The Netherlands, a country well famed for its proficiency in a number of sports, will be aiming to add one more feather to the cap of their glorious sporting history, as they travel to South Africa in search of the elusive World Cup title. With Johann Cryuff at the helm and Rinus Michels managing the national squad in the 1970s, the Oranje pioneered the practice of ‘total football’ (Totaalvoetbal in Dutch), which took the world by storm, and put Cryuff in the international spotlight.
The 1974 World Cup saw a rampant Netherlands cruise to the finals, crushing Argentina, East Germany and Brazil with their brand of total football. The final against West Germany will be remembered for the Dutch’s first goal.
Cruyff kicked off proceedings, and the ball was passed around the Oranje team 13 times before returning to Cruyff, who eluded Berti Vogts to enter the opponent’s box, before being fouled by Uli Hoeneß . Johan Neeskens scored from the spot to give the Netherlands a 1–0 lead, and the Germans had not even touched the ball. However, two goals from Paul Breitner and Gerd Muller shattered the Dutch hopes, and Netherlands ended second best.
The men in orange also made it to the finals of the 1978 World Cup, but lost to hosts Argentina by a 2 goal margin, going into extra time. They finally tasted success after a decade, beating West Germany to clinch the 1988 Euro Cup thanks to a 89th minute goal by the tournament top scorer Marco Van Basten; many touted this as a vengeance match, to avenge the 1974 World Cup loss.
The team has had a relatively barren run since winning the Euro 1988 tourney, with their best result being the semifinals of the 1998 World Cup and the 2004 Euro Cup.
In the 2008 edition of the Euro cup, the Dutch maintained a clean sweep in the group stages, defeating powerhouses Italy and France by comfortablt three-goal margins, but were foiled by Guus Hiddink’s tactical brilliance; losing 3-1 to Russia in the quarterfinals. In the qualifier matches to the upcoming World Cup, the Dutch maintained a perfect record by winning all eight games, which made them the first team to qualify for the tournament.
Despite boasting of established and proven stars like Johann Cryuff, Dennis Bergkamp, Ruud Gullit, Patrick Kluivert, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Arjen Robben, Robin Van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Klaas Jan Huntelaar and other quality players throughout the decades, the Dutch are yet to make a notable achievement on the global football map.
Along with Spain, they are the perennial underachievers in football, despite being one of the best teams in the World. However, they can take a cue from Spain’s Euro triumph in 2008, and perhaps the World Cup could provide them the best platform to finally conquer the demons of the past. Can Bert van Marwijk, the head coach of the Netherland, take the teams to greater heights, befitting the abundance of quality in its ranks?
Edwin Van Der Sar’s decision to retire from International football after the Euro 2008 meant that Maarten Stekelenberg became the automatic choice for the custodian duty, with Henk Timmer and Michel Vorm providing the back-up options. However, none of the current goalkeepers will be able to marshal the defense as efficiently as the Manchester United goalkeeper did. The national team will certainly miss his immense presence between the goal posts and his impeccable anticipation skills.
With a rather suspect defense, the pressure is on Stekelenberg to hold his fort against quality oppositions, and if the Ajax shot stopper can achieve what is required of him on a consistent basis, the Dutch will be able to progress to the next round of the tournament.
Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, the captain of the national team, will occupy the left back position. With 97 caps to his name, the team will be banking on his experience and instincts to handle pacy wingers, which most of the international teams accommodate in their ranks. However, he will have to be at his consistent best in every match, and age could be a deciding factor in his performance. Edson Braafheid, playing on loan at Celtic from Bayern Munich, will be his deputy, but has no real exposure to international football.
Everton’s John Heitinga features prominently in the right back position, despite donning the center back role for his club. Another option for this spot is Gregory Van Der Wiel, a natural right back. The Ajax youth system product has been praised for his attacking capabilities and his runs down the flank. However, van Marwijk will opt for Heitinga to provide some defensive stability, and leave the attacking to the team’s talented midfield and forwards.
Andre Ooijer and Joris Mathijsen make up the central defense pair. The duo has featured in every single qualifying match, and was primarily responsible for the team conceding only two goals in eight matches. Occasionally, van Marwijk rotated these players with Heitinga in the international friendlies, with either Khalid Boulharouz or Van Der Wiel occupying the right back spot.
However, this time it would be safer to play the veterans in the vital central positions, as they have the experience to absorb attacks effectively. Either of Ron Vlaar and Dirk Mercellis could be tried as backups for this role. Chelsea starlet Jeffrey Bruma could also be picked by van Marwijk for the trip to South Africa, based on his performances in the under-21 team.
Nigel De Jong forms an integral part of the squad, after his successful ongoing stint at Manchester City. His ability to break up attacks and play the screening midfielder role earned him a first team place, and he played a vital part in the group stages of Euro 2008. He forms an impressive partnership with Mark van Bommel in the center of the midfield, the latter switching between the attacking and defensive midfield role with aplomb.
The dirty work done by the duo provides the creative outlet for the attacking players to ply their trade. Demy De Zeeuw can fill in for either of them, should the need arise.
The attacking midfield front boasts of a multitude of stars. Wesley Sneijder, Rafael Van Der Vaart and Arjen Robben could walk into any first eleven team in the world, and they have the potential to split open defenses with their guile, passing and vision. Sneijder is a dead ball specialist and can score excellent free kicks, while Robben is known for his penchant for scoring goals from any position on the pitch.
Van Der Vaart can play in Sneijder’s role or in the hole behind the striker. In addition to the trio, van Marwijk also has Ibrahim Afellay and the towering Orlando Engelaar at his disposal, for the creative role.
Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s retirement in 2008 meant that the battle for the main striker’s spot was between Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Robin Van Persie and Dirk Kuyt, with Ryan Babel and Eljero Elia playing the support striker if needed.
Kuyt’s hardworking abilities, his ability to play on the right wing, and his knack for scoring important goals, makes him a prime candidate in the starting eleven. Van Persie hit a purple patch in the second half of 2009, and looked set to carry his form onto the international stage.,only for an unfortunate ankle injury, under a tackle by Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini in a friendly, to rule the left footed striker out for four months.
Huntelaar needs to recapture the prolific goal scoring form he displayed at Ajax, if he wishes to acquire automatic selection for the position upfront. Babel and Elia can play flexibly on the wings or in the striker’s role, depending on the formation.
Bert van Marwijk faces a huge selection headache in the attacking areas, given the abundance of attacking players at his disposal. He will have to decide the best formation, to enable a mix of experience and highly talented players to capitalize on their strengths, and also decide on the squad rotation. A 4-3-2-1 or a 4-3-3 formation would facilitate the attacking style extolled by the Oranje, but it can also be shifted to a 4-5-1 paradigm to accommodate both Sneijder and Van Der Vaart, who are essentially similar players. If van Persie can return to fitness and be able to participate in the tournament, the 4-3-3 formation would be the preferred option. The ideal formation for the Dutch would be something like this:
Heitinga Ooijer Mathijsen van Bronckhorst
van Bommel de Jong
Sneijder/van Der Vaart
Huntelaar/ van Persie
The Oranje will travel to South Africa, hoping to set the record straight. Given their history of choking in the crucial stages of a tournament, the onus will be on the attacking players to fire on all cylinders, while De Jong and van Bommel will play a crucial role in shielding the back four and breaking down attacks. If the players set their focus on winning the games one by one, without the thought of their national team’s dubious football history feasting on their minds, it won’t be impossible for the fans to realize the dream of seeing their idols lift the magical trophy for the first time.