Often credited with reinventing the beautiful game through ‘Total Football’, the Dutch national team has never been short of talent. However, a year on from the death of their most famous son, “The Oranje‘s” fortunes have turned and they are now at risk of not even making it to Russia in 2018. Questions are being asked – where did it all go wrong? And can it be fixed?
There was once a time when Dutch football was idolised and feared by opponents across the globe: the total football of the 1970s, the European champions of the late 1980s, and even the brawn and brutality of the 2010 team who finished runners-up at the World Cup in South Africa. Impressive teams, each with their own strengths and each capable of beating anyone who dared to get in their way at a tournament.
Fast forward to now and, following the recent 2-0 defeat to Bulgaria, the Netherlands are in serious danger of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, which would mean they would miss out on a second consecutive major tournament after failing to make it to Euro 2016.
Danny Blind has paid for the team’s shortcomings with his job, and “The Oranje” are now looking for their seventh manager since Dick Advocaat took the reins for a second term in 2002. The days of Cruyff, Bergkamp, Kluivert, and even recent heroes van Persie and van der Vaart seem like a distant memory, with the current selection failing miserably to live up to expectations. Heads are being scratched, for how could a nation so
Heads are being scratched; for how could a nation so steeped in football tradition, and with players scattered amongst the biggest clubs in Europe, go from finishing runners-up at a World Cup to failing to qualify for two major tournaments in the space of just 8 years?
Following their run to the 2010 World Cup final, Bert van Marwijk’s side were ranked number 1 in the FIFA World rankings in September 2011, becoming only the second team in history, after Spain, to top the rankings without having won a World Cup. Things were looking rosy in the run up to Euro 2012, which ultimately ended in complete disaster for the Dutch as they crashed out without winning a single point against Germany, Portugal and Denmark in Group B.
It would be easy to argue that the Netherlands found themselves on the receiving end of a tough group stage draw, but for a squad that contained Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Robin van Persie still in their prime, their calamitous exit marked a huge underachievement and van Marwijk walked soon after.
Louis van Gaal’s return as manager following the debacle in Poland and Ukraine regenerated a much-needed hype and interest following the disappointment of Euro 2012. Van Gaal, in the same way he would do later at Manchester United, implemented a 3-5-2 formation, realising that the Dutch team would not be able to win a major tournament on talent alone. “The Oranje” sailed through qualifying and stunned the football world when they thrashed holders Spain 5-1 in their opening group game, a game that will be remembered for Robin van Persie’s stunning headed goal.
The tide, it seemed, was turning. In the last 16, van Gaal’s men dispatched Mexico before seeing off Costa Rica in a dramatic penalty shoot-out, with Tim Krul coming off the bench to save two spot kicks. Argentina and Lionel Messi presented a formidable opposition in the semi-final but, under van Gaal’s rigid and structured system, the Dutch held out to take the game to penalties, where they were eventually beaten 4-2, thanks to the heroics of Argentina keeper Sergio Romero.
Van Gaal left for Old Trafford having restored pride to a legendary football nation, and having instilled hope in the future by settling the likes of Memphis Depay into the international fold.
The optimism was not to last. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but it was perhaps the decision to replace van Gaal with Guus Hiddink that marked the start of “The Oranje’s” current decline. Hiddink, famed for twice steadying the ship at Chelsea, has been well credited with creating harmonious and cooperative dressing rooms, but question marks have always remained over his tactical ability.
On paper, the Netherlands were the standout team in Group A of Euro 2016 qualifying but a miserable campaign including defeats to the Czech Republic (twice), Iceland (twice) and Turkey meant the Dutch finished fourth and missed out on a European Championship for the first time since 1984.
Hiddink, who departed midway through the disastrous qualifying campaign, was replaced by his assistant, former Ajax player and coach Danny Blind. However, Blind failed to inspire a change in fortunes and departed after the shock 2-0 defeat to Bulgaria, which has left this once great nation’s hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup hanging by a thread.
The current state of Dutch football doesn’t paint a pretty picture, but is there hope? Frank de Boer and Louis van Gaal are tipped as favourites to take the job, with Dutch fans dreaming of Ronald Koeman. Whoever takes over will find themselves with plenty of work to do. Danny Blind’s final squad had an average age of 25, ranging from hot prospects like 17-year-old Matthijs de Ligt and Memphis Depay, to seasoned pros like Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder.
It seems then that the Netherland’s best chance of a return to the glory days is through their youth. There is an unspoken acceptance that the days of the likes of van Persie and van Nistlerooy are gone, and with the Ajax academy continuing to churn out future stars, the next Dutch manager must be afforded the time to embrace the future.
However, there is a case of too much too soon, as it was debutant de Ligt who made the error that led to Bulgaria’s opener on Friday night and began to tap that final nail into Blind’s coffin. It is clear then that the next manager of this once formidable football force will have a delicate balancing act on his hands – deliver results now, but also look ahead to the future.
Conal Murnin, Pundit Arena