Holland’s World Cup history is a tale of greatness without glory

The starting XI of the current Dutch team line-up for a pre-match pose against Ghana in a friendly on Tuesday. Can the current Dutch team deliver its first-ever World Cup gold in South Africa?  

Every major international football tournament in recent years seems to give one group of players the dubious honour of being cast as the “golden generation”. Portugal kicked off the trend when their Fifa Youth Championship winners of 1989 and 1991 were feted as potential world champions and even England's 2006 squad earned the tag, a ludicrous example of hype that deepened the disappointment after their incoherent and lacklustre exhibition in Germany.

This time Spain, unsurprisingly after their stellar showing at Euro 2008, and Holland travel to South Africa with the burden of expectation that a nucleus of players who have grown up together have the wherewithal to graduate as their country's first World Cup-winning side.

This is not a unique experience for the Dutch who, with their talent for producing players with scintillating technique, intelligence and, it has to be said, often arsey dispositions, have provided some of the World Cup's most breathtaking episodes. The 1974 team, of course, remains the pinnacle but the last knockings for that formidable core of players in 1978 produced one of the best displays I have ever seen when, inspired by the dazzling wingers Rob Rensenbrink and Johnny Rep, they demolished a capable Austria side 5-1 in the second group stage. It is easy to pinpoint Johan Cruyff's absence from Argentina as crucial to their failure to win the tournament but they compensated by introducing devastating long shots into their repertoire, which were a key component of their progress to the final.

The 1990 team were expected to flourish but the high hopes invested in them after winning the European Championship two years earlier were torpedoed by West Germany in that bad-tempered second-round game, now remembered more for Frank Rijkaard's gob into Rudi Völler's perm than for Jürgen Klinsmann's commanding centre-forward performance. They were defeated but in truth it was a misleading cameo, the only time a disjointed team recaptured any of the verve they had mastered in Germany.

In 1988 the Dutch had the 37-year-old Arnold Mühren in the team, the man his Manchester United colleague Norman Whiteside was tickled to address habitually as “Arnold Johannes Hyacinthus Mühren, son of Arnold Pietrus Hyacinthus Mühren”. Perhaps they would have fared better in Italy if they had been able to call on such a graceful midfielder, whose calm head and sublime passing had served them so well during Holland's greatest success.

Similarly in the U.S. in 1994 had Ruud Gullit, who had just enjoyed a resurgent season with Sampdoria, not departed the squad in a strop before the finals began, Holland might have been able to maintain their astounding comeback from 2-0 down in the quarter-final against Brazil instead of eventually succumbing to Branco's marvellous winner. But although they did lack experience in attack, the failings were more the slowness of Ronald Koeman and a linesman allowing Bebeto's goal to put Brazil 2-0 up despite Romário's initial offside position.

The sadness at them going out, however, was nothing compared to the sense of regret at their fate in 1998. I do not think the talent at Holland's disposal in France has ever received the credit it deserved. Dennis Begkamp's brilliant goal in the quarter-final against Argentina has overshadowed the deftness of Patrick Kluivert's opener but it was their strength in midfield — Edgar Davids, Ronald de Boer, Phillip Cocu and Wim Jonk — that was a delight. Sheffield Wednesday fans may not have many warm memories of Jonk, whose persistent injuries and high salary became the butt of criticism at Hillsborough, but I recall his intuitive, seemingly telepathic understanding of Bergkamp's positioning with genuine affection.

With Davids at his tenacious best, Cocu the supreme exponent of get-and-give efficiency and Ronald de Boer's probing runs and smart lay-offs, they formed one of the best quartets I have seen. Kluivert, too, had an outstanding game in the semi-final against Brazil, leading the line with an industry that made his subsequent blasé attitude to physical exertion a dreadful waste. And after their defeat in the penalty shoot-out, Frank de Boer's astonishing lack of sympathy for his twin after Ronald had missed the decisive penalty became a defining motif of Dutch stubbornness.

Of all the teams one follows as a fellow traveller at World Cups, the Dutch have given me more moments of pleasure than any other and as many causes of exasperation as any one but England. If this is finally to be their year, if Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie can make up for the shortcomings in their defence, it will be the culmination of a long and often agonising journey that will comfort this romantic if England prove incapable of winning. I just won't be banking on it after decades of blighted hopes.

© Guardian News and Media 2010

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Printable version | May 4, 2021 1:24:41 AM |

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