There is something very unique, captivating and insane about Dutch football. Almost every World Cup the Dutch appear with a fantastic team that plays some wonderful and exciting football, and yet, somehow, always fails to win the trophy in the most spectacular, unlucky and unbelievable circumstances. This combination of ecstatically good football with catastrophic failure is the reason the Dutch have captivated the imagination of so many fans and neutrals around the world.
Until the 1970’s, Dutch football was not a global force. Having been eliminated in the first round in 1934 and 1938, the Dutch then failed to make the World Cup until 1974. But when they made it that year, they made it with a thunderous bang. Out of nowhere, a great team was born, mainly based around the great Ajax Amsterdam club side of the early 1970’s, which had won the European Cup from 1971-1973. Under genius coach Rinus Michelis, and led by Johan Cruyff, one of the greatest players of all time, the Dutch pioneered a revolution that was to change the way football was played. ‘Total Football’ turned football into a real team sport; the team was no longer divided into specific tasks, now the whole team was responsible for attacking, defending and playing the ball. Any player should be expected to defend, attack, pass or score. All players should have competence in all skills, and should be counted on to perform these when needed. The team maintains a shape but the players alternate in performing different tasks. Football has never been the same since.
That 1974 team were favorites to lift the trophy. But somehow, in a way that was to become ingrained in Dutch football culture, they failed to achieve this. They inexplicably lost to their West German hosts in the final.
They were back in four years’ time in the Argentina World Cup, but this time they were missing their best player Cruyff. The circumstances for why he refused to go remain shrouded in mystery, but the then-Barcelona player has revealed that he feared for his family’s safety if he travelled. There have always been rumors in football circles that the real reason comes from threats from the Argentinean military junta, which knew that Cruyff would be the biggest threat to Argentina winning the World Cup on home soil.
Nonetheless, the remaining Dutch team was no joke, and contained some remarkable players like Johan Neeskens, Ruud Krol, and Johnny Rep. They again dazzled the world with Total Football, they were favorites again, and yet, were again defeated in the final by the Argentinean hosts. There are a lot of allegations of corruption and military influence in that tournament that continue to taint Argentina’s victory, but the bitterness of defeat was to taint Dutch football forever, and endue it with its defining characteristics. The first golden generation of Dutch football had arrived on the world stage, but tasted two bitter defeats when they had expected glorious victory. A trend was to be set. And a new football catchphrase was born: “The Dutch Disease” came to symbolize the inevitable tendency of the Dutch to fight amongst themselves whenever they make it to a major tournament.
As swiftly as they appeared on the world stage, the Dutch disappeared, failing to qualify for the 1982 and 1986 finals. But then in the late 1980’s a new generation of Dutch footballers appeared, and they seemed ready to avenge the fate of their predecessors. Marco van Basten was the most feared striker in the world, and his AC Milan team-mates Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard were some of the top midfielders in the world. They had helped Milan win several trophies in their prime, and were ready to transfer their form to the international stage. Aaided by wonderful talents like Barcelona’s defender Ronald Koeman and goalkeeper Hans van Breukelen, they were inspired as they defeated Germany in the semi-final and the Soviet Union in the final. Van Basten’s volleyed goal from that game will forever live in memory as one of the greatest goals of all time.
But in the 1990 World Cup, Holland were to again fail to win the trophy, this time losing in the second-round to their German nemesis in an ill-tempered match. They lost in the semi-final in Euro 1992 to the Danes on penalties, but came into the 1994 World Cup with high hopes, particularly with the arrival of the exciting young genius Dennis Bergkamp. But the Dutch were defeated by Brazil in a great quarter-final match. Brazil went 2-0 up, but Holland equalized only for Brazil’s Branco to score from a memorable free-kick to break Dutch hearts.
The story of the 1998 World Cup team was one of similar heart-ache, again at the hands of the Brazilians, but this time in an agonizing semi-final, on penalties, after the Dutch had wasted a half-dozen near certain chances to seal victory. This new team was fortified with the third great generation of Dutch footballers, that of the Ajax team of the mid-1990’s. The team that had won the Champions League in 1995 had produced a dozen stars that went on to play for some of the top teams in the world: Marc Overmars, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Michael Reiziger, Patrick Kluivert, Edwin van der Sar and the twins Ronald and Frank de Boer. Many felt this was the best team of the entire tournament. They were excellent in beating Argentina in the quarter-final, with this particular gem from the great Dennis Bergkamp:
In 2000, the Dutch co-hosted the European championships with Belgium, and had very high hopes of winning it again but were again denied, in a penalty shoot-out, in the semi-final—this time against Italy. The Dutch had laid siege to the Italians’ goal, missed two penalties in the game and three penalties in the shoot-out. Defeats do not get more agonizing than that.
Such was the trauma of this defeat that they then failed to make the 2002 World Cup. In 2004, another semi-final defeat eliminated them, this time to the Portuguese. But it was in 2006 when the fourth great generation of Dutch footballers emerged, the generation that has now matured and arrives at this World Cup full of expectation. They lost to the Portuguese again, this time in a second round encounter so ill-tempered and violent it saw 4 red cards and loads of yellows.
In the 2008 European championship, the Dutch arrived and played wonderful football the like of which I’d never seen before. Such was the speed and magnificence of their performance one suspected it was pixels in a Playstation game running around, not real live humans. They opened their tournament with a 3-0 smashing of world champions Italy, followed by a 4-1 demolition of World Cup finalists France. Their second team then beat the Romanians 2-0, before they were to meet the Russians in the second round. Just look at these highlights to get a feel for the kind of football they were playing:
It is often joked that the only ones who can stop the Dutch are the Dutch themselves. With every outbreak of Dutch Disease, the team succumbs to any opponents. This time, the Dutch were also stopped by the Dutch, but this time, it was a Dutchman from outside the squad who stopped them: Holland ex-manager Guus Hiddink, one of the greatest tactical minds in football who had now taken over the Russian team. Holland’s coach in 2008, Marco van Basten, was a great player in his days, but not a great tactical coach, and he was no match for Hiddink, the man who had coached Holland in the disappointments of 1994 and 1998. Hiddink played the perfect plan to derail the Dutch players and walked away with a 3-1 victory. The defeat of the Dutch was as shocking as their football was mesmerizing. That it was a Dutchman who denied this Dutch generation was such a remarkably Dutch way to go out.
Van Basten resigned and was replaced by the experienced wise head of Bert van Mawrijk. The ex-Feyenoord and Borussia Dortmund coach may not be a spectacular and world famous manager, but he does know his tactics and he does have a cool head that could be more useful than the young van Basten. Under him, Holland did exceptionally well in the qualifiers, becoming the first European country to seal its qualification to South Africa.
The Dutch players of 2008 have matured and improved in the past couple of years, and
have achieved remarkable success with their club teams. The real brilliance of the Dutch is exposed when one recounts the wonderful talents at their disposal.
The best feature of this Dutch team are the fantastic four attacking players: Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder. Currently, Robben and Sneijder are probably the two best players in the world after Lionel Messi. They were both instrumental in leading their teams (Bayern Munich and Internazionale, respectively) to the champions league final this season.
Arjen Robben has had a remarkably successful career at the top of European football for the past 8 years—a remarkable feat considering he is still only 26. Two impressive seasons with PSV in Holland saw him win the Dutch title and secure a deal to Chelsea in 2004, where he won the title twice, before moving to Real Madrid in 2007 for a 25m Euro transfer fee. He won the Spanish League in Real Madrid, but failed in doing so in 2009, when Real went crazy buying everyone in the world, and sold him to Bayern Munich. The joke was on Real, however, as it was Robben who led Bayern to the final of the Champions League, in Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium, as Real’s expensive stars crashed early. He won the German double with Bayern, and lost the final of the Champions League.
He lost that final to Wesley Sneijder’s Internazionale. Another product of the Ajax talent factory, Sneijder has been a consistently improving player recently. He was Robben’s team-mate in Real Madrid, but was also allowed to leave last summer. Like Robben, he won the double with his team, and like Robben he led his team to the Champions League final in Madrid’s stadium. Unlike Robben, he got the golden medal.
The two are wonderful players to watch. Their speed, movement and intelligence is remarkable. Robben’s runs from the wing are always dangerous, as are Sneijder’s long range efforts. To have those two in the same team will be a great spectacle.
Robin van Persie is more of a striker than those two, and he has a remarkable ability to sniff out a goal from nowhere. He plays for Arsenal and his career has been hampered by a series of bad injuries, which barely allowed him to play last season. He is supposed to have recovered and should be fit to play, fully rested after a season on the sidelines. If he is fit and in the mood, expect fireworks from him.
Finally, Rafael van der Vaart completes the quartet. Another Ajax product, the young midfielder moved to Hamburg in Germany before moving to Real Madrid. He did not leave when Robben and Sneijder left, and he had an instrumental role to play in this last Real Madrid season. He’s an intelligent midfield creator who can turn a game with a move, and should be eager to excel this World Cup.
If those four can play like they did in 2008, expect great things. I have never looked forward to watching a team as much as I look forward to watching this Dutch team because of these players.
Beyond that, Holland still have a lot of talent. Dirk Kuyt is a hard-working and reliable midfielder/attacker who plays for Liverpool. He will likely start ahead of one of the fantastic four, as he provides better defensive cover. The young Eljero Elia is an exciting winger who promises much, and AC Milan’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is a clinical finisher upfront.
But their midfielders are not all flashy creative types, they also have the hard-working holding midfielders needed to secure the defense and control the game: Bayern’s Mark van Bommel and Manchester City’s Nigel de Jong are both no-nonsense hard men who can boss any midfield.
But, as is usually the case with the Dutch, they look suspect in defense. Gregory van der Weil is an exciting young talent at right-back, but questions remain about his defensive skills. Left-back and captain Gio van Bronckhorst is an excellent player, but at 35, there must be questions about his speed and ability to defend at the highest level. Everton’s John Heitinga and Hamburg’s Joris Matheisen are the central defensive pair, and although solid on paper, they are not exactly as reassuring as some of the other teams’ defenses. Their goalkeeper is likely to be Maarten Stekelenberg, who is yet unproven on the global stage. Overall, this defense has inspired some skepticism about how well they can play together.
Still, this will be a formidable Dutch side. Coach van Mawrijk has shown he can get them to play together well as a unit. With Lionel Messi never having showed his Barcelona form for his country, Sneijder and Robben may well be the two best players going into this World Cup. Considering the talent at their disposal, there is no wonder the Dutch are among the favorites to lift the trophy.
But, of course, it would not be a Dutch World Cup side without the internal battles. Van Persie and Sneijder apparently can’t stand each other, as this recent Guardian piece explains.
And so we see the makings of a classic Dutch tragedy: incredibly talented players with the ability to perform insane stuff on the pitch. Several players who have the potential of entering Dutch football folklore alongside the greats of the past, who will undoubtedly give us some marvelous Dutch goals. A slightly suspect defense that could implode catastrophically. Bitter rivalries and schisms between the players. As much as one would like to believe that this team can win it, one can’t help but see the catastrophe coming together as it always does for the Dutch. So don’t be too surprised to see them impress in the first round, demolishing their opposition, and then somehow imploding in the later stages in unbelievable circumstances.
But whether their talent manages to live up to its potential and win what the cup they feel they deserve, or if they implode in a typical Dutch tale, one thing is for sure: it will be a joy to watch the Dutch this summer.