The sorry end of an (unsung) golden generation : Holland’s 2010 World Cup heroes Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Maarten Stekelenburg, Robin Van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar could all call time on Holland duty tomorrow night after the Sweden game in Amsterdam. Journalist Alessandro Schiavone has analysed the demise of this former footballing powerhouse and the reasons behind it.
The Netherlands require a miraculous 7-0 win over Sweden in Amsterdam tomorrow to avoid missing out completely on Russia 2018.
Perhaps, not even the notoriously self-confident Dutch believe that such a tall order is possible given the Netherlands’ fading power and the Swede’s current sparkling form.
On Saturday, the Dutch overcame Belarus 3-1 but they coasted for much of the game and only kept their slim World Cup hopes alive when they were awarded a last-gasp penalty which Arjen Robben successfully converted.
Memphis Depay then added a third from a sublime free-kick just seconds before the final whistle.
Overall however, their build-up play left a lot to be desired without the midfield dominance and creativity of Wesley Sneijder and Kevin Strootman.
On many occasions, they could even have counted themsleves lucky not to fall behind as Belarus threatened through sharp counter-attacks with Holland being easily caught out on the break.
Despite winning, the number of goals they wanted did not materialize as two hours earlier Sweden had torn Luxembourg to shreds (8-0) in Stockholm.
The Netherlands entered the game knowing that their fate had already been all but sealed as they are likely to miss out on a play-off spot as Sweden command the better goal difference. Thus the agony of disappointment was written large on their players’ faces during each of the ninety minutes.
That said, this has been coming for the Netherlands given their miserable form since the World Cup 2014 when they ended in third place.
Two years ago, they shockingly missed out on a place at Euro 2016 and this time around their inability to beat Bulgaria away earlier this year was probably the final straw.
Where has it all gone wrong for a once brilliant and innovative footballing nation? What should we put this irresistible decline down to? What are the sources of their problems?
In a nutshell, their best players and managers are all in their twilight years.
Revolutionary tactician Louis Van Gaal retired from the game after his indifferent and much-maligned stint at Manchester United last year while the ideas of Guus Hiddink, Bert Van Marwijk and Dick Advocaat’s are all outdated.
Besides, younger managers such as Frank De Boer and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst have both struggled on the European scene. De Boer failed in both Serie A and in the Premier League after he had already set up a record of appalling performances with Ajax in Europe a few years ago while Van Bronckhorst is still untested outside the Dutch Eredivisie.
If you add to that the passings of footballing legends Johan Cruyff and Piet Keizer, whose football philosophies have come to be regarded as a kind of law for Dutch football then the crash is complete.
This discussion is not a new one but it is important to remember that Dutch football academies no longer produce the best players as they did when Marco Van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp and Wesley Sneijder broke into Ajax’s first-team before becoming world beaters in later years in the best leagues in Europe.
Once-upon-a-time every member of Holland’s national team used to play for a big European club such as Van der Sar was at Manchester United, Edgar Davids at Juventus, Clarence Seedorf at AC Milan or Wesley Sneijder at Inter Milan, these days only Bayern Munich’s Robben plies his trade for a top side.
The national team’s hopes now rely on players who don’t even play for their clubs such as Barcelona reserve keeper Jasper Cillessen or others who play in second-tier nations such as Russia (Jeremain Lens), Turkey (Robin Van Persie) and France (Anwar El Ghazi).
Making things worse is the standard of the domestic Eredivisie, which once boasted Romario and Ronaldo in its ranks, which has never been lower than right now with young promising players already trying to push through a move to a ‘better’ league.
In recent years there has been a growing list of youngsters like El Ghazi, Jairo Riedewald, Ricardo Kishna and Memphis Depay, just to name a few, who blossomed in Holland but struggled to replicate their form abroad by ending up on the bench and forgotten. Why? It’s quite simple : they left too early for bigger paydays, subsequently lost their hunger and struggled under the spotlight.
Also PSV Eindhoven and Ajax, the country’s two most decorated sides, used to take centre stage in world football a few decades ago while now they don’t even make it to the Champions League group stages. This is a huge problem as their young players do not have the chance to gain European experience in order to improve themselves.
At the moment it looks an insurmountable task for the twice runners-up to nail down a place on the football map again because not only are the best Dutch players ageing but the young players are not good enough to return the Netherlands to their place at football’s top table.
Barring a cricket score tomorrow night, the Netherlands’ fate is sealed and thus the Sweden game could see a number of the side from the 2010 World Cup calling time on their international careers. Talismen Maarten Stekelenburg, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Robin Van Persie could all walk away from the national side if they fail to make it to Russia.
All five have been part of an incredible journey with their country amounting an amazing 451 caps between them.
In the country’s biggest cities such as Amsterdam, the Hague or Rotterdam people are still dining out on the Elftaal‘s amazing achievements in South Africa seven years ago when they surprisingly took the world by storm. The latter five’s impact on that tournament was sublime, with keeper Stekelenburg’ s save against Brazil’s Kaka’ and Sneijder’s header leading to an unlikely 2-1 win over Brazil before Robben and Van Persie inflicted more pain on Uruguay in the semi-final.
Yet, there is no worse way to bow out for these fantastic players, whose heroics at the previous two World Cups will long live in the memories of all Dutch football fans.
Unfortunately as the saying goes, time goes by for everyone, but for Dutch football it couldn’t have come at a less convenient time.
A long, hard think is required, both about who to appoint next and how to progress from here. Something radical is required otherwise it could get even worse than it already is.
Featured photograph: Wikimedia Commons