As Bert van Marwijk prepared the Netherlands for their seventh European Championshis in a row, the Oranje’s fans, naturally, readied themselves for a serious assault on yet another competitive international tournament.
Clearly, it did not come to fruition, with the Netherlands going out in the group stages of a tournament for the first time since Euro ’80 and van Marwijk – who only led La Oranje to their first World Cup final for thirty-two years, in 2010, amid being given the Order of Orange-Nassau – is likely to lose his job amid yet more tournament anguish. However, for a population of ‘just’ 16.8 million – whose national team only went professional from 1954 – perhaps the Netherlands rival and better, as far as population density goes, anyone in world football for footballing produce, tradition and expectation, but, also, ultimately, despair.
While the Netherlands qualified for the first two World Cups that they entered, they were dispatched with relative ease in both of these tournaments by Czechoslovakia (3-0) and Switzerland (3-2) in 1934 and 1938 respectively. The Netherlands struggled with a serious sense of footballing identity from then on in, desperately lacking a professional and era-defining Dutch club that could set the tone of the ‘40s and early ‘50s like Barcelona did in Spain or Torino in Italy. Also, perhaps, the Netherlands, more than any other post-war nation, had a serious crisis of identity. After all, such was the KNVB’s (Royal Dutch Football Association) initial foreign suspicions, Faas Wilkes – one of the greatest Dutch footballers of all-time – was banned from playing for the national team when he moved to Internazionale in 1949. Also, as a particularly landlocked nation – who were cornered by German sprawl and isolated from Britain due to the Irish Sea – there was a clear sense of inescapble regret in the aftermath of WWII. Crucially, this was not just down to the fact that the Dutch – as a somewhat, naive and neutral nation -had not seen Adolf Hitler’s inevitable Machiavellian intentions coming into their sphere.
Rather, there was clear sense of guilt over the fact that many Dutch nationals, in fear of their occupiers, helped round up over 107,000 Jews for deportation from Westerbork to concentration camps in Auschwitz, Sobibor, Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt. From this, the War accentuated an already inhibiting inferiority complex – with the Netherlands as an over-populated and over-dense nation for such a small land mass – in comparison to constantly expanding nations, but with the baby boom generation, a sense of maakbaarheid (expansion in mental and philosophical capabilities) was born. After all, up until the post-war generation, it was England that had the most profound influence on the Netherlands. Jack Reynolds. for example, managed Ajax with distinction between 1915-1925, 1928-40 and 1945-7, and played a huge role in the setting up of the club’s revolutionary Academy (often spending fourteen hours at Ajax’s base to ensure that all of Ajax’s young teams played like the first-team) and fitness regimes, and innovated what would become its trademark totaalvoetbal philosophy with ball-training focused sessions. Such was the Englishman’s influence, it lived on with Ajax’s influential youth coach, Jany van der Veen, and future manager, Vic Buckingham (1959-61, 1964-45).
Unperturbed by a seeming lack of effectiveness and silverware, these foundations would prove the basis of Rinus Michels’ crusade and antithesis of football elsewhere in Europe, that is techniek en taktiek, whereby footballing intelligence and positional awareness would soon become the basis of Dutch footballing innovation. Michels was a prolific goalscorer and an admirable one club man at Ajax, scoring 122 goals in 264 matches over twelve seasons, but even though he was known as a joker as a player – such as when he once dressed up as a women in a fur coat in the hotel the night before an away match – Michels’ management style could not have been any more professional. Michels innovated an offensive pressing style, that exploited the offside rule; assembled a group who were capable of playing in any position and could constantly rotate; and by switching from the W-M formation to 4-2-4 and then to 4-3-3, established a Dutch identity in tandem with his own take on Reynolds’ and Buckingham’s beautiful passing philosophy and foundations.
Michels also made sure everything at Ajax reflected this tactical progression (the influential Klaas Nuninga was dispensed with due to his lethargic unsuitability, for example), revolution and its 1955 status as a professional club. After all, pre-Michels, Ajax players did not have evenings off and Johan Cruyff used to work as a deliverer for Sport World magazine. Such was Michels’ impact, Ajax went from relegation candidates and naive gung-ho attackers to entertaining, yet disciplined, four-time Eredivise and two-time European Cup winners between 1965 and 1971. Cruyff embodied Michels’ beliefs – as the “Pythagoras in boots” as David Miller so brilliantly put it – and his constant, self-driven and unmarkable rotation from centre forward to roaming winger to second striker helped to pioneer his own undefinable position, which was reflected in his then unique number fourteen shirt number. Also, as part of the baby-boom (1946-1960) era in the Netherlands, Cruyff struck a chord with the post-war generation as a tall, shaggy-haired, well-spoken, Marlboro smoking, cultured, philosophical (with his anakoloetens like “every advantage has a disadvantage”) and bilingual icon. From this, Cruyff was able to combine these traits with his ground-breaking and revolutionary footballing persona: being a trailblazer in world football for claiming insurance/wages for Dutch internationals and setting up a then unique and lucrative personal sponsorship deal with Puma.
Beyond Ajax, Feyenoord, had blossomed under Ernst Happel in this period and won the European Cup in 1970. Despite this, though, it took time, for the core of the Ajax (Arie Haan, Wim Suurbier, Ruud Krol, Gerrie Mühren, Johan Neeskens, Barry Hulshoff, Piet Keizer, Johnny Rep and Cruyff) and Feyenoord (Eddy Treijtel, Rinus Israël, Harry Vos, Wim Rijsbergen, Wim Jansen, Theo de Jong, William van Hanegem) outfits to click – given the profound differences between Happel and Michels’ philosophy – and it was not until 1974 that the Netherlands made their first tournament appearance since 1938. František Fadrhonc had been the man to deliver it and the Czech epitomised the foreign superiority complex (Karel Kaufman, between 1954 and 1955, had been the last Dutch national to manage the Oranje) that remained (only four Dutchmen managed the Netherlands before this point, with a whooping twenty-one foreigners even before Fadrhonc’s appointment in 1970) in the KNVB. There was no disguising how lucky Fadrhonc had been, though, with Jan Verheyen having had a legitimate free-kick goal disallowed for a promising Belgium outfit in the final and decisive World Cup qualifier on 18 November, 1973.
The game finished 0-0 and with the points shared, the Netherlands qualified based only on the fact that they had a better goal difference than Belgium. Even though the Netherlands had finished unbeaten in Group 3, Fadrhonc’s contract expired at the end of qualification and he agreed to take over at AEK Athens. From this, Michels was sent an SOS to take over for just the tournament, given his contract with Barcelona. While tempting to suggest that it was an easy job, Michels had several tests. Firstly, the influential Hulshoff was injured and Mühren was unavailable due to his son’s illness. Then, Michels took the brave, and somewhat unpopular, decision to sideline the thirty-one year old Keizer – who had been one of the Netherlands’ greatest ever players – just like he had with Nuninga at Ajax. Gambles were instead taken on the uncapped Rijsbergen and the thirty-four year old Jan Jongbloed (the brilliant Jan van Beveren was injured), who was taken due to his ball-playing sweeper ‘keeper abilities (in an attempt to re-create Gyula Grocsics’ style in the brilliant Hungary dynasty from 1947-62). What proved to be the biggest challenge, though, was the fact that Michels had just three weeks before the tournament to implement his Total Football principles.
This took time, with the Netherlands losing 2-0 to a German Second Division XI in the first week of the camp, but with the use of van Hanegem and the utilisation of Haan, Krol, Suurbier and Rijsbergen as a dynamic and creative defence, the Netherlands soon clicked. From this, the Oranje hammered Argentina 4-1 in their final warm-up match before progressing past Sweden (infamous Cruyff turn occurred here), Bulgaria and Uruguay in the first round and Brazil, East Germany and Argentina (the Argentineans resorted to rugby-like tackles at times in a 4-0 defeat) in the second-round. Having beaten a dogged (Rob Rensenbrink was particularly targeted and would not play all of the final, although this was owed, in part, to his contractual obligations with Adidas as he was nowhere near fit) Brazilian outfit, the one-time 1970 champions, 2-0 in the ‘semi-final’ of the group, the Netherlands believed a final against West Germany would not pose any greater difficulty and Carlos Alberto, years later, summed up the Netherlands’ innovativeness, brilliance and unpredictability:
The only team I’ve seen that did things differently was Holland. Since then, everything looks more or less the same to me…. their carousel style of play was amazing to watch and marvellous for the game.
Rather than seeing a possible final defeat as the basis for a Hungary-esque decline like in the ‘50s, the Netherlands instead believed that if they were defeated, they had the basis to bounce back due to their burgeoning young team. Still, the Oranje were clear favourites for the final against West Germany – despite the fact that the West Germans had won five of their six group games, were hosts, had reached the latter stages of six of the last seven World Cups they had entered (winning in 1954), had won the 1972 European Championships and could call upon the likes of Sepp Maier, Franz Beckenbauer, Berti Vogts, Paul Breitner, Rainer Bonhof, Uli Hoeneß and Gerd Müller. From this, being underdogs suited West Germany perfectly but had it not been for the events of 6 July, 1974, one wonders would the outcome have been different.
With post-war occupational tensions already simmering, on the eve of the final, Bild – the German newspaper that has always had close association with the national team – ran a story that four of the Netherlands squad, including Cruyff, held a naked jacuzzi party with four women in the Waldhotel Krautkramer in Hiltrup prior to the win over Brazil. It forced Michels to call a hastily arranged press conference to vehemently deny the accusation and accuse West Germany of playing mind-games – proving that the topic had already gotten into Dutch consciousness and had disrupted preparations. Added to this was the alleged fact that Cruyff’s wife, Danny, kept him on the phone the whole night over the rumoured jacuzzi incident – even though most players did not sleep with nerves or excitement regardless – and it was said to be the episode that influenced Cruyff’s future, and crucial, career decisions. With Cruyff having had such a huge impact in that tournament – from his twin-striped Adidas shirt to his demand for a 150,000 guilder kitty for the squad (had been 200 guilders each pre-’74) – it was always going to be a telling final for his legacy. Nonetheless, the European champions’ somewhat surprising footballing inferiority complex was epitomised in Bernd Hölzenbein’s comment that:
In the tunnel, we planned to look them in the eye, to show we were as big as they were… but I couldn’t do it. They made us feel small.
Also, the way the Netherlands started the match, it was clear that Michels had taken the Bild story and used it as inspiration. From this, infamously, the Germans did not touch the ball until Maier picked the ball out of the net after Cruyff was fouled by Uli Hoeneß inside the box, following a beautiful minute-long weaving passage of play. Neeskens dispatched the penalty but rather than finishing off the mentally-strong Germans while they were momentarily down, the Dutch toyed rather than probed and on 25’, conceded a penalty of their own when Hölzenbein was deemed to be fouled by Neeskens, according to the referee, Jack Taylor (strangely, outside of the box, Taylor was much more lax with his officiating and Cruyff had grown frustrated with Germany’s effective tackling, leading to a booking for dissent before half-time). Paul Breitner scored the penalty and incredibly, these were the first ever penalties awarded in a World Cup final.
Then, just two minutes before half-time, a devastating blow came from the prolific Müller, who scored his last and most crucial goal for Die Mannschaft. The Netherlands struggled to penetrate from then on in and the usually influential Cruyff, aside from the first minute, had been left frustrated in the match – brilliantly man-marked by Vogts, who pushed him so deep that he was ineffective and could not spark into life. La Oranje tried with onslaught after onslaught, having had huge amounts of possession but “lacked a Müller” in the words of Cruyff, and the Germans held out for a famous win. It would be Cruyff’s last World Cup match but in the words of Frank Rijkaard, “the disappointment of ’74 and the Godfather [Cruyff] inspired me to make a career out of football.” Euro ’76 was not to be a success either, with Cruyff’s influence growing so large that he was, effectively, co-managing with Michels’ replacement, George Knobel (had driven Cruyff out of Ajax, in the autumn of 1973, with the infamous De Lutte hotel captaincy election for Ajax, but realised he needed Cruyff desperately for the national team in hindsight of Ajax’s fall). One example, for instance, was the thirty-six year old Jongbloed’s (a close friend of Cruyff’s from ’74) selection in the first XI of Euro ’76 ahead of van Beveren.
From this, an Amsterdam/Eindhoven divide had been established, led by Wily van der Kuijlen (the Eredivisie’s all-time top scorer with 311 goals) and van Beveren of PSV, and Neeskens and Cruyff, formerly of Ajax. This came to a head before the Euro ’76 qualifier against Italy on 20 November, 1974, which Knobel afforded Neeskens and Cruyff extra time off to arrive from Barcelona and this led to van der Kuijlen sarcastically quipping, “here comes the Kings of Spain” when the pair arrived two days after the rest of the squad. The comment was leaked to the press, with Cruyff blaming van Beveren for the leak but it could well have been by an Amsterdam members of the squad in an attempt to drive the goalkeeper out. Regardless, Knobel sided with Cruyff and as a result, van Beveren was made the scapegoat and, somewhat tragically, was never again selected by the Oranje.
In their first ever European Championships, having qualified from a tough Group Five with Italy, Poland and Finalnd, the Netherlands finished a disappointing third in a tournament that featured just three other teams: Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and West Germany. The Netherlands lost 3-1 to Czechoslovakia in the semi-final, following extra-time, and the Czechs certainly benefited from Clive Thomas’ laidback refereeing (a marked contrast from the Welshman holding an umbrella over Cruyff during the coin toss, amid torrential rain) which saw the Dutch continually fouled. The chaos continued: Cruyff retired (had planned to after the 1974 World Cup, regardless) from international football in October, 1977 for a number of reasons. Cruyff claimed that in 1977, he and his family were kidnapped at gunpoint in their apartment in Barcelona – which he believed was a warning ahead of the tournament. Also, Cruyff, as part of the post-war baby boom era, resented the junta dictatorship in Argentina and his sponsorship deal with Puma may have led to the KNVB, embarrassed by the ’74 twin-stripe shirt ‘fiasco’ (not to mention Cruyff charging some journalists for his time in interviews), refusing to again comply with Cruyff’s sponsors. The most obvious reason, though, was because Cruyff was not permitted to choose Jack van Zanten (Cruyff’s business associate and Michels’ assistant at the 1974 World Cup) as Knobel’s right-hand man.
Perhaps, though, the Oranje, were even more united without their theoretical talisman and under Ernst Happel, they had a magnificent 5-1 victory over Austria (having edged past Peru, Scotland and Iran in the first stage and Italy, West Germany and Austria in the second) and maximised their use of long shots without having to depend on Cruyff’s dribbles and tactical orders like they used to. Rensenbrink stepped up as the team’s undoubted star, with five goals, and having hit the post in the dying moments of normal time (score was at 1-1) of the final against Argentina, it seemed that azar (fate) was again at play and the Netherlands lost 3-1 – with Mario Kempes established as the tournament’s star. The Netherlands cried foul, with Sergio Gonella a controversial late appointment as referee after Abraham Klein – who had refereed Argentina’s first round defeat to Italy on 10 June, 1978 – was inexplicably pulled. The Netherlands would never recover – with an ageing golden generation (Rep, Frans Thijssen, Pim Doesburg, Haan, Kees Kist, Krol, Hugo Hovenkamp, and René van de Kerkhof never played in a tournament again) – and went out of the group stages of Euro ’80. Augmenting a sense of serious decline, the Netherlands failed to make the 1982 World Cup, Euro ’84 (Spain scored two more goals in qualification, which meant that they achieved progressed on goals scored) and the 1986 World Cup (playoff defeat to Belgium). Euro ’88, held in Germany, though, saw a long-awaited and triumphant return to form.
Such was Dutch nostalgia at the time, Michels had been enlisted to break the Netherlands’ terrible tournament duct. From this, the Netherlands were awesome in qualifiying: finishing unbeaten in Group 5 of their qualifying group alongside Greece, Poland, Hungary and Cyprus; scoring fifteen goals and conceding just one; and inspired by Ronald Koeman, Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit, John Bosman and the newly-recovered Marco van Basten, the Oranje were among the tournament favourites. Michels again formed a creative defence as his foundation, with Berry van Aerle, Rijkaard, Koeman and Adri van Tiggelen, and like true champions, the Netherlands grew as the tournament progressed, After all, in Group B with the Soviet Union, England and Ireland, the Netherlands only narrowly progressed – with England hitting the woodwork twice in the Netherlands’ 3-1 win on 15 June and Ireland hitting the post in a 0-1 defeat to the Oranje on 18 June. Then came a semi-final against West Germany at Hamburg on 21 June. It was a vitriol-anticipated occasion – given that the members of the two teams grew up watching the ’74 final – and as well as the Dutch support chanting ‘give us back our bicycles’ (reference to Nazi confiscation during the War), one banner bore the phrase, ‘Ein Reich, Ein Volk, Ein Gullit’ in a lampoonery of Hitler’s signature mantra.
Still, the Germans were fairly unperturbed and Jürgen Klinsmann won a debatable penalty against the run of play off Rijkaard on 55’, but the Dutch rallied and in a reversal of the order of the 1978 final, Koeman netted a penalty of his own on 77’. Then, van Basten won the match on 88’ with a brilliant skidding finish. Such was the hatred between the two nations, Koeman would later admit – having posed for a photograph in a squatting position in the minutes after swapping shirts on the field – that he used Olaf Thon’s shirt as toilet paper after the match. Still, there was no disputing the class of the Dutch on the field and they defeated the Soviet Union 2-0 in the final at the Olympiastadion on 25 June, with their pro-activeness and brilliant technique encapsulated in van Basten’s stunning volley on 54’. The Netherlands could not follow up their ’88 success under Thijs Libregtsin at the 1990 World Cup, though, with van Basten struggling with the opposition’s man marking techniques and Gullit lacking match fitness.
The Netherlands only narrowly progressed from Group F (England, Ireland and Egypt) and had to draw lots with the Irish, having both drawn three games, and from this, it was, perhaps, no surprise that they went out of the second-round to the eventual winners, West Germany. Rijkaard’s disgusting spat on Rudi Voller symbolised the Netherlands’ failure to rally and let their football do their talking, like they had done at Euro ’88, and the squad nearly descended into disarray. This was mainly down to the Schiphol vote for the 1990 manager, which echoed Cruyff being controversially demoted as captain of Ajax due to democratic vote in 1973, and Leo Beenhakker, rather than the one-time touted Cruyff (Cruyff was again approached in 1994, but wanted a tournament SOS wage of 350,000 guilders and also planned to wear his Cruyff Sports gear – instead of the KNVB’s Lotto tracksuit – in a remarkable echo of 1974), was appointed as the Netherlands’ manager.
Still, Beenhakker did win the whole squad around and Euro ’92 was nearly a perfect retention of their Euro ’88 crown: brilliantly defeating Germany 3-1 in Group B on 18 June in Gothenburg. Again, though, arrogance gripped the Dutch and instead of fully respecting the dogged Danish in the semi-finals, La Oranje toyed and went out on penalties after a 2-2 draw. The 1994 World Cup was equally self-inflicted, with Gullit (whose form would be revived at Sampdoria, which led to him often requiring a specific libero marker, rather than a flat back four, to stop him) falling out with Dick Advocaat before the tournament after being ‘inexplicably’ substituted in qualification against England on 28 April. With Gullit’s departure, and Koeman’s lagging pace, it seemed that yet another generation was drying up – even with Dennis Bergkamp’s star rising. Still, the Netherlands did feel aggrieved that Romário was offside for Bebeto’s goal in the 3-2 quarter-final defeat to Brazil on 9 July. Guus Hiddink’s arrival, initially, did not calm a delicate transition, even with his clever use of Danny Blind, Arthur Numan, Michael Reiziger and Frank de Boer as a creative foundation. After all, there was a clear racial divide at Euro ’96 – with a cabal of Reiziger, Winston Bogarde, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert – and Davids was the first to act, telling Hiddink he was “too deep in the ass of Blind [the captain].” Unsurprisingly, Davids was sent home.
From this, Seedorf was ineffectively used as a holding midfielder and there was a clear moment in the 2-0 win over Switzerland on 13 June where Seedorf, seemingly inexplicably, refused to pass to Ronald de Boer. While the racial divide seemed clear, it may well have also been down to the fact that the younger Ajax players were paid less but this could have, cynically, also been half-manipulated (four of the eight Ajax players selected were black) to have been due to their race. Unsurprisingly, the tournament was not a success and Hiddink’s ‘foreign’ (had previously managed PSV) use of the Ajax template – with Bergkamp struggling as an operator in the Jari Litmanen number ten role – failing to fully translate. The Netherlands again went out of the tournament on penalties, to France in the quarter-finals, and the 4-1 defeat to England in the group stage on 18 June – which, like Italia ’90, revived the English public’s love with football (post-Heysel and Hillsborough) and saw Teddy Sherringham brutally expose the Netherland’s surprisingly poor basic footballing and tactical principles – epitomised a chaotic Dutch set-up. Hiddink stayed on but remarkably, he united the squad – even if the de Boers turned their backs on Seedorf when he missed a penalty against Turkey in the 1998 World Cup qualifier on 2 April, 1997.
The World Cup would prove bittersweet, though: the Netherlands playing brilliant football – with Bergkamp scoring the goal of the tournament against Argentina in the quarter-final on 4 July – but Brazil’s catenaccio-like tactics eventually paying dividends in the penalty win in the 1-1 semi-final draw on 7 July. Again, the Dutch had not practiced penalties (epitomised in Frank de Boer’s lack of sympathy for his brother’s, Ronald’s, miss), unlike the Brazilians, and this arrogance was masked by the Dutch’s attacking footballing philosophy, up until then, paying serious dividends throughout the tournament. From this, Cruyff emphasised the supposed lottery of penalties but like in ’74, he believed that the tournament would again be remembered for the Netherlands’ football:
There is no better medal than being acclaimed for your style. For the good of football, we need a team of invention, attacking ideas and style to emerge. Even if it doesn’t win, it will inspire footballers of all ages everywhere. That is the greatest reward.
Penalties again proved a vice for the Netherlands – ironically occurring after Gyuri Vergouw had delivered twenty-five copies of his Strafschop penalty advice book during the tournament – in Rijkaard’s first managerial tournament at Euro ‘00. It was all the more disappointing after the Netherlands’ impressive three wins in a testing Group A featuring France, the Czech Republic and Denmark, and their 6-1 hammering of Yugoslavia in the quarter-final on 25 June, 2000. The shoot-out defeat to Italy in the semi-final saw brutal penalties from Frank de Boer, Jaap Stam and Patrick Bosvelt – with spirito italiano epitomised in Luigi Di Biago’s brilliant opening penalty (missed in the shootout against France in the World Cup quarter-final on 3 July, 1998). Louis van Gaal took over for the 2002 World Cup qualification campaign but passion (evident pre-van Gaal in Rijkaard’s tears on the team bus after the Italy defeat) was something Ireland and Portugal had in abundance, compared to the Dutch, and La Oranje failed to progress from Group 2. Advocaat returned for Euro ’04 but with fairly conservative tactics and an over-reliance on Ajax’s 1995 era, the Netherlands, effectively, overachieved in eventually losing 2-1 in a semi-final against Portugal on 30 June, 2004.
Even with the new generation of Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie et al, the Netherlands flattered to deceive at the 2006 World Cup and went out in a 1-0 defeat in a brutal (four red cards and eight yellows) Battle of Nuremberg second-round match against Portugal on 25 June. Realising the impact the then novice Rijkaard had made, the KNVB turned to a similar option: Marco van Basten. Van Basten re-introduced the enjoyable element to the Netherlands’ set-up and from this, for example, when a player was late, they had to tell jokes, repeatedly, until the squad heartily laughed. Still van Basten eventually fell out with Seedorf and Mark van Bommel over his initial refusal to shift from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 in Euro ‘08 qualification and their replacements, Orlando Engelaar and Danny De Zeeuw, lacked the big-game presence and the off the ball ability that the likes of van Bommel offered. The Netherlands did impress against France and Italy but these nations, somewhat ironically, gave the Oranje the space that the likes of Russia and Romania did not afford them and it was clear that van Basten was over-reliant on his front three – who were fairly isolated and detached from the phased play of the seven outfield players behind them.
Van Basten’s unheralded successor, Bert van Marwijk, aimed, simply, to turn the Netherlands into an united block system rather than an XI made up of two blocks of, separately, defence-focused players and attackers. In theory, there was no doubting that his philosophy worked, with van Marwijk winning thirty-four and drawing ten of the fifty-two matches he oversaw since 2008. Also, the Netherlands made huge progress at the 2010 World Cup – having only won one knockout tie since Euro ’00 – and van Persie’s angry reaction to being substituted in the second-round tie against Slovakia on 28 June may have been of passion rather than the ‘traditional’ crack expected of the Netherlands. Dirk Kuyt’s acceptance of his re-positioning on the left wing, with Robben on the right, was of massive contrast but showed, to the sceptics, that van Persie was an isolated case of petulance – if even one at all. Obviously, van Marwijk came under fire for his focus on the system but unlike Dunga, who omitted Neymar and Ganso, van Marwijk’s selection of personnel – owed in part to a smaller national pool – was infallible. The Dutch had a steel to them, epitomised in the 2-1 quarter-final win over Brazil where – even if A Seleção should have finished the Dutch off before half-time – following van Marwijk’s half-time team talk, the Netherlands rallied from a 1-0 deficit and won the match.
However, with van Marwijk’s son-in-law, van Bommel, as his captain, foul play marred the Netherlands’ progression with van Bommel’s brutal tackle ironically setting up Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s brilliant 18′ goal against Uruguay in the semi-final on 6 July. Then, of course, the Netherlands came up against Spain (ironically, Gerard Piqué, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fàbregas, Xavi and Pedro owed their La Masia schooling to Cruyff’s influence and input before leaving Barcelona as a player in 1978 and his managerial innovativeness and Academy blueprint between 1988-96) and the final was tainted by Nigel de Jong’s kung-fu kick on Xabi Alonso on 25’ and van Bommel’s crunching tackle on Iniesta on 78’. Remarkably, though, such was the achievement and unexpectedness of even making the final, the KNVB had, originally, not booked the Sunnyside Park Hotel for the final and, remarkably, had the Netherlands won, they would have been the first side since Brazil in 1970 to win all of their qualifiers and all of their World Cup matches. Cruyff, though, was vehemently unforgiving in his assessment of van Marwijk’s approach:
Sadly, they played very dirty. So much so that they should have been down to nine immediately, then they made two [such] ugly and hard tackles that even I felt the damage. This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style, yes it served the Dutch to unsettle Spain. If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they ended up losing. They were playing anti-football [ a remarkable, and even more damning, echo of Cruyff’s criticism of José Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2005].
In fairness to van Marwijk, he is far from a condoner of rough-housing and after de Jong’s lack of contrition for a leg-breaking challenge on Hatem Ben Arfa on 3 October, van Marwijk left him out of the Moldova (8 October), Sweden (12 October) and Turkey (17 November) matches in 2010. Also, the Netherlands played some flowing football under van Marwijk, namely the 4-1 win over Sweden on 13 October, 2010, but the, somewhat, pragmatic style so effectively displayed against an in-flux English side on 29 February, 2012 was van Marwijk’s last major, and notable, positive result. From this, the Dutch have been worryingly in decline with regard to certain personnel and overall tactical discipline. After all, the cornerstones of the van Mawijk era, the medianos of van Bommel and de Jong, were incredibly lethargic and ineffective against the proactive Germany on 13 June and this allowed Bastien Schweinsteiger incredible, and telling, influence.
Also, there was a serious lack of cohesion between attack and the rest of the team – even more so than under van Basten in 2008 – with little support offered to van Persie and, even, in turn, the likes of Jetro Willems and Gregory van der Wiel having few players to pick out in the box when they marauded forward. Then, regarding personnel, van Marwijk was incredibly conservative and, ironically, when he took a gamble, it was ill-advised. Willems, the youngest player to ever play at the European Championships – aged just eighteen and seventy-one days – was incredibly raw (did not play in any of the qualifiers, but unlike, say, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, he had much more tactical responsibility and van Marwijk – somewhat ironically, given his selection of the likes of Joris Mathijsen – panicked in his selection) and, mirroring the fairly immature twenty-four year old van der Wiel, seriously lacked tactical balance, responsibility and experience.
Of course, in hindsight, it is easy to suggest that the Netherlands’ problems would have been solved with the introduction of Dirk Kuyt (RB), Khalid Boulahroux (CB), Kevin Strootman (CM, after Rafael van der Vaart left the Netherlands incredibly open against Portugal on 17 June) and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (CF) for van der Wiel, Jonny Heitinga (was badly at fault for Michael Krohn-Delhi’s goal for Denmark on 9 June and Mario Gomez’s for Germany on 13 June), van Bommel and Ibrahim Afellay – with La Oranje’s formation, in turn, being tweaked. This would lead to Sneijder becoming something of an inverted, left-sided fantisista (worked brilliantly here against Denmark on 9 June and in the second-half of the Germany match on 13 June, and struggled previously as a restricted regista under Gian Piero Gasperini at Internazionale) and van Persie playing as a roaming second striker in a 4-4-1-1 of sorts.
However, long before the tournament, van Marwijk failed to address the Netherlands’ submerged (had a straightforward Group E with Sweden, Hungary, Finland, Moldova and San Marino but struggled terribly in a telling 3-0 friendly defeat to Germany on 16 November, 2011) stagnation after the World Cup with his first XI and squad selections. This, rather than just poor finishing, flagging fitness levels or a supposed mole within the camp leaking tactics, was what, ultimately, cost the Dutch. From this, Euro 2012 seals yet another failed chapter in Dutch footballing history, with ‘simple’, uncontroversial, unmotivated and indefensible (given the chance to play a beatable Czech Republic outfit in the quarter-finals) underachievement now joining penalties (1992, 1996, 1998, 2000), in-fighting (1976, 1996) and arrogance (1974, 1992) in a history of self-inflicted disappointments for La Oranje.