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May 13, 2008

Netherlands: Trading on the past

Rinus Michels' vision of 'Total Football' during the 1970s endeared the Dutch national team to fans all over the world and to a certain extent their current reputation is still based on that historic concept.

The Oranje continue to churn out players of excellent technical ability and are always ranked among the favourites for any tournament they enter yet they have not contested a final since winning the European Championships 1988.

The subsequent 20 years have been peppered with semi-final appearances - 2004, 2000 and 1992 - and regular progression to the knock-out stages but a tendency to self destruct when the pressure is on has thwarted attempts to lift a trophy.

During tournament after tournament, there have been reports of bust-ups in the Dutch camp and with the build up to Euro 2008 overshadowed by the withdrawl of AC Milan midfielder Clarence Seedorf, who, despite 87 caps claimed it was too difficult to work with manager Marco Van Basten, their mental strength will be key to any success.

Getting to the tournaments in the first place is a totally different story for the Dutch, who have qualified for the last five UEFA European Championship finals, and they qualified for Euro 2008 with a game to spare.

Romania proved to be the Netherlands' most serious rivals, holding them to a 0-0 draw in Rotterdam and then beating Van Basten's side in Constanta to push the Dutch into second place. The difference between the two sides proved to be their results on the road, where the Dutch often laboured.

Under legendary striker Van Basten, the Netherlands underwent something of a rebuilding process following their early exit in the second round, to Portugal, from the 2006 World Cup. Yet with Belarus, Slovenia and lowly Luxembourg in their qualifying pool for Euro 2008, the Dutch were confident of success.

However, the opening match in Luxembourg did not provide the expected emphatic start. Van Basten's team needed a solitary strike from Joris Mathijsen to scrape a 1-0 win.

After getting back on track with a comfortable 3-0 victory over Belarus at the Amsterdam ArenA the Netherlands travelled to Bulgaria and had to come from behind to salvage a point through Arsenal striker Robin van Persie.

Van Persie was on target once again as the Dutch saw off Albania 2-1 in Amsterdam four days later.

Romania visited the De Kuip stadium in Rotterdam at the start of 2007 and earned a 0-0 draw to keep the pressure on Group G leaders Holland.

In September Bulgaria arrived in Amsterdam unbeaten, but left on the end of a 2-0 defeat following goals from Real Madrid duo Wesley Sneijder and a rejuvenated Ruud van Nistelrooy, returning to the national team following a somewhat premature retirement.

In their next match the Dutch again struggled away from home and looked to be heading towards a frustrating goalless draw against 10-man Albania before Van Nistelrooy poached a late winner to secure a crucial three points.

The decisive match of qualification campaign came in Romania. Dorin Goian's second-half goal proved enough to give the hosts victory and move Romania top of the group.

But by now the Dutch had a three-point gap over third-placed Bulgaria and with their destiny in their own hands Slovenia were dispatched 2-0 in Eindhoven and Luxembourg edged out 1-0 at De Kuip as Holland booked their place at the finals.

With qualification secured, a surprise defeat to Belarus in Minsk didn't really matter but it did cost Holland top spot in Group G as Romania crushed nine-man Albania 6-1 in Bucharest.

By a quirk of the draw Holland are once again grouped with Romania at Euro 2008 and they will have to better their head-to-head results from qualifying if they are to escape the so-called 'Group of Death' - that also contains World Cup winners Italy and runners-up France.

With Van Basten, 43, set to stand down after the finals to return to Ajax, the Dutch maestro has his work cut out to become the toast of Europe again two decades on from his famous volley which helped beat the Soviet Union in the final of Euro 1988 in Germany.

With very little managerial experience, Van Basten was the wild-card choice to replaced Dick Advocaat as Netherlands coach in 2004 but his side breezed through qualifying for the 2006 World Cup before suffering a disappointing exit in the second round.

His only previous coaching role before taking control of the national team had been working with the AFC Ajax youth team and thanks to the success of Holland's Under-21 team, that won the 2006 and 2007 European Under-21 Championships, Van Basten is again in charge of some exciting young players, this time at international level.

One such bright young hope is 21-year-old Ryan Babel, who earned a £13.5 million move to Liverpool from Ajax following his success with the Dutch Under-21s.

With plenty of pace and an eye for goal Babel has already been compared to Thierry Henry by Van Basten. The national team coach also helped guide Babel through the ranks at Ajax.

In Holland, the high-speed flyer is already a superstar after scoring on his full international debut and ending last summer with a winners' medal from the European Under-21 Championships and the stage is now set for him to make his mark at senior level.

Yet despite being a regular for Holland Babel initially struggled to win a place in Liverpool's starting eleven. But once Reds manager Rafa Benitez had smoothed some of his rougher edges the Amsterdam-born attacker finished the Premier League season with rave reviews.

Babel is coming into form just at the right time for Holland and he will certainly be one to watch as the Dutch look to end their 20-year drought this summer.


• If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.

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