The rest of Europe seems to be enjoying the fact that orange will not be the colour at the World Cup. Some Dutch people even agree, says Derek Brookman
In the wake of their team’s defeat at Lansdowne Road and subsequent elimination from next year’s World Cup finals, the Dutch were left to unravel the great mystery: how could such a talented team possibly fail to qualify without even taking the issue to the last round of group matches? Who or what was responsible for killing off their chances? A nation- wide game of Cluedo had begun.
The initial suspect was the Colonel Mustard of the Dutch FA, Louis van Gaal. But was it Louis van Gaal on the Training Ground with Dodgy Tactics? In the Dressing Room with a Crappy Team Talk? In the Dugout with a Dumb Substitution? Van Gaal himself, as befits a man of staggering self-belief, was vague about his supposed guilt, refusing to admit to any tactical incompetence, and saying he’d need some time to define just what he thought had gone wrong (at the time of going to press, the answer, my friends, is blowing you-know-where).
Meanwhile some of the Dutch camp hinted at the identity of another culprit: grass. The pitch was far too shaggy. “It meant we couldn’t play combination football,” said Kevin Hofland. “It’s lovely and green,” retorted Roy Keane. Evidently it was so bad that Jason McAteer cunningly hid himself behind a particularly long tuft in the penalty box for fully 15 minutes before leaping out and scoring.
As for the Dutch players, few emerged with any real credit. Mario Melchiot was ball-watching when the goal was scored, Mark van Bommel was chasing Roy Keane’s shadow all afternoon, Ruud van Nistelrooy was further down the learning curve than had previously been imagined, and what Hasselbaink was doing on the wing was anyone’s guess.
But the real reason for the failure has more to do with attitude, something that has consistently let this wonderfully gifted generation of Dutch players down. They have lost too many penalty shoot-outs and failed to win too many crucial matches for it to be coincidence. The Dutch public agree. A radio poll on the Monday after Dublin revealed that 81 per cent of respondents thought there was something amiss with the mentality of the Dutch national team. Eighty-one per cent! It raised one obvious question: are the other 19 per cent nutters?
Player-for-player, the Dutch side is probably the best in the world, but as a collective it lacks steel. Despite having combative types like Arthur Numan, Jaap Stam and Van Bommel (and the sorely missed Edgar Davids) they often find it hard to rally themselves in the face of adversity. At times it seems the whole team could pass through the footballing equivalent of an airport metal detector with the only bleep coming from Patrick Kluivert’s piercings.
Yet there have been no repercussions. None of the players has announced his retirement from the international arena. The excellent Dutch youth system rightly remains beyond suspicion. And Van Gaal is still in control, albeit temporarily muted and – who knows – maybe even a micro-iota meeker. His inability to increase the team’s resilience would seem to be the main reason Van der Sar & Co will be enjoying a sushi-free summer next year, yet the manager has escaped serious scrutiny by the beaks who run the Dutch game. Possibly, as a few have suggested, because there is no credible alternative.
But, as with everything, a sense of perspective always helps. The Dutch are a pragmatic people. Many expressed a certain satisfaction that their footballing multi-millionaires would have to sit out the big party for once. Others were relieved that they would be spared the ritual “Orange madness” which sees faces, cars, houses and even whole streets turned into a giant Outspan commercial. Few begrudged the Irish their win, and many saw in them an embodiment of the commitment and passion their own team lacked. And – maybe most important of all – the Germans lost 5-1 at home the same day, which was a remarkably effective balm for the nation’s wounded soul.
From WSC 177 November 2001. What was happening this month