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Jun 1, 2011

Dutch keen to bury Brazilian ghosts

While their club colleagues head home to join their national squads for important Euro 2012 qualifying games, the Netherlands' international players take off for a rare tour of Latin America, where they will play Brazil and Uruguay.

Only once before have Netherlands ventured across the great Atlantic divide to meet up with the giants of South American football. In 1999, the team with the famous 'Ajax 1995' generation had a double date that was somehow symbolic for the side at that time.

After the 1998 World Cup semi-final against Brazil, the Dutch team instantly fell into a void. They threw away the third-place match in a lacklustre performance against Croatia, who were much keener to earn at least a medal from the tournament and, in the ensuing days, coach Guus Hiddink signed a lucrative yet ill-advised deal with Real Madrid (he was out by February the next year).

After a few years as assistant coach, Frank Rijkaard took over, despite having no first-team experience as manager. He may have been one of the few interested. As the hosts of Euro 2000, Netherlands were already qualified and faced two seasons of meaningless friendlies, yet it was a considerable first test for the young coach, acclimatising to the international setup.

He might not have lasted long in the job if the Dutch FA had listened to Louis van Gaal's idea, though. The Barcelona boss suggested, in the summer of 1998 when he was in second year in Spain and had assembled most of the Netherlands internationals in his squad already, that he could take charge of the team for the European Championships - but that someone else should take charge before then. In the end, Van Gaal left Barca in April 2000, but by then Rijkaard made sure he would be the one leading the Oranje on home soil with Johan Neeskens as his assistant.

An enthusiastic Rijkaard had started in October with some fresh blood of which only Ruud van Nistelrooy had some substance. A 2-0 win over Peru was followed by draws against Ghana, Germany, Portugal and Argentina. Netherlands should have won in Gelsenkirchen, but scored only once, Van Nistelrooy's first for his country, from a host of chances.

This form continued over the next few matches and, at the end of March, the home game against Morocco was lost. The Dutch fans started to question Rijkaard's experiments with sub-standard internationals and demanded the real stars were brought back.

But these 'stars' were suffering from the traditional post-World Cup hangover. Frank and Ronald de Boer had poisoned the dressing room at Ajax by scorning coach Morten Olsen in court in an attempt to break their contracts and join their buddies at Barcelona during the first half of the season. Ajax even struggled to get into the UEFA Cup.

Meanwhile, at Barcelona, Van Gaal celebrated another title but his Champions League campaign had not gone to plan and the Catalan fans blamed this on his Dutch contingent, which in their view hindered the progress of the club's young talent. Add to that Pierre van Hooijdonk's problems at Nottingham Forest after relegation from the Premier League and, all in all, it was not a good year for the team that had finished fourth at the 1998 World Cup.

In that mood, the team travelled to Brazil for two friendlies against the Selecao, who themselves were in preparation for the Copa America. In the first game in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil took an easy 2-0 lead in the first half, which was a poor showing for all their dominance. A furious Rijkaard berated his team at the half-time and managed to get them going: halfway through the second half they levelled the score and could have won it if a Ruud van Nistelrooy solo effort, which saw him run across an open goal, had ended with the Brazilian-style backheel goal that he had in mind. Unfortunately, Ruud fell over his own legs. He'd have to wait another year to enjoy his first win with the Dutch team.

The second leg of the tour was three days later in Goiana. Rijkaard tried a new formation that was completely destroyed by the rampant Brazilians in the first half, leading to a 3-0 scoreline. As they desperately tried not to be overrun, the Dutch players made foul after foul. This turned against them in the second half as the yellow cards turned into three reds. It was symbolic of that generation, whose performances could range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The scandal-ridden Euro '96 squad was followed by an almost majestic World Cup campaign, but not quite. At Euro 2000, on home soil, a sovereign performance came to an improbable screeching semi-final halt with five missed penalties against Italy. And the Ajax '95 generation's rollercoaster ride in international football finished with a failure to qualify for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea under the very coach who brought them through ten years earlier, Louis van Gaal.

Maybe the current troupe has learned from such mistakes - they go for results and they get them. As the squad go into the summer, they are almost through to the 2012 European Championship finals, having won all their qualifying games. They even travel to South America with most of their star players, who are actually looking forward to playing in the national team.

Arjen Robben returns for his first international match since the World Cup final. Robin van Persie, Dirk Kuyt and even fresh Champions League winner Ibrahim Afellay join the party, although Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart have had to stay home with injuries. The only major worry for the squad is in goal as Maarten Stekelenburg is out until the new season and deputy Michel Vorm broke a bone in his hand during the last training session before departure.

The two youngsters Tim Krul (Newcastle United) and Jasper Cillissen (NEC), who would usually go along to gain experience on the bench, are now joined by 31-year old Jelle ten Rouwelaar of NAC Breda. None of them has any international pedigree and it will be interesting to see how the team reacts to playing with a goalkeeper who is not used to this level.

Sometimes it can raise the team spirit if the outfield players are determined to help him out and coach Bert van Marwijk could well be the man to turn this into an advantage. He will certainly have to work some magic if Netherlands are to bury the memory of their last trip to Brazil and become the first European team to beat the Selecao at home since 1984, when England won 2-0 in Rio de Janeiro.

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