There is no such thing as an off-season in football. Although many supporters fear a year ending in an odd number, the quadrennial Copa America comes to the rescue in 2011 to inject some flair into the long summer days for those in need of a football fix. And always guaranteed a year after a European Championship or World Cup hangover is the biannual event of the European Under-21 Championship.
The regular occurrence of the tournament infuses youngsters with competition, experience and enhances their competitiveness away from mundane friendlies. In 2009, Germany crushed England 4-0 in the final with starters Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil facing off against Spain in the World Cup semi-final a year later.
Although Die Mannschaft’s side showcased the technique and professionalism that made certain personnel assured of imminent ascensions to the full squad, the England team they faced was bereft of technically-gifted players and unsurprisingly, not one starter from that evening has become a regular under Fabio Capello. Theo Walcott was unwisely taken to the Swede-hosted tournament and a year later was rightly overlooked for the South African World Cup. Since his erroneous promotion to the England squad in 2006 he has amassed a paltry 17 caps, while only James Milner, Micah Richards, Kieran Gibbs and Adam Johnson have been awarded senior honours out of the 11 starters in Malmo. Between them they have 56 appearances, just over half of the 101 attained by the German starting XI that evening to date. Only Sandro Wagner and Fabian Johnson have not been capped by Joachim Löw while Sebastian Boenisch eventually opted to represent Poland.
It is a vast contrast that highlights not just the difficulty in making the step up, but also the mentality of two contrasting national set-ups. So it is pertinent to consider one of the greatest conundrums in recent youth football: 2007 European Under-21 Championship tournament winners Holland.
As hosts, interest was palpable in monitoring the latest crop of Total Football advocates, and Foppe de Haan’s charges delighted the near-capacity crowds, scoring 10 goals in five games, including four in the final against Serbia as they deservedly lifted the U21 crown. They had bottle too, overcoming those other notorious 12-yard chokers from the British Isles in a marathon 13-12 penalty shootout win in the semis.
Royston Drenthe, the Player of the Tournament, exhibited footballing DNA that appeared to have been extracted from the tireless talent of Edgar Davids. Ryan Babel was dynamic, Maceo Rigters was prolific, the quicksilver Otman Bakkal left full-backs with twisted blood and goalkeeper Boy Waterman oozed the cocksureness of past Dutch greats.
So with these early-twenty somethings garnering much attention at home, the interest inevitably poured all over the continent. Only Daniel de Ridder was based outside of the Netherlands, having relocated to Celta Vigo after leaving Ajax’s academy in 2005, and with the Eredivisie languishing in the lower echelons of Europe’s top leagues, clubs declared it ripe to cash-in on their young assets.
Naturally Premier League clubs formed the queue of suitors, with De Ridder joining Birmingham City on a free, Rigters heading further north to Blackburn Rovers for £500,000 and Ryan Babel swiftly reneged on his pledge to stay in Amsterdam for another year to sign for Liverpool in a deal worth £14m. The success reaped by Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars, Jaap Stam, Robin van Persie et al. on British shores wasn’t enough for Drenthe however, who headed for Real Madrid with the club eager to fill the void left by the recently departed Roberto Carlos. Yet since their auspicious success four years ago, personal nightmares, Twitter notoriety and spectacular falls from grace have become synonymous with the class of 2007.
In The Godfather films, the presence of an orange, one learns retrospectively, indicates that something bad is going to happen to that person whether they are clutching the fruit or it is perched near to them. The release year of Francis Ford Coppola’s first masterpiece? 1972. Two years before Cruyff, Neesken’s and co. World Cup final defeat to West Germany. With the exception of a Van Basten-inspired European Championship win in 1988, the oranges have been rotten success-wise.
Drenthe is still at Madrid, but has endured a debilitating time to the extent that in 2009 he requested to be left out of Real’s squad because he was suffering from anxiety. Then coach Juande Ramos acknowledged that supporters booing Drenthe had shattered his confidence and it is a minor miracle he is still an employee at the Bernabéu, even in name. He moved to Primera Liga newcomers Hércules on loan for the duration of the 2010/11 season but that went awry also when he returned home one night to find “Bastard,” “son of a bitch”, “Hércules is not a circus”, “Clown”, “mercenary” and most chillingly “Found you”, along with “KKK” daubed on the walls of his house.
Drenthe had gone on strike because he wasn’t getting paid and the writing, literally on the wall, was confirmed at the end of the season when, with relegation long-since confirmed, coach Miroslav Djukic said: “I’d like to thank all my players, except one.” If anyone doubted that “Royston Ricky” was the one, president Valentín Botella declared that the team had gone down because of him.
The problem with Drenthe is that his ostentatiousness and reliably unprofessional attitude intensified Florentino Perez’s eagerness to discard him, since his image doesn’t reflect that of the cordial Madridista. Yet this is the same player who sportingly clasped hands with England players who successfully converted their penalties during that epic shootout.
In comparison, his rapping partner Babel fared demonstrably better at Liverpool despite a chequered tenure at the club. Although he scored a memorable Champions League quarter-final clincher against Arsenal and a Kop winner against Manchester United, Babel was often overlooked by Rafael Benítez, who preferred the selfless discipline of right-sided compatriot Dirk Kuyt, despite Babel’s superior ability.
Yet when allotted a rare start his performances were erratic, most patently when he scored a phenomenal opener away to Lyon yet frustrated thereafter as Liverpool eventually dropped two crucial points in a Champions League group stage fixture. With spare time at his disposal Babel discovered Twitter, and was soon fined two weeks wages worth £120,000 by Benítez for revealing that he was dropped for a match against Stoke City. A year later, he posted an image on the site of referee Howard Webb in a Manchester United shirt after Liverpool’s 1-0 defeat in the FA Cup at Old Trafford, and was charged by the FA with improper conduct and fined £10,000. Sold to 1899 Hoffenheim for half of his £14m fee at the end of January, the undisputed consensus is that he underachieved badly and his relative obscurity stacks the odds against him fulfilling the promise that was on display four years ago.
Rigters’ contract is now up at Blackburn after a torrid time with the Lancashire club which saw him farmed out on loan to Norwich City and Barnsley, undergo an unsuccessful trial at Southend United in 2009, before returning home to Willem II on a season-long loan last year to end a humiliating spell in England. De Ridder, now 27, flopped at Birmingham although Alex McLeish admitted he was a victim of their bruising style of play, stating that “If we were more of a passing team, I may think more about him.” He moved to Wigan Athletic but didn’t even manage a single appearance in the 2009/10 season and was loaned to Hapoel Tel Aviv. He last played for the Latics in the FA Cup 3rd round win over Hull City in January, but like Rigters he has not been capped by Oranje at senior level and is unlikely to anytime in the future.
Of the eleven starters in Groningen that evening, only left-back Erik Pieters was named in Bert van Marwijk’s 23-man squad for the recent friendlies against Brazil and Uruguay. Sixty-four caps have been registered by the Euroborg victors, with 40 courtesy of Babel, who was also the sole member of the Euro 2008 squad a year later and the party that headed to South Africa in 2010. Waterman was discarded by AZ Alkmaar following the 2007/08 season despite having signed after the 2007 championship and then endured a fruitless spell on loan at De Graafschap last season from his parent club Den Haag.
Gianni Zuiverloon was released by West Bromwich Albion at the end of May after three years and a Championship loan spell at Ipswich Town, Ryan Donk joined him at the Hawthornes in the 2008/09 relegation season and is now at Club Brugge while Bakkal has become best known for being bitten by Luis Suárez. He made 15 starts and 18 substitute appearances at PSV Eindhoven last season, while versatile defender Arnold Kruiswijk has become a regular at mid-table Heerenveen, so they have at least achieved a semblance of respect in their careers.
But what was a team brimming with vitality, splendid technique and a license to entertain has now tumbled into an ominous abyss. Some players are not past the point of no return – Drenthe is still just 24 and Juventus are ostensibly monitoring him while Hedwiges Maduro may be finding his feet at Valencia after struggling for over three years. But like their forefathers in the national fold their underachievement is vexing and certain individuals’ frivolous behaviour is a hereditary symptom of a gifted nation that has fallen short far too often.