By Dave Downie
I COULDN’T THINK of a more colourful team to be given in this World Cup preview thing.
I didn’t know who to write about – the Netherlands, Holland or the Dutch. Greedy bastards seem to have everything in abundance that anyone from anywhere could want in life, not least footballing talent. But sometimes like true genius, somewhere in that gene pool is the tendency to go absolutely mental and seemingly pursue the will to cock everything up.
For every Bergkamp there’s a Van Hooijdonk, every Van Nistelrooy, a Davids, and, just for us, for every Kuyt, there’s a Heitinga. You get the idea.
Anyway, the fact is, the Dutch have largely always been gifted with world class talent, yet rarely seem to get things right when it comes to major tournaments. The reason for this is something that has become a common trait within the modern game: ego undoes unity.
There’s plenty of evidence to prove this theory that will have probably sprung to your mind in the few words you’ve read so far. Arguments among players at training camps, last-minute withdrawals and mutinous coups against coaches have all contributed to their downfall at major tournaments.
But perhaps their greatest weakness is the most important reason they’re so brilliant to watch. It’s also one of many excellent arguments put forward by David Winner in his book: Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football.
“The Dutch seem to be downright allergic to any form of authority, leadership and collective discipline,” says Winner. But the reasons for this are ingrained within the psyche of a country where historically, teamwork has never been anywhere near it’s strongest attribute.
“Holland’s famous “Total Football,” a fluid and creative approach to the game, is deeply steeped in democratic impulses,” says Winner.
“The Dutch system allows every player to express and distinguish himself by moving in and out of positions on the field. But the flipside of this system is that discipline and inner cohesion were always fragile.”
In other words, individuals and their mercurial talent are encouraged to be just that – individuals. That in itself is often enough to win football matches, but when the time comes where unity and team spirit is required, the Dutch fall desperately short.
In an article by German writer Markus Feldenkirchen written during Euro 2012, the Dutch philosophy is fascinatingly contrasted with that of Germany – a side almost militant in its approach to teamwork. In a pre-tournament friendly in 2012, Holland were defeated 3-2 by Bayern Munich with Arjen Robben lining up against his club side. Throughout the game, the former Chelsea winger was booed and jeered by his home crowd before being whisked away with his family in a limousine while his countrymen sat on the team bus.
Feldenkirchen writes: “In Germany, he is seen as the quintessential egoist, a man who seems to forget about his teammates whenever he sees an opportunity to score a goal. And when he is occasionally forced to sit on the bench, he sulks for weeks. That, at least, is how the Germans view Robben.”
An interview with skipper Mark van Bommel the day after, who is five years a servant to German club football himself, is probably the most damning portrayal of how his side perceive teamwork. When asked if he understands the Bayern crowd’s resentment of Robben, he replied: “Absolutely not. After all, he was personally responsible for shooting Bayern into the final in 2010. And this time he was very important again. You have to appreciate him, and you ought to be happy he’s playing for Bayern. He’s one of the 10 best players in the world.
“In Germany, they want all the players to do the same, and to be well-behaved. But someone like Robben is an exceptional player, a real character. You have to look after someone like that.”
According to Feldenkirchen, although he is talking about Robben, van Bommel might as well be referring to Dutch football in general, and about the fact that Dutch players don’t want to be either equal or well-behaved. In the Netherlands, at any rate, no one thinks Robben is a diva. There’s too much competition for that. The Germans are obedient, but they certainly aren’t genuine characters.
Robben may well have been singled out here, but the madness of Dutch football also means he’ll probably be the key to any success they have in Brazil. This isn’t a squad bursting with the household names of previous years, hence the bookies offering around 28/1 for them to go one better than their runner-up finish four years ago.
But Louis Van Gaal has restored at least some of the attacking impetus the Dutch are renowned for having converted to a more robust and resolute outfit under his predecessor van Marwijk in South Africa. Their goal scoring ability still relies on an ageing trio of van Persie, Robben and Sneijder, but each of those will be desperate to shine in what will probably be their World Cup swan songs.
Van Gaal has been pragmatic in his selection and approach, accepting that his forward players and their prowess are also his best defence. By his own admission, the soon to be Man United boss says there are as many as ten teams who are better than his own in the tournament.
Having only picked six genuine midfielders including Norwich flop Leroy Fer, sadly the Dutch probably won’t be many people’s choices to do much this time. They open their tournament with a repeat of the final they lost in 2010 against Spain before facing Chile and concluding Group B against Australia. Looking at squad lists alone, a runner-up spot looks a quite formidable challenge and even if they manage that, it’s likely that Brazil will be waiting in the first knockout stage.
Sadly it doesn’t look like those crazy Dutch will have much of an impact on the World Cup this year, but it’s difficult to predict how this one will play out for them. With Robben, van Persie and Sneijder, they will always have a goalscoring threat. But an inexperienced midfield and defence could be their undoing.