============================================================================== T H E N E T H E R L A N D S Karel Stokkermans =============================================================================== Thanks to the proximity to the British Isles, the Netherlands were one of the first nations on the continent to start playing football. The pioneer was Pim Mulier, who founded the first football club, H.F.C. from Haarlem, now called K.H.F.C. (Royal H.F.C.). In the years of innocence, just after the turn of the century, the Dutch side was one of the best on the continent, as three Olympic bronze medals prove. After the mid-twenties however, the football centre of Europe shifted to the South and East, and Dutch football sunk into insignificance, despite the occasional drubbing of arch rivals Belgium in the annual meetings and the appearance of the odd gifted player. Participation in two early World Cups (1934 and 1938) was restricted to one appearance, the defeat against Czechoslovakia after extra time in 1938 (0-3) a creditable performance. Things started changing in the fifties. Up until then, amateurism was staunchly adhered to in the Netherlands and the Dutch professionals playing abroad,like Wilkes, De Munck, and Rijvers, were not allowed to play for the Dutch national side. A charity match for the victims of the 1953 flood between a chance team of Dutch professionals abroad and France (where most Dutch pros were playing) changed all that. The Dutch XI won 2-1 and the public saw how much better these professionals had become by playing abroad. Pressure became too much for the Dutch FA, the KNVB. A rival professional organisation was set up in the summer of 1954, and soon the two merged. A nationwide first division, the "eredivisie", was formed in 1956 and slowly things took a turn for the better. The sixties still saw an embarrassing exit at the hands of Luxembourg in the European Nations Cup, but the club sides started improving rapidly. Feyenoord was the first to win the European Cup, but it was Ajax who were to stamp their mark on the international football scene with their 'totaalvoetbal'. The story of the Dutch failure to win a World Cup in the seventies, twice losing to the home country in the final, needs no retelling. Personally, I found the failure to win the European Championship in 1976 even more galling. After convincingly winning a qualification group including Poland and Italy (a group of death if ever there was one) and destroying Belgium 5-0 and 2-1 in the quarterfinal, an ill-tempered semifinal was lost to Czechoslovakia after extra time. It's one of the (many) mysteries of the game that the side built around Cruyff, Van Hanegem, Neeskens, and Krol have no Cup to show for their efforts. The successors of that golden generation faced an impossible task. After an indifferent performance at the EC 1980, the Dutch team narrowly missed qualification for a major tournament three times in succession, Spain's 12-1 victory over Malta in 1983 and Gruen's late away goal in 1985 particularly traumatic, but to be honest, the quality just wasn't there. Slowly however, a new, extraordinary generation had ripened under the guidance of Kees Rijvers, and Rinus Michels, the "generaal", picked the spoils in 1988. Van Basten's winner in the Hamburg semifinal sent a whole nation into orgasm and sealed an uncanny revenge for the final defeat in 1974. Uncanny in that the second half of that semi closely mirrored the first half of that indigestible loss in Munich. Victory in the final over the USSR was a mere extra, embellished by Van Basten's beautiful volley. Hopes were high for more Cups to come, as the core of the team was still young. And was "our" fluent, attacking style not the way for football to go? But after comfortable qualifying campaigns, Oranje failed at the final tournaments. In Italy, an atrocious group performance meant a second round match against the Germans. In one of the few decent matches at Italia Novanta, our neighbours proved to be the clearly better side. Revenge for that defeat was achieved in Sweden '92, but the Dutch players forgot that a semifinal had to be played before they were allowed to take on the Germans again. There are but few days that the Dane in my office fails to remind me. This time around, the Dutch qualified the hard way. They made a bad start, and after two matches their World Cup chances were in serious jeopardy. Only a true team effort helped them out of the mess, under the undisputed guidance of Dick Advocaat, the team coach who proved his mettle by taking unpopular but necessary decisions. Even so, the help of some inexplicable selections by the England manager and an occasional refereeing decision was more than welcome. In the end, Oranje deserved its qualification. If the team spirit built survives the "Cruijff discussion", and the players all accept, as they now seem to, Advocaat as the coach in the World Cup, Oranje can go all the way. The talent is there and the only problem will be in defence. If Advocaat can find two fast defenders able to cover Koeman's lack of pace, this is solvable. He has already found Van Gobbel - hopefully the other will be found before June. Failure to qualify for the second round is unthinkable and unacceptable. In the knock-out stage, anything may happen, but there are but few teams that I think capable of stopping Oranje on their day. I can only hope they are not going to be involved in a penalty shoot-out.