line 'siam pronti alle morte', the literal translation of "we are all ready to die" seems even more appropriate.

Chickened out

Anyone watching France v Romania earlier in the day will have also considered their own mortality. From the minute Florent Malouda chickened out of a challenge with goalkeeper Bogdan Lobont, it was clear that the contest was going to be cold blooded. Nicolas Anelka brought along his disinterested end-of-season Chelsea form, and Romania happily watched the clock tick down.

At least now France and Italy will both have to go for broke in their final Group C clash in Zurich next week, a game I'm attending. There's a chance I might get to see the Dutch in action too; here's hoping. Their win has proved to be a huge adrenaline boost for Euro 2008, and produced several unexpected moments - Ruud van Nistelrooy being praised for his honesty, an Italian back four all at sea and Gio van Bronckhorst scoring with a header. Dark clouds were setting in around 7pm on Monday, but the future really is bright after all.

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