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Aug 31, 2006

Van Basten the 50s revivalist?

August saw 82-year old Faas Wilkes die.

He was the first real international Dutch star, a prolific striker for Internazionale and Valencia in the early fifties. Wilkes was one of a handful of internationals who escaped domestic football and its amateur structure. The price these legionnaires paid was exclusion from playing for their country. In those days the Dutch FA (KNVB) chose to ban all professionals from their ranks.

When Wilkes left for Italy in the summer of 1949 the Dutch team had lost only once in two years. In the next five Holland won just four times and did not even enter qualification for the World Cup as they were afraid of an embarrasment.

When the KNVB were forced to embrace professionalism in 1954 the legionnaires could make their return in the national team. It took another twenty years to make a decent impression on international football.

At the funeral of Faas Wilkes the current chairman of the KNVB, Joe Sprengers, apologised for the ban: 'The KNVB were obsessed with amateurism at the time. We should have acted differently and feel sorry for Faas Wilkes. Dutch football fans were denied his great talents in the national team during the years he played abroad. We were wrong.'

Maybe in another half-a-century a chairman will speak to gathered mourners and apologise that the then deceased ex-Barcelona/Real/Inter or Milan-star was banned from several big tournaments.

'Sorry for our appointment of Marco van Basten,' his words might be. 'We were wrong.'

What is with this coach? As soon as Dutch star players take up a contract in a city more than an hour's flight away, their place in the squad is in jeopardy. You may have won three Champions Leagues (Seedorf), just one (Davids and Van Bommel) or been a topscorer of a big league abroad (Makaay and van Nistelrooy), but that does not mean you get the nod over the likes of Martijn Meerdink, Theo Janssen or Demi de Zeeuw.

Seedorf has never had a look in since Van Basten started, while Davids and Makaay had infrequent call-ups until last year. 'Big names are not necessarily big players,' Van Basten once said.

Mark van Bommel and Ruud van Nistelrooy are the latest victims. The surprising omissions gobsmacked the entire Dutch press who had not believed the rumours that went around over the summer. Van Basten is not one to explain much of his selection criteria but he seems to be averse to older players at big clubs.

If it was not confusing enough, Johan Derksen then published a column in his magazine Voetbal International on the day Holland played Ireland, telling his readers that Van Basten is no top coach and has made several big errors over his two years in charge.

Derksen is the editor of Holland's only football weekly, a pundit in two television talk shows on football every weekend and a self-proclaimed friend of Johan Cruyff. His opinion counts in the Dutch football world.

In this critical piece Derksen burned Van Basten to the ground for his treatment of the old guard. Why would Derksen suddenly turn against the coach?

Some say that Van Basten is out of control and not listening to the great Cruyff any more. To regain his influence over squad selection the former captain has apparently instructed Derksen to slight his protege in a magazine which is one of the best selling periodicals in the country. As history shows, Cruyff likes to use the press to put his points forward.

While thousands of readers were glancing over the vitriolic content of the mag's backpage column that night, the subject of the mud-slinging was smiling modestly all over their televisions while celebrating a 4-0 victory at Landsdowne Road. His starless team had just ripped Ireland to pieces.

Debutant Stijn Schaars of AZ played a blinder as a link-up between defence and attack to give the team control in midfield. Therefore Rafael van der Vaart could concentrate on his delivery to the strikers, especially Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.

Huntelaar is a different player than latest galactico Van Nistelrooy. At the World Cup Van Nistelrooy suffered through the antics of Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, who hardly gave him a decent ball.

Impatience made him run into holes and back again, offside and onside to somewhere in midfield and then on the wings. The result was that Ruud was usually everywhere on the pitch except in the right place at the right time to score.

Van Basten choose to keep the wingers in his team and sacrificed his former top scorer to exchange him for a striker who would be more suited to playing between the Robben-van Persie-tandem. At the World Cup Dirk Kuyt turned out not to be that man as he sank without trace in the second round match against Portugal.

Then in Dublin Huntelaar got his chance and succeeded. The Ajax frontman has that rare calm not to be bothered when he is not involved in the game.

He won't drop in midfield to get a touch of the ball or make unnecessary runs just to show he is around. Just wait and wait and wait, until the smallest of chances arrives and bang...it is a goal. A nightmare for a defender who thinks he has Huntelaar under control. Two goals and two assists were the quite sensational facts of his international debut. Another feelgood story in Van Basten's trial-and-error regime.

Of the sixteen players that Van Basten put on the pitch in Dublin only four have spent more than one season abroad.

It looked almost a 50's revival with this strengthened Eredivisie XI. But not for long.

Since the Ireland game André Ooijer, Dirk Kuyt and Joris Mathijsen have signed for clubs in the UK and Germany.

So while Van Basten may have made some errors and wrong turns recently, there is no denying that he has helped a string of seemingly mediocre clubmen not only to caps but also to the lucrative foreign transfer they always hoped for.

Khalid Boulahrouz tops the charts with his incredible transfer to Chelsea; he was an ordinary mid-table kicker at the time of Euro 2004.

Van Basten selected him and he was soon off to the Bundesliga and now to the Premier League. All these transfers have filled the coffers of a large number of Dutch clubs. And that can't be a bad thing.

  • Email newsdesk@soccernet.com with your thoughts.