The Dutch had every reason to lose their final group match against Romania and only one to win -- sportsmanship. DW-WORLD's Jefferson Chase pays tribute to a side that stayed true to the spirit of fair competition.
Holland deserves high fives for fairness
It's a not very well kept secret that teams who qualify early in the group stages of major competitions sometimes look at the rest of the table when deciding how to play their final matches.
The bookmakers made Holland the underdogs going into their game against Romania on June 17 -- the only conceivable reason being the idea that the Netherlands might want to lose to prevent Italy and France from progressing beyond Group C.
Holland coach Marco van Basten was criticized for resting some of his regulars -- a rational move which every team has a right to make when there's nothing on the line for them.
And the Netherlands showed great sportsmanship in downing the Romanians 2-0, a result that kept Italy alive in the tournament. Not every team would have behaved so fairly.
The Germany and the Austrians weren't so sporting in 1982
It's an unwritten rule in football that teams should try to do their best to win every match, regardless of group standings. But football history abounds with examples of squads colluding with their opponents to achieve mutually beneficial results.
One of the most infamous was Germany and Austria's group match at the 1982 World Cup in Spain -- nicknamed the "Non-Aggression Pact of Gijon."
With Germany needing a win to progress, and Austria having only to avoid defeat by three goals, the teams both stopped trying to score after the Germans went up 1-0 in the eleventh minute.
This instance of "legal cheating" was so crass that the journalist assigned to commentate on the match for German public television refused to talk about it during the second half.
And in order to avoid a repeat of that dully predictable encounter, soccer's governing bodies ordered that subsequent final group matches be played simultaneously.
Sportsmanship versus self-interest
Italisn fans knew whom they had to thank for survival
But there's no way to avoid all conflicts between sportsmanship and self-interest, as this year's tournament showed
A Dutch loss to Romania would have meant the end for reigning world champions Italy, a team that's often been accused of diving in the past and that knocked Holland out of the 2000 Euro.
And the Netherlands had even more incentive to tank Tuesday's game since, owing to the UEFA nonsensical match-up system, the Italians are a potential semifinal opponent of the Oranjes.
Few fans outside of Italy would have thought that badly of Holland, if they, having survived the Group of Death, had decided they didn't really need to see the Squadra Azzurra again so soon.
Van Persie says the Oranjes don't have a B-team
But the Netherlands are known as a team that prioritizes the beautiful aspects of the beautiful game over merely getting results.
Holland's players bristled at the mere suggestion that, by resting its regular starters, the team wasn't giving its all.
"This win speaks volumes," said forward and goal-scorer Robin van Persie after the match. "We don't have a B-team. We have a squad of 23 players."
Italy could have a chance to reward such Dutch integrity by playing a fair match, should the two teams meet up in the semis.
In the meantime, football fans who like to see teams progress on their own merits alone should salute the Netherlands with a rousing "Hup Holland Hup!"