The World Cup starts in just a few hours and the media is awash with hype over Brazil, Spain, Argentina, France, and even England’s chances of contending for that coveted golden trophy.
Among the talk of the favourites, one name in particular is conspicuously absent – Holland.
The 2010 finalists are widely viewed as being in something of a slump, and after being drawn in the “Group of Death” alongside world champions Spain and the much-fancied Chile, many are playing down their chances of even making it past the group stages.
June 13 v Spain
June 18 v Australia
June 23 v Chile
“We have a very difficult group,” admitted Ronald De Boer, part of a fine Dutch side that reached the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup, losing a thriller against Brazil on penalties. “Spain are the favourites. Chile are doing extremely well and I think they outplayed Germany in March, even though they lost.
“Australia is a physical team that is difficult to beat. You won’t get many chances against them. So with a group like this, if you don’t have the luck you need or find your form at the right time, it can be your downfall. But I still think we’re capable of going through alongside Spain.”
Euro 2008 turnaround
De Boer points to Euro 2008 as an example of how dangerous it can be to make predictions before the tournament has even begun. Back then, the Dutch were effectively written off after a poor showing in Germany two years ago, and a draw that pitted them alongside World Cup finalists France and Italy.
But inspired by Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Robin Van Persie, and the marauding runs of Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, they smashed three past Italy before blitzing the French 4-1 to top their group.
“You never know,” De Boer added. “You still have to play the games. We still have Van Persie and Robben and one of the best coaches in the world in Louis Van Gaal. He really knows how to prepare a team, he can find the weaknesses of an opponent and make the right decisions at the right time to change a game. Hopefully some of the young boys can step up too.”
We have Van Persie and Robben and one of the best coaches in the world in Louis Van Gaal. He really knows how to prepare a team
Many of the naysayers downplaying Holland’s chances focus on the shambolic Euro 2012 showing which saw them finish bottom of their group after losing to Denmark, Germany and Portugal. But this ignores the fact that Van Gaal’s side qualified for Brazil with sublime ease, taking 28 points from a possible 30 despite difficult away trips to Turkey and Romania. Recent victories over Wales and Ghana in the warm-up games have only enhanced the mood of quiet optimism in the Dutch camp.
“The team was a bit divided in 2012 with too many captains on board. Everybody wanted to be important. Now we only have two focal points – Van Persie and Robben – and hopefully the youngsters are going to work very hard for them.
“Every team needs a Messi figure and those two guys have to make a difference for us. Van Persie has the experience and the quality of finishing, with penalties and free kicks. Robben has the ability to accelerate and score out of nothing. You need players like that. Memphis Depay is also an exceptional young player who could make a name for himself. He’s not really known outside of PSV but in terms of speed, shot, technical ability, he has everything.”
Attacking prowess has rarely been a problem for the Dutch. Over the years they have supplied an endless stream of players with the flair and imagination to light up major tournaments. Just think of Johan Cruyff, Marco Van Basten, Clarence Seedorf and Dennis Bergkamp. But at the other end of the pitch, they have not always been blessed with the same riches.
De Boer was part of a Dutch side that included legendary defenders such as his brother Frank and Jaap Stam and while he insists that the current crop have plenty of talent, experience is not on their side.
“We have a lot of good defenders but they’re only 18, 19, 20 years old. In three or four years everybody will talk about them. But right now you can’t expect they’ll do everything right. The only one who is experienced is Ron Vlaar from Aston Villa, the others are all very young and if you face someone like Diego Costa, Messi or Neymar that’s another ball game.”
Ruud Gullit captained the Dutch team who won Euro 1998 and he believes that Holland are capable of winning Group B but they need to start aggressively against Spain in their opening game on Friday.
“We can’t end up second because we’ll face Brazil in round two,” he said. “The good thing is that we’re playing Spain in the first game. There is an opportunity. If we get a good result there we have a good chance of qualifying, maybe even top.
“But they need to be physical, not like how we were four years ago. Players take a while to adapt and find themselves at a World Cup. That’s our chance, that’s the moment when you can take advantage and beat them. It’s much better that we’ve got them first rather than in the third match where both teams may have to win.”