It was fitting that the most exciting and entertaining match of Euro 2020 so far took place at the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam, with the Netherlands edging a five-goal thriller against Ukraine on Sunday night.
Denzel Dumfries headed home the winner for the host nation in the 3-2 victory, despite Frank de Boer's side surrendering a two-goal advantage to their spirited opponents with just 15 minutes remaining. Ukraine were in the ascendency when the Oranje restored natural order.
Dutch courage comes to the fore at Euro 2020
It may have only been the first of three Group C fixtures for the two teams, but the passion and commitment suggested that far more was at stake than just an opportunity to start the tournament with a victory.
Dutch manager Frank de Boer has been no stranger to pressure and criticism in his coaching career, and while his status as a player has elevated him to high-profile positions in the game, he has generally failed to deliver. The pundit with the strongest show of public support for him has been his twin brother, Ronald.
With the Netherlands two goals ahead on the hour mark, the manager made two tactical substitutions that disrupted the control his team had of the game. Ukraine seized the opportunity and scored twice in an impressive four-minute spell, but the celebrations that followed Roman Yaremchuk's equalizer ultimately went in vain.
Ukraine equalized while still caught up in the passion of Andriy Yarmolenko's goal just minutes before. The Netherlands were rattled as they felt the pressure of the nation on their shoulders. Collective expectancy reverberated around the impressive surroundings, but the frustration of conceding twice was felt just as strongly.
The Netherlands and the passion of a nation
The celebrations from Denzel Dumfries on 85 minutes represented relief as much as ecstasy. The PSV Eindhoven defender was wearing the famous colors of his country, a nation steeped in footballing tradition, the total football advocates who changed the tactical direction of the game during the 1970s.
The name of the great Johan Cruyff adorns the stadium and the venue is a shrine to their former glory. The era of beautiful football was initiated by Rinus Michaels and implemented by Cruyff himself. Success came later at Euro 88 as players like Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard delivered the trophy after years of hurt.
And now this generation carries the hopes and dreams of a nation. This is what makes international football special, it is what separates it from the modern club game. These players have not been bought to wear a badge, they have been born into a culture. These are values that the club game has lost, and it is a beauty that is a unique throwback to a bygone era.
It was once common for players to spend their entire careers at one club. The ups and downs of victories, defeats, promotions and relegations were all part of the story. The pain of defeat only makes the glory of victory that much sweeter. It was a journey, a story with contrasting chapters, but always with the hope that the best was yet to come.
Values lost in the modern game
Now, players at the very highest-level have become part of a larger investment portfolio. A commodity with value on and off the field that should be traded like stocks and shares. The badge, the club and the team colors are merely for marketing purposes, a temporary identity that can be changed following a season of success or failure.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Francesco Totti is a prime example, and famously declared that to him, one Serie A title with his beloved AS Roma was worth winning ten with any other team. The cult hero of the Giallorossi, his 25-year career with the club is testament to his value and his character.
But these values are increasingly rare in the modern club game, and that is why international football is so important. Euro 2020 is a celebration of different nations and cultures, spread across Europe, as the world slowly attempts to regain normalcy after the ravages suffered due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a tournament that embraces the light of normality after a long, dark journey.
The contrasting emotions of the Netherlands and Ukraine at the final whistle on Sunday were worth more than words. The agony and the ecstasy. This was not about personal glory, or adding more points to the stock market value of a club, this was about winning and losing while representing the flag that defines your identity as an individual.
Euro 2020 - A celebration of the beautiful game
No transfer fees and no immoral salaries. International football is about the sport and the passion to succeed as a nation. Every player that stands for the national anthem has a deep-rooted affinity with their flag that cannot be bought at club level. A sense of pride cannot be traded lightly.
The pandemic has taught us that fans remain vital to the success of the sport, but they will soon lose interest if their clubs continue to be used as a front for various conglomerates. The international game will be the salvation and redemption of football as the biggest clubs continue to lose touch with reality, and it starts right now with Euro 2020.