Oranje peeled: end of an era in Dutch football

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The retirement of the illustrious Arjen Robben following the Netherlands’ failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup hammers a final nail in the Netherlands’ waning star, one that forever hovers longingly around the cusp of greatness.

Arjen Robben was a master of cutting inside, his favourite mode of goal-scoring. With the Netherlands not having made the cut for the 2018's big trophy tournament, Robben chose to cut himself out. | AP

On December 1, 2017, various dignitaries, representatives of various national footballing associations and the media will descend on the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow. The occasion? The venue with a capacity to host 6,000 spectators — which will be the cynosure of the world’s media for a few hours — will play host to the group stage draw ceremony of the forthcoming FIFA 2018 World Cup. As fans around the world wait with bated breath for the group stage draw, they will no doubt lament the conspicuous absence of one footballing nation — one with a glorious footballing tradition at that. If you haven’t guessed, it’s the Netherlands football team.

A few days ago, the Netherlands had beaten Sweden 2-0. Unfortunately, it would prove to be the end of their road. In the European qualifying section, the nine group winners automatically qualify for the main draw. The eight best runners-up (as per pre-decided criteria such as points, goal difference, etc.) are split into two groups of four who then play a two-legged playoff. The four playoff winners along with the 9 group winners are the 13 European representatives in the World Cup. With dismal showings in their World cup qualifying group, the Netherlands found themselves needing to beat Sweden by a seven-goal margin in that match to finish second in their group. With no big trophy to play for, Arjen Robben, one of their most attacking lynchpins over the last few years, then retired from international duties. For a nation that was blessed with some of the most dazzling players the game has ever seen, the failure to qualify was a steep fall from earlier standards.

 

The Netherlands football team burst into popular footballing imagination during the 1970s. Spearheaded by the virtuoso Johan Cruyff and coached by Rinus Michels, the Dutch played a brand of fluid, path-breaking and breathtaking football that took football by storm. Dubbed “Total football”, it was a style in which roles were quite fluid and any outfield role could be assumed by any of the outfield players. Say, if a player moved out of position, another player moved into “his” position, thus retaining the shape and the spatial and organisational structure of the team. As can be guessed, this is extremely difficult to practise, requiring a high degree of tactical discipline, technical ability, flexibility and adaptability. Needless to say, the practitioners of the system needed to be highly skilled, and exhibit the utmost concentration and coordination.

 

This system arose from the Dutch club side Ajax — where Michels was a coach and many members of the Netherlands football team were worthy students, with Johan Cruyff playing the role of the star pupil. With this exciting brand of football, Ajax swept aside domestic and continental teams winning domestic titles, and, more importantly, a hat-trick of European Cups between 1971 and 1973. Naturally, the Dutch team were one of the favourites in the 1974 World Cup. The Netherlands topped their group, and crushed the Brazilians and Argentinians in the second group en route to the final against West Germany. And, when the Netherlands were 1-0 in the second minute without a single West German player having touched the ball, it looked like they were going to walk away with the prize. Unfortunately, West Germany would fight back and deny them the prize, thus making Cruyff one of the greatest ever players never to have won the World cup. Four years later, the Netherlands would make the finals and lose at the final hurdle again, this time against Argentina.

After this second disappointment, the team would lose in the group stage of Euro 1980 and then fail to qualify for Euro 1984 and the World cups in 1982 and 1986. Rinus Michels would return to coach Netherlands in 1988 and they would go on to win Euro 1988. With the brilliant Marco van Basten leading the line and other superstars in Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, they would overcome West Germany in the semis and the USSR in the finals to win their only major trophy to date. Since then till 2004, the Dutch team promised a lot before the start of every tournament but would surprisingly under-perform on the big stage; as the cliché went, the calling card of the Dutch would be infighting, mainly due to incidents in the 1990s.

 

Euro 2004 would mark the start of a new era for the Netherlands team: a talented set of youngsters in Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart and John Heitinga were selected in the team. Along with Robin van Persie (who would make the 2006 World cup squad) and Ruud van Nistelrooy (who was one footballing generation older), they would take the Netherlands team to the footballing heights of their glorious past in international competitions. Under the same 2017 coach Dick Advocaat, in 2004, Robben (on his way to Chelsea) dazzled in the group stages and took the team to the semifinals where they lost to the hosts Portugal. They would lose to Portugal again and exit the 2006 World cup in the second round.

The Dutch team would pivot under the Arjen Robben–Wesley Sneijder axis in Euro 2008. By then, Robben had already cut his teeth at Chelsea and moved to Real Madrid — where Sneijder would join him. Together, they would account for some spectacular football and big-name scalps in the international game. Many feared the worst when they were drawn in the “Group of Death” along with France, Italy and Romania. But the 2006 World cup finalists France and Italy were brushed off in the group stage with some pulsating, high-tempo football — that too with three-goal margins. Unfortunately, the Dutch would lose steam in the quarterfinals where they would lose to Russia in extra time.

 

Nothing should take away from the fact that at their best, they dazzled the footballing world and took apart established teams with such ferocity that forced their opponents to introspect and change tack

Two years later, 2010 would be their finest year in contemporary footballing history. With Florentino Perez shunting them out at Real Madrid, Robben and Sneijder would move to Bayern Munich and Inter Milan in 2009. In less than a year, both would be contesting the 2010 Champions League final (in Real Madrid’s stadium) after having won the domestic double. Within a couple of months, they would knock out Brazil in the quarterfinals, reach the 2010 World cup final and lose narrowly to Spain in extra time in a bruising encounter; Robben would fail to finish a one-on-one chance in normal time. Spare a thought for Wesley Sneijder — winning the treble with Inter Milan and reaching the World Cup final (being joint top-scorer) was not enough to earn him a top 3 spot in the FIFA Ballon d’Or.

The near-miss against Spain in the 2010 World Cup would be definitive of this generation — the big-game choker. Unlike their era-defining predecessors, this Netherlands team was ruthlessly efficient and adapted to the needs of the tournament; in 2008, they would play expansive, attacking football to subdue the dour, defensive 2006 World cup finalists; in 2010, they would go toe-to-toe with almost every other team barring Spain and opt for a much-criticised physical approach against the pass-masters. Robben would have to wait for three more years to exorcise the big miss in the 2013 Champions league final victory. In 2014, the team would get their revenge against Spain and end their hegemony by thrashing them 5-1 and reach the semifinals. The Euro 2012 group stage knock out was seen as an aberration but the recent non-qualification (in addition to not having made it to Euro 2016) has officially ended their era.

 

What is applicable to Robben seems to apply to the Netherlands team as well: hovering around the cusp of greatness, capable of brilliant moments on the big stage, but not quite able to grab the winner’s medal. They also happened to inhabit the same temporal space as the Spanish national team and the Cristiano Ronaldo–Lionel Messi duopoly which would monopolise all team and individual honours. Unfortunately, this gifted generation had nothing to show in terms of trophies unlike their counterparts from Spain and Germany. Probably, in any other era, they and their players might have won a prize or two that counted in world football; but nothing should take away from the fact that at their best, they dazzled the footballing world and took apart established teams with such ferocity that forced their opponents to introspect and change tack — France, Italy, Brazil and Spain. At the end of an era of its own, it is perhaps fitting to accord a new insignia to this recent batch of Oranje — the Ender of Eras.

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