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May 31, 2006

No respecter of reputations

Regarded as a legend in world football, with honours and cups a-plenty, three times Footballer of the Year in Europe, yet Marco van Basten has one thing in common with most readers of Soccernet: he never won a game at the World Cup.

His only global tournament, Italia '90, ended in huge disappointment. The Dutch started as favourites, but three draws in the group stage and a defeat in the second round against West Germany with a background of an in-fighting squad means that World Cup memories of Van Basten are fuelled by agony and frustration.

As national coach he has taken those experiences in his stride and now he looks forward to enjoy the occasion.

When he became Holland coach in August 2004, he promised a return to the good old days of exciting and attractive football, with which Dutch teams have won so many fans.

However, during the qualifiers, he was not averse to grinding out a result, eventually earning his team highest points of all the European teams in their group and a third place in the FIFA rankings.

Will Holland play the promised style of football at the tournament then? 'We will try to do that,' said Marco van Basten in a recent interview.

'However, you have to consider that the opposition can be very strong and we might get in a position where we have to be more cautious. I do think that our typical 4-3-3-set-up with players on the wings suits us best.

'Most of the squad is used to this in the Dutch league and even teams like Barcelona and Chelsea play it. I guess it is the most logical choice to make, as we have all grown up with this system in Holland.'

These are also the tactics that Johan Cruyff champions. When asked by the Dutch FA who should take over from Dick Advocaat after Euro 2004, Cruyff mentioned Van Basten.

As a player, he worked with Johan Cruyff when he was his coach at Ajax.

Van Basten remembered: 'I have always been interested in talking about football and had my own opinions. Mostly with my fellow players, but I did have quite a lot of good-natured arguments with Johan. Few players discuss the game with the trainer, but I enjoyed that very much.

'As long as it is an open talk and you are not out to win the discourse, everyone involved can only gain from it. Neither Cruyff or I invented the game so none of us is right per se. Although, when it sunk in after a while, I usually had to agree that he was right after all. I still love those talks, but there are few players now with a clear opinion so it does not happen very often. That is a pity.'

Maybe because the players look up to him?

Neither Cruyff or I invented the game so none of us is right.
Van Basten on Cruyff

'I hardly believe that is the case. As coaches John van't Schip and I try to behave as equals with the players. We don't shout across the training ground to get everyone's attention. The players look at me like I am just a trainer and not some legend from the past. If they ever had my posters on their bedroom wall, I don't think they are still hung up there. I go to the bathroom just as they do.

'We've abandoned the petty fines for coming late or leaving mobiles on, as this is not the kind of money that will hurt any modern player. As a punishment he now has to tell a joke in front of the group. That works very well. No one has sinned so far.'

Van Basten left some big names out in Roy Makaay, Patrick Kluivert and Edgar Davids, but Clarence Seedorf is probably the most interesting absentee from this World Cup. His performances at club level did not impress the national coach apparently.

'No, we always start with a judgement on the qualities of players on the pitch. On the ball Seedorf is doing very well, but I don't like it that he sometimes takes the tempo out of the game.

'Others can do better than him in that department and have several other qualities as well. I can understand that people cannot follow that decision as he always plays in the best clubs and looks good on TV.

'Milan have a set-up in midfield in which Seedorf feels comfortable, but I am not sure he can adjust to our system. His performances in the Dutch team have been disappointing in the past, so why try it again? You have to draw the line somewhere.

'Big names mean nothing to me, I am only interested in good players. I do think other midfielders have shown they can do better in the national team than Seedorf. A player like Van der Vaart can be a stylish playmaker, but also does his fair share of work for the team and that is exactly what we are looking for.'

During the friendly against Cameroon the injured Van der Vaart was replaced by Wesley Sneijder, who was positioned as central midfielder.

Van Basten did not field a classic number ten as Bergkamp or Litmanen played at Ajax, close to the striker, but placed Sneijder deep inside his own half.

In practice however, the midfielders switched positions as they liked, while André Ooijer supported them from the back as a link between the lines.

During the first 30 minutes, Cameroon, without Eto'o, were pushed back in their own half under the relentless pressure of the Dutch.

When Ooijer surprised them by anticipating on a long pass by Phillip Cocu, he had all the time in the world to set Ruud van Nistelrooy free to make it 1-0.

For the rest of the game the Dutch struggled to maintain that tempo they had begun with and it all petered out in the end. Dirk Kuijt started on the bench and may end up being the understudy for Van Nistelrooy.

Arsenal's Robin Van Persie did quite well on the right wing and adds more pace to the Dutch counter play than Kuijt.

Still, there is little to say about who will start in Germany as Van Nistelrooy had a poor second half, perhaps bad news for the man who is probably an ex-Manchester United player. Van Basten, no respecter of reputations, looks likely to start with the men in form.

  • Email newsdesk@soccernet.com with your thoughts.