The Netherlands’ inability to reverse a seven-goal swing in their final qualifier for Russia 2018 against Sweden condemned them to their first back-to-back failure in international tournament qualification since 1986. With a severe lack of quality available to the national team manager, and the standing of the national league dipping by the season, TLF wants to know – where did it all go wrong for Holland?
‘Winning is not the most important thing. The most important thing is to play a good game.’ The famous quote from Foppe de Haan, the coach that established SC Heerenveen as a regular Eredivisie side and played a part in developing the Netherlands’ World Cup finalists in his role as under-21s coach in the early part of the century, is a mantra that has been drilled into young Dutch players since the birth of Total Football. The movement started by the English coach Jack Reynolds at Ajax saw fruition when his protégé Rinus Michels took the reins in Amsterdam. It was Michels’ employment of a centre-forward, one Johan Cruyff, that refined the system and turned it into the stuff of footballing legend. Michels would go on to become manager of the national team, reaching the final of the 1974 World Cup, only to lose out to West Germany in a game that most had seen as a foregone conclusion. The Dutch side would repeat this performance in Argentina four years later, albeit without Cruyff, losing to the hosts in Buenos Aires. These finals sandwiched a third place finish at Euro ’76. Despite winning nothing, these were the Netherlands golden years.
A fallow start to the following decade saw them fail to qualify for the World Cup in ’82 and ’86, as well as the Euros in ’84, but by the time Euro ’88 came round a new generation of exciting Dutch footballers had emerged. Ronald Koeman of PSV, Frank Rijkaard of Zaragoza, and Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten of Milan had already established themselves as key players at club level, and during the tournament in West Germany they cemented their place in Dutch folklore. Demonstrating the virtues of Total Football, the Netherlands blew England away in the group stage with a Van Basten hat-trick, and the striker would hit the winners in both the semi-final against West Germany, and in the final against the Soviet Union, with a geometry defying volley. After eight years of hurt, Holland were back.
Between 1988 and 2016 the Dutch failed to qualify for one tournament – being pipped to second place in their group for World Cup 2002 by a dogged Ireland side that were unbeaten throughout the qualification campaign. During that time Holland recorded second, third, and fourth place finishes at the World Cup, as well as three semi-final appearances at the Euros. For the best part of thirty years, they have been sat at the top table of international football, but their third place finish in qualifying this time round has seen them drop to their lowest ever FIFA World Ranking. So how have a team that were a penalty shootout away from reaching their second consecutive final at the last World Cup now below the likes of Costa Rica and Iceland?
The key players for the Netherlands at Brazil 2014 were all aged 30 or over and Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Dirk Kuyt, and Klaas Jan Huntelaar were expected to have, at most, bit part-roles in the campaign for Euro 2016. Arjen Robben, meanwhile, was still a crucial part of the Bayern Munich front-line and far and away Holland’s best player. Plenty of young prospects had travelled in the squad to Brazil, and the feeling was that they would be a reliable part of the Dutch evolution. PSV Eindhoven’s playmaker Gini Wijnaldum looked to be the heir to Sneijder, Ajax’s Joel Veltman would fill the concrete shoes of Ron Vlaar, and there was a promising striker in the under-21 set-up called Vincent Janssen looking to be van Persie’s long term replacement. Louis van Gaal’s departure to Manchester United led the way for Guus Hiddink to take the national team manager’s job for a second time. Having led a young Dutch side to the semi-finals in 1998, Holland fans were confident football’s caretaker could provide a steady hand on the tiller.
The 2016 qualification campaign was, overall, a disaster. Defeats home and away to a fading Czech side and an emerging Iceland were compounded by defeat in Turkey. The Netherlands finished fourth in their group and failed to qualify for a tournament where it seemed just being a professional football team gained you entry. Hiddink departed less than a year into the job, and was replaced by his former captain and assistant manager Danny Blind. The 3-2 home defeat to the Czechs in the final group game saw seven players that weren’t involved in the previous World Cup start for the Netherlands, but it was Huntelaar and van Persie that scored their goals.
These newly blooded players became the spine of the side that started the campaign for Russia 2018 with a 1-1 draw in Sweden. PSV goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet had established himself as number one, as Jasper Cillessen struggled to get first team football at Barcelona; Wolfsburg’s Jeffrey Bruma and Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk joined Daryl Janmaat and Daley Blind in defence; Ajax’s promising youngster Davy Klaasen was introduced into a midfield with Wijnaldum, Kevin Strootman – once Holland’s great hope, but blighted by injuries – and Quincy Promes, an exciting winger who had excelled at CSKA Moscow. Sneijder remained in the team, supporting Janssen up front. On paper, a decent side, but while van Dijk had made a name for himself in the Premier League, the likes of Janmaat and Wijnaldum had recently left relegated Newcastle – their commitment in avoiding the drop heavily questioned by supporters in the north-east. Daley Blind soon found himself out of contention at Manchester United following Jose Mourinho’s appointment, and Janssen’s big money move to Tottenham was quickly becoming a nightmare as he failed to hit the ground running. Memphis Depay, another regular squad member, had been shipped out on loan to Lyon, failing to pull up trees in Manchester. Question marks over the quality of the leagues in Holland and Russia left the jury out on Zoet, Klassen and Promes.
A 2-0 defeat in Bulgaria in March left the Netherlands hopes of qualifying hanging by a thread, and Blind was disposed of. Dick Advocaat, who had picked up the pieces the last time the Dutch had failed to qualify for a major tournament, was appointed, and watched his side convincingly stick five past Luxembourg in his first game. Further youngsters were blooded with Lazio’s Wesley Hoedt and Chelsea’s Nathan Ake both seeing playing time against Luxembourg, but the trust in youth backfired spectacularly as the Dutch were roundly trounced in France during their next qualifier. It seems that between promising youngsters and the dying embers of the 2014 vintage there is no middle ground. The paucity of quality experienced players was outlined when Advocaat recalled a 34 year-old Robin van Persie, whose best days are well behind him, and Ryan Babel, whose best days are a figment of his imagination. The Netherlands squad is, fittingly, in a schism: those that aren’t yet experienced enough for the rigours of international football, and those that no longer have the legs for it.
The problem, however, seems to run deeper than just the national team. From this season there will be no automatic Champions League group stage places for teams in the Eredivisie. The poor performance by Dutch teams in the competition in recent seasons has meant that the drop in league coefficient has gifted their automatic place to the Czech Republic. Given that a Dutch side hasn’t contested the final since Ajax in 1996, this isn’t totally surprising, but for a country that has won six European Cups, it’s a damning indictment. That lack of success at the highest level can be traced back to the early ‘90s when Dutch teams became ‘selling clubs’. The model of scouting for young talent in South America, Africa and Scandinavia paid dividends, with the likes of Romario, Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Luis Suarez all passing through Holland on their way to great things. Alongside the production of exciting Dutch prospects that were farmed out to Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus and Milan, Eredivisie clubs were able to keep themselves healthy financially while also competing in domestic and European competition. Unfortunately the well is beginning to run dry, and the players produced by Dutch clubs in recent years have fallen short of their predecessors.
From the late 80’s to the late 00’s, the best teams in Europe were famed for their inspirational Dutchmen. Arrigo Sacchi’s great Milan side, revered by many as the best club side in history, were built around Gullit, Rijkaard, and van Basten. Van Gaal’s Dutch revolution at Barcelona involved the recruitment of the De Boer brothers, Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars and a host of their countrymen. Manchester United have relied upon Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Edwin van der Sar in three different, but dominant teams. Bayern Munich count Robben and Roy Makaay among their modern legends, while the influence of Dennis Bergkamp in England, Edgar Davids in Italy, and Clarence Seedorf in Spain cannot be underestimated. So the sight of a Ballon D’or shortlist devoid of a Dutchman for the second year running, something not seen since Cruyff was first nominated in 1967, is a source of major concern. It’s also a far cry from 1988, where the top 3 were all members of the European Championship winning side. Seemingly the Dutch are no longer producing world class footballers.
There’s also a dearth of world class managers emerging from the Netherlands. In Europe’s top five leagues there are only two Dutchmen currently employed as managers, compared with three Portuguese and five Argentinians. Ronald Koeman is, depending on which news outlet you read, clinging onto his job at Everton after heavily spending in the summer and a disappointing start to the season. Peter Bosz, on the other hand, is enjoying life in his new role at Borussia Dortmund having taken them to the top of the league after a blistering opening month in charge. Both are tipped to be long-term successes in the game, but the tradition of Dutch managers being big players at European powerhouses seems to have disappeared. For the first time since the advent of Total Football, the decade hasn’t seen a Dutch manager lift the European Cup.
Rinus Michels is considered the first truly great Dutch coach, and as well as taking the national side to the World Cup final in ’74, he also won the European Cup with Ajax, as well as succeeding abroad by bringing the La Liga title back to Barcelona. He returned to the Netherlands set-up to deliver the European Championships in ’88. Michels’ predecessor in the 80’s was Leo Beenhakker, who had spent his formative coaching years moving around less glamorous clubs in Holland before taking over at Ajax in the late 70s. After failing to take the national side to Mexico ’86, he took over at Real Madrid and delivered three La Liga trophies in a three year spell. Beenhakker, though, was unable to end Madrid’s long wait for a European Cup, being knocked out in 1988 by eventual winners PSV Eindhoven, managed by one Guus Hiddink. Hiddink’s nomadic career has seen him cover every corner of the globe and build a reputation as one of the great European coaches, and his career in international management has seen two World Cup semi-final appearances, with the Netherlands in ’98 and, spectacularly, South Korea in 2002.
The emergence of Johan Cruyff as a world class manager had much to do with the tutelage of Rinus Michels, and Cruyff followed his master’s footsteps by taking the top job at Barcelona. In an eight year spell in Catalonia he secured the club’s first ever European Cup in 1992, and won four consecutive La Liga titles, overseeing the first great period of Spanish dominance from Barca, and creating the so-called ‘Dream Team’. The Dutch link at Barcelona was extended with the appointment of Louis van Gaal in 1997. After a season under Bobby Robson, President Josep Nunez was keen for the club to revert to Cruyff’s philosophy, and saw his countryman van Gaal as the perfect proponent of the ‘Dutch Way’. Van Gaal had lifted the Champions League with Ajax two years earlier, and his star was on the rise. Two La Liga titles later, and van Gaal had cemented his place in Barca legend. He later led Bayern Munich to the Bundesliga in 2010, and followed it up with the semi-final place at World Cup 2014. After experimenting with Spanish managers, as well as the ill-fated return of van Gaal and a short spell for Raddy Antic, Frank Rijkaard was brought in to turn Barcelona’s fortunes around, having seen Valencia and Deportivo dislodge them at the top of La Liga. Despite Rijkaard’s relative lack of previous success as a manager, he delivered two league titles and a further Champions League to the Camp Nou. His side’s victory over Arsenal in 2006 is the last time a Dutch manager has lifted the trophy.
But it’s not all doom and gloom in the Lowlands. Peter Bosz led his young Ajax side to the Europa League final last season and, though beaten, they did not look overawed against Manchester United, despite being the youngest ever side named in a European final. The impressive performances of Kenny Tete, Jairo Riedewald, Davy Klaasen, and Colombian Davinson Sanchez earned them all big money moves to Ligue 1 and the Premier League this summer, while Donny van de Beek, Matthijs de Ligt, and Justin Kluivert all look to have exciting careers ahead of them. Ajax’s scouts have also unearthed gems in Cameroon ‘keeper Andre Onana, Czech winger Vaclav Cerny, and Danish forward Kasper Dolberg. It also looks as though Bosz is proving his worth in the Bundesliga. If his Dortmund side can provide a serious challenge to Bayern Munich this season then he could be well on his way to staking a claim as a great Dutch coach.
The Netherlands now face a long spell of licking their wounds and waiting for the UEFA Nations League to commence. They’ll have to suffice watching neighbours Belgium in Russia next summer, a fact that will sting even more. A lot can change in a year in football, and the chance to establish those promising youngsters into the senior national team is one the Dutch must grasp with both hands, or we could soon be talking about the Never Netherlands.