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A Clockwork Oranje: A Look at the Dutch, Past and Present

June 1, 2010

Arguably the world’s greatest team to never win the World Cup, the Netherlands looks to recover from their disappointing Euro 2008 campaign and continue their successes from World Cup qualifying to exorcise their demons from World Cups past. In Euro 2008, they were drawn into the “Group of Death,” but started the tournament convincing fashion, shutting out reigning World Cup Champion Italy 3-0, embarrassing France 4-1, and ending the group stage with a 2-0 victory over Romania. In the quarterfinals, Ruud van Nistelrooy netted a late 86th minute equalizer before falling to Russia, coached by former coach and fellow countryman Guus Hiddink. The Dutch whomped through 2010 World Cup qualifying, posting a 100 percent record, winning all eight matches, and outscoring their opponents 17 to 2 in the process, led by three goals from A.C. Milan’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Liverpool’s Dirk Kuyt. Drawn into Group E with defensive-minded Denmark, one-dimensional (Samuel Eto’o) Cameroon, and physically outmatched Japan, the Netherlands are in position to win their group and possibly face Brazil in a revenge-filled semi-final and a rivalry-filled final with neighbor Germany to finally survive the knockout stages and raise a World Cup trophy.

THE PAST

Following a 36-year absence from the World Cup, they qualified for the 1974 World Cup and so began the Dutch traditions of Total Football and Clockwork Oranje with their beautiful, exciting play which continues to attract neutral observers to adopt the Netherlands as a favorite team, even today. The Netherlands rolled through the tournament, outscoring their opponents (which included powers Brazil and Argentina) 14 to 1 en route to a 5-1-0 record and a final match-up with West Germany in Munich. In the final, the Germans didn’t touch the ball until the keeper picked the Dutch’s first and lone goal out of the net in the second minute. The Germans, however, rallied to a 2-1 victory, taking advantage of a favorable penalty call for their first goal. The 1978 edition returned to the final, only to face the hosts (Argentina) again. Mired in controversy, the Dutch, again, came up just short, losing 3-1 in extra time after hitting the post in the last minute of regulation. A decade later, they would capture the European Championship, avenging the 1974 defeat to West Germany 2-1 in the semi-finals, setting off a renewed soccer rivalry that dates back to World War Two, and then followed up that spirited performance with a 2-0 victory over the Soviet Union in the final. The closest they would come to lifting another trophy would the 1998 World Cup. The Dutch would avenge the 1978 defeat to Argentina 2-1 on an 89th minute goal in the quarterfinals, but lost in penalty kicks to Brazil in the semis. In recent years, a lack of defense, the presence of egos, and bad luck have led to untimely exits from European and World Cup competition, but this year’s Total Football may result in Total Victory for the oft-unlucky Dutch.

THE PRESENT

THE ATTACK

With their two most creative and skillful players, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, in top form at Champions League Final participants Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, respectively, the Netherland’s brand of Total Football is expected to flourish at this year’s World Cup. At the other attacking positions, particularly on the wings there is an abundance of young talent, led by PSV Eindhoven’s Ibrahim Afellay, Liverpool’s Ryan Babel, and Hamburger SV’s Eljero Elia to complement veterans Kuyt and Real Madrid’s Rafael van der Vaart. Each of these seven players, along with Arsenal’s Robin van Persie, make up the dynamic midfield and attack-minded midfield for the Dutch with most, if not all, of these players able to play at either wing or attacking midfielder in the Netherland’s fluid 4-5-1 formation. Van Persie is expected to fill the void left by the retired van Nistelrooy as the lone striker, but Kuyt and Huntelaar have also seen time at this position, as in World Cup qualifying. Playing just behind the wingers and attacking midfielder is Mark van Bommel, who anchored the midfield for Champions League runner-up Bayern Munich and Nigel de Jong, infamous for his dangerous slide tackle of the United States’ Stuart Holden in a March friendly. The third man in the holding midfielder rotation looks to be Ajax’s Demy de Zeeuw who played sparingly in the Netherland’s 2008 Euro campaign and in recent friendlies.

THE DEFENSE

While Manchester United and national side mainstay Edwin van der Sar retired from international competition following Euro 2008, the Netherland’s defense looks and is expected to be an improvement from past Dutch squads with increased experience, particularly with center-backs John Heitinga and Joris Mathijsen seeing time in the English Premiership (Everton) and Bundesliga (Hamburger SV), respectively. Two wily veterans look to start at the outside-backs with Captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst, of Feyenoord, manning left back and VFB Stuttgart’s Khalid Boulahrouz at right back. They will be playing in front of 27-year old Ajax goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg who played in the Romania match of Euro 2008 and also the Mexico friendly this past month. Also, look for 22-year old Ajax outside-back Gregory van der Wiel, who’s played well in recent friendlies, give manager Bert van Marwijk a more attacking-minded option at outside-back compared to Boulahrouz.

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