Barring a seven-goal victory against Sweden this evening, the Netherlands will miss out on a second consecutive major international tournament. It’s a sad state of affairs for a nation that once took pride in being at the forefront of the games innovation, and even came 3rd as recently as the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
For many, it has come as a shock to see Holland decline at such an alarming rate but in truth, the warning signs have been there for several years and can be traced back as early as the turn of the millennium. To understand the problem, we must first understand the history.
A loss of identity
Johan Cruyff is, and forever will be, the godfather of Dutch football. His seminal work gave us the blueprint upon which modern football has been built. However, in 1988, after he left his position as head coach of Ajax to take up the managerial role at FC Barcelona, something changed.
Waiting in the wings in Amsterdam, was a young coach by the name of Louis Van Gaal. Deemed too young to be placed in immediate charge of first-team proceedings, Van Gaal became assistant manager before getting his opportunity to take the reins three years later. His methodologies differed somewhat from Cruyff’s in the sense Van Gaal instilled within each squad member the importance of working as a collective ahead of individual expression.
His side would reach unprecedented heights, capturing the 1995 Champions League crown but amidst all the glory, a deep-rooted rivalry was born between Van Gaal and his predecessor. This deviation away from pure footballing aesthetics didn’t sit well with Cruyff and would spark a feud that lasted for the rest of his life.
Jump forward to 2000, and the KNVB were looking for a new head coach to take the national team forward. Both Cruyff and Van Gaal’s names were in the hat but eventually, it was the latter’s who was plucked out and placed in the hot seat. Here, we can see where Holland first shifted their philosophy away from ‘total football’.
Time travel again to the 2010 World Cup final, and the result of a decade away from Cruyff’s ideals had taken full effect. Yes, they reached the final, but the manner of which the game was contested left a bitter taste in the mouths of all in the low country. “We’re not entirely losing our soul, but perhaps we are losing half of our soul.” Those the words of Dutch author, Paul Scheffer.
Negatives of the games continued globalisation
Another issue is that of the vast riches residing outside the Eredivisie. Competing with TV revenue of Europe’s ‘top 5’ leagues is no mean feat, and it is something that has subsequently seen Holland’s domestic football plummet. With coaches in the Netherlands still seen as the vanguard within the game, fewer and fewer youth players are getting the chance to learn from them.
The Premier League is the richest league in world football and has an outstanding scouting network. This invariably leads to other countries top talent being cherry-picked at an early age and placed in English academies. Such is the cut-throat nature of British football, that should an adolescent not immediately demonstrate their aptitude, they are cast aside and left to rot.
Furthermore, the gifted few that do decide to stay and develop before eventually making their big move can end up being stockpiled by the game’s behemoths. Barcelona, for example, sought to replace the outgoing Claudio Bravo last season by signing Jasper Cillessen. The Dutch keeper started their last qualifier against Belarus despite not featuring once for his club side yet this season.
Diminishing talent pool
The South American peninsula of Suriname has been a hotbed of talent over the years. The nation was a Dutch colony until gaining independence in 1975 but the two countries have remained interlinked ever since with numerous professional footballers of Surinamese origin turning out in the colours of Les Oranje over the years.
In the 1980’s and ‘90’s, Suriname gave Holland the likes of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit, Patrick Kluivert and Edgar Davids. They became national heroes, helping the Netherlands to international and continental glory such as the 1988 European Championships, and Ajax’s aforementioned treble. Since the turn of the millennium, though, such talent has become sparse and led Holland to an over-reliance on Dutch-born players.
With key men Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, and Robin van Persie now all in their 30’s, it appears there is also a lack of indigenous talent within the Netherlands ready to pick up the torch and run with it. Such a diluted pool to select from has understandably had a negative impact on results in recent years and this, combined with a lack of tactical identity and the callous remit of Europe’s elite clubs, has regrettably brought this once proud-standing footballing nation to its knees.
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