Euro 2012 – The Runners & Riders: The Netherlands
With the benefit of hindsight, there seems something inevitable about the crowning of Spain as the world champions in South Africa two years ago. Yet the Netherlands came within minutes of taking the match to a penalty shoot-out and since then have continued the form that they demonstrated, becoming, in August of last year, only the second team in the history of the game to reach number one in FIFAs world rankings without having won the tournament. The Dutch team remains one of the favourites to win this summer’s competition, but the side that fought – in some respects literally – its way to the finals of the World Cup won few friends on the way, and represented something of a break with the in some ways idealistic traditions of the team with its defensive and aggressive system.
The History: World Cup finalists on three occasions and European Champions once, there is probably no other nation on earth for which there is such a contrast between size and population with success on the football pitch. This is a dynasty that began in the early 1970s with the development of the total football system of Rinus Michels. In 1974, his team coasted to the World Cup final before being beaten by the host nation West Germany, and it is this team which inspires one of the great what ifs in the history of international football, even though the team of four years later came closer to lifting the trophy, hitting the post in the last minute of the final in Buenos Aires against Argentina before losing the match in extra-time. The early to mid-1980s saw something of a trough, before a spectacular second coming that saw the team lift the European Championship trophy in West Germany in 1988. Since then, the Dutch team has occasionally flourished and occasionally fallen foul of in-fighting, but it has remained a near-permanent fixture in the finals of major tournaments.
The Team: The Netherlands national team is, of course, riven with top quality players, and these aren’t merely great players, they are great players with enormous amounts of experience. Rafael Van Der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder, Dirk Kuyt, John Heitinga and Mark Van Bommel have over four hundred international caps between them, and if Robin Van Persie can carry anything like his form for Arsenal this season then it seems likely that there will be a perpetual threat to the opposition goal every time this team gets into an attacking position. The Dutch team also has three terrific goalkeepers – Martin Stekelenburg of Roma, Michel Worm of Swansea City and Tim Krul of Newcastle United – and a list of squad players which show up the paucity of options available to Roy Hodgson for what it is.
The Coach: Bert Van Marwijk is, perhaps, proof that a nation doesn’t need to pick a coach that has won everything as a player – or, indeed, as a coach – to be able to build a successful squad. As a player, Van Marwijk’s career was divided between three middle-ranking Dutch sides, Go Ahead Eagles, AZ and MVV Maastricht, with his only playing honours being a KNVB Cup, won in 1978 with AZ, and an Eerste Division (Dutch second tier) title, won with MVV in 1984. He also made one appearance for the Dutch national team. As a coach, he took Fortuna Sittard to the KNVB Cup final in 1999, and this was enough to pique the interest of Feyenoord, where he won the UEFA Cup in 2002. He was less successful in his next managerial position, in Germany with Borussia Dortmund, was less successful, but he returned to Rotterdam in 2007, winning the KNVB Cup with them at the end of his first season before being appointed to manage the national team. In the four years since he was appointed into this position, he has – not including this week’s defeat to Bayern Munich in an exhibition match – lost just four of his forty-five matches in charge of the Dutch team.
The Prospects: In qualifying, the Dutch team won its first nine consecutive matches -including a record 11-0 win against San Marino – before losing its final qualifying match to Sweden, although this came with automatic qualification already assured. Their group features one of the most eagerly anticipated of the entire tournament, a match that is weighted with history as being a face-off against another of the pre-tournament favourites, against Germany. The team kicks off, however, against the group outsiders Denmark, which may prove to settle any nerves, and they finish off with a match against Portugal. Should they get through the group stages, there seems no reason why the Dutch shouldn’t get to the semi-finals of this tournament or further, especially if Van Marwijk can balance the outstanding defensive performances of the last World Cup with the sort of attacking flair that players such as Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie should offer him.
The Kit: Dressed in orange, the Netherlands have switched between black and white as their secondary colours for years, with black having been in vogue of late. This year’s kit – made, as it has been for more than a decade, by Nike, is all orange with black trim, with dark patches on the shirts, while the away kit of all black with orange flashes seems to have been made with one eye on the leisurewear market.
The National Anthem: “Het Wilhelmus” (The William) is the world’s oldest national anthem, and it comes from a popular song about William I, Prince of Orange – the great grandfather of the William of Orange who became William III of England. First committed to paper in 1574, during the 80-year war between the Dutch and Spain, its subject matter is predictably enough concerned with the Dutch fight for independence and the ongoing European struggle between Protestants and Catholics. As befits such an antique, there are a number of curiosities to Het Wilhelmus. Firstly, it is written in the first person, from William’s perspective. Secondly, when written down the anthem is an acrostic, the first letter of the first word of each of the 15 stanzas spelling out ‘Willem van Nassov’. Only the first and sixth are generally sung. As well as spelling out “WM” (Dutch people love Herbert Chapman), these deal with William’s lineage and patriotism, before moving on to a verse asking God to protect the fighting Dutchman. Officially adopted as the national anthem in 1932, it has to be said that the music is somewhat at odds with the general vibrancy of the Oranje.
The British Press Will Say: “Dutch Masters”, “The Future’s Bright, The Future’s Oranje” (if they’re doing well), “Low Country” (if they’re doing badly).
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