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Jun 28, 2012

No outs for Bert van Marwijk

 

Bert van Marwijk sat at the podium of the news conference auditorium looking bemused. His arms were crossed and his stare blank while his trademark grey suit and white shirt were undone at the collar. Tears formed in the corners of his already bloodshot eyes. Usually commanding and confident, he now spoke softly, his voice trailing off. He’d wanted this badly. He’d dreamed of winning this World Cup and come so close. His Netherlands had lost the final to Spain in extra time of an unsightly game made even more so by his brutish tactics. As it would transpire, that inglorious night in Johannesburg two summers ago would be the highlight of his four-year reign as Netherlands manager.

On Wednesday, Bert van Marwijk resigned.

His side was humiliated at Euro 2012. The Dutch had been upset by Denmark (1-0), lost to Germany (2-1) and then, even though they improbably still had a chance to advance, lost to Portugal (2-1) as well. Along with a dreadful Ireland side, the Dutch were the only team not to collect a point during the group stage.

This spectacular fall from grace – from World Cup runners-up to Euro laughingstock in the span of one major tournament cycle – had predictably been due to a toxic atmosphere, setting off the sort of meltdown that is historically monopolised by the Dutch. There were reported shouting matches, power struggles, disgruntled substitutes and the assault of a team doctor. In this sea of in-fighting, the Dutch ship went down, a faulty attitude scuppering performance yet again. Ten days later, van Marwijk has taken his leave from a position that had become untenable.

That said, it was surprising how the Oranje's Euro 2012 campaign unfolded so chaotically under van Marwijk. Following Marco van Basten’s erratic spell in charge of Netherlands from 2004 to 2008 in which he ostracised key players and experimented to the point of being destructive, van Marwijk was to bring stability. He was a noted man-manager who had achieved with difficult squads, winning the 2002 UEFA Cup with a Feyenoord team that was rife with internal feuds. And at the 2010 World Cup, van Marwijk appeared to have done exactly that. He brokered a truce in the decade-long war between stars Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder, instilled a mentality of confidence and professionalism, and forged a rare togetherness.

But if he was effective – and his record suggests he was, as he won 34 of his 52 games and lost just eight while forging a run of 25 straight undefeated games soon after his appointment – he was never a popular manager. He was un-Dutch. His teams were cynical and physical, and valued defensive stability above the traditional Oranje virtues of possession, pressure, a high defensive line and wing play. If van Marwijk’s team had to bulldoze through an opponent to win, so be it. That approach never stood him in good stead back home.

During Euro 2012, meanwhile, he refused to waver from his regulars – who were virtually unchanged throughout his four years – or deviate from his standardised tactics until the final game, by which time it was too late and a sturdy Portugal needed to be beaten by at least two goals for the Dutch to stand a chance of advancing.

So when the unity he had managed to broker among a talented but egotistical and confrontational generation went up in flames, the football didn’t improve and the wins were nowhere to be found, van Marwijk’s job grew unsalvageable even though he’d recently extended his contract through Euro 2016.

In the aftermath of the tournament, van Marwijk’s calculated behaviour turned strange. First, some of van Marwijk’s plans leaked out to the media. He had told the federation he’d no longer be calling up Rafael van der Vaart and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (who scored more goals during van Marwijk’s tenure than any other player – 23), the alleged sources of some of the internal strife. Nor would he be counting on defenders Joris Mathijsen, John Heitinga or Khalid Boulahrouz. Dirk Kuyt (the player van Marwijk played more than anybody – 49 times in 52 games) was also in danger of seeing his international career come to an end. Only, the players hadn’t yet been told of his decision when the information leaked. Weirder yet, it was reported by the newspaper De Telegraaf on Wednesday that it was van Marwijk himself who had leaked his shortlist of undesirables.

If it suggested a ruthless reckoning with some of his more talented but mutinous players, it also seemed to signify that van Marwijk was planning to rebuild and carry on as manager.

Yet not a day later, his resignation was confirmed. “I have had severe doubts,” van Marwijk said in a statement. “But did decide that I needed to take this step.”

“Bert van Marwijk held two evaluation discussions with the Football Association about affairs surrounding the Euro,” added a press release from the Royal Dutch Football Association (KNVB). “Both sides agree these talks had an ‘open, honest and constructive’ tenor.”

Bert van Oostveen, a KNVB director, spoke of a manager who had “performed exceptionally well.”

Who will drink from the poisoned chalice of stewarding the Oranje next isn’t yet clear. The most accomplished managers in all the land – Ronald Koeman, Dick Advocaat, et al. – are scrambling to take themselves out of the running, while appointing a foreigner is unthinkable to the Dutch.

When a new manager is found, he’ll have to address a task no less monumental than restoring Netherlands' stylistic glory, galvanising a warring squad and rallying a disillusioned country.

A thankless job, but somebody will have to do it.

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