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Jun 17, 2012

Dutch dismay

There are many debacles littering the overstuffed pantheon of Dutch football failures: three World Cup final appearances for the best country that’s never won one, player/management mutinies, many penalty shootout-related eliminations and a long list of heartbreakers. But a special wing is dedicated to the most grievous episodes -- the very worst of collapses. Like the 1990 World Cup, when the Netherlands was favored to follow up its Euro ’88 victory but crashed out in the second round to a vengeful West Germany. Or the 2002 World Cup that the golden Ajax generation of the mid-'90s (at the height of its powers) failed to qualify for outright. It’s in that sad space that the Netherlands’ Euro 2012 campaign will take residence.

Only for a brief flurry did the Oranje look like it would pull off its nigh-on impossible task on Sunday. If it was to overcome losses against Germany (1-2) and Denmark (0-1) and improbably advance to the quarterfinals of these European Championships it would have to knock off Portugal, a team the Netherlands has beaten just once in 10 prior games, by at least two goals. Oh, and Germany would need to beat the headstrong Danes, too.

Up until the 11th minute -- when Rafael van der Vaart, making a start at long last in place of captain Mark van Bommel, cut inside off an out-of-character layoff from Arjen Robben and curled the 1-0 past Rui Patricio -- the Dutch commanded the game.

But once Cristiano Ronaldo and his cohorts started galloping at the flotsam posing as a Dutch defense, Portugal roundly overran its opponents. Nani & Co. set about creating a downpour of chances and looked more Dutch than the Dutch themselves, exploiting the wings, making sharp runs, moving dynamically and interchanging positions with speed and panache.

In the 28th minute, Ronaldo made his mark. The Real Madrid star, who had already wasted several gilt-edged chances, ran onto the end of a seeing-eye pass by Joao Pereira and easily slotted it past Maarten Stekelenburg. And thus the Dutch were undone, finally and irrevocably.

Portugal was merciful on the foe it had knocked out of Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006, too, not scoring a second until the 74th when a perfect cross from Nani left Ronaldo open again to coolly put the 2-1 final score on the board. Had the Portuguese been an ounce more precise, they might well have hung a half dozen past the Dutch.

All that had ailed and troubled the Netherlands throughout this nightmare run was magnified on Sunday. The defense, which tellingly never lined up with the same personnel twice in the three-game group stage, was shambolic. Consequently, the two deep midfielders were forced back to help out, pulling the Dutch formation out of sync, essentially turning it into a six-man defense and four-man attack with nothing to connect the lines. Even the simplest of passes started missing intended targets like ships in the night. The wings were again underused. The form of the strikers was again poor. Beside the ever out-of-sorts Robin van Persie, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (inserted at Ibrahim Afellay’s expense) was invisible and didn’t shoot meaningfully until the final minutes of the game. It all underscored the utter lack of chemistry on the field.

Then there was the toxic team atmosphere off the field. Wesley Sneijder acknowledged that there was strife – which he has often been blamed of being at the center of in the past – ahead of the tournament and suggested the team rid itself of “pathetic egos”. Van Bommel, too, admitted that the “atmosphere has been better.” While manager Bert van Marwijk strangely alluded to the tension by saying he could only wish the atmosphere was as bad as rumor had it was in the camp of the Spanish, who'd just won their last game 4-0 over Ireland.

Theories abound that Sneijder and van Persie had taken up their feud once again. Ever since the duo represented the youth national teams in their teenage years they’d bickered over who was top dog while they made the climb toward starring for the senior national team. When Robben joined them there, another difficult character was added to the mix, making for a combustible nucleus that forever threatened to torpedo the Dutch. Typical thereof was Robben’s petulant, shirtless walk back to the bench after his substitution against Germany; Robben took the long way back, climbing over the advertising boards and making clear his dismay. As were the many instances of the Oranje players jawing back and forth throughout their three games.

At this Euro we saw the Netherlands at its Mr. Hydest. Its longtime issues, buried in 2010 when it galvanized to reach the World Cup final, resurfaced with ruinous effect.

And what a pity, too. The peak of another golden generation may have gone to waste. Sneijder hasn’t quite been his dominant self as a playmaker since his 2009-10 season at Inter Milan. Van Persie is at the absolute height of his powers and yet it's unclear how long he’ll be able to sustain this form. Every tumble the brittle Robben takes could be his last. As midfielder Nigel de Jong put it, this was his generation’s best chance as World Cup 2014 will be hard to win on South American soil. Thus three extraordinary talents are unlikely to complete their remarkable careers with an international prize.

This generation will be affixed with a label of infamy, one that is all too familiar to their Dutch predecessors who fell victim to in-fighting with likewise regularity. For the first time since 1984, Holland has failed to make it into the quarterfinals of the Euro. For the first time in 12 major tournaments it has entered, Holland has not made it out of the group stage. And in so doing, these Dutch players have tainted their World Cup runner-up medals, too.

Even a more pragmatic playing style, infuriatingly doing away with the freewheeling offense in favor of holding midfielders and all-round balance, wasn’t able to overturn 40 years of structural underperformance. The more things change for the Oranje, the more they stay the same.

After the final whistle, there was no dishevelment registered on the faces of the Dutch, no surprise. After three lackluster losses, the Dutch merely got what was due.
 

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