RIO DE JANEIRO -- None of us Dutch fans had expected this. Our team was supposed to be Holland's worst since the early 1980s. Before it flew to Brazil, Johan Cruyff, the father of Dutch soccer, moped: "There is quality. But the players are still too young ... It's going to be fantastically difficult." Or to quote the tagline of a popular pre-tournament Dutch video, "#AndOtherwiseAfterTheFirstRoundWe'llJustSupportBelgium."
Now, after three straight victories and 10 goals in the group stage, the Dutch find themselves in a better situation than anyone expected. The scenario beforehand had been: even if they somehow scraped second place in the group, they'd then meet Brazil. Now the Dutch play Mexico in Sunday's second-round game in Fortaleza, Brazil. If they win, they meet Costa Rica or Greece for a place in the semifinals. These aren't bad teams, but they aren't Brazil or Germany either. Are Louis van Gaal's Oranje suddenly among the favorites?
Certainly the coach has found the perfect system for his team's limited talents. He decided in March that Holland's raw defenders couldn't cope one-on-one against world-class strikers. If you play a similar formation to your opponents, then the effect tends to be pairs of players all over the field. In that case, the team with the better players usually wins. Van Gaal knew the Dutch couldn't win on individual quality, but only on tactics. So he created a system with five defenders, three midfielders and Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben up front.
For most of his coaching career, Van Gaal liked to go on about how much possession his teams had. He saw this as a moral virtue that by itself almost deserved victory. Now he has created a team that doesn't want the ball. Against Chile, Holland had just 37 percent possession. Mostly, Holland played that game as what one Dutch newspaper called an "orange wall," booting the ball clear and kicking opponents. The Dutch had 68 fouls in the first round, more than any other team here. (Costa Rica was second, and Uruguay, amazingly, only third.)
This is a disciplined team. The Dutch tend to become lax and internally quarrelsome when they think they are very good: recall the 1990 World Cup, Euro 96 and Euro 2012. However, when they are humble, everyone becomes a hardworking team player (see the World Cups of 1998 and 2010). Now Holland are in a humble phase. Even Wesley Sneijder, normally a playmaker, says he's happy to run around midfield chasing opponents on the ball. He covered well over 30 kilometers in the first three games, and barely shot at goal.
The system is designed to unleash one man. Robben may never have played so well before, and that's because he has never played in a system better suited to him. When the Dutch wall wins the ball, it tries to launch him within a second or two, before the opponents can set up their defense. Mark van Bommel, Holland's central midfielder at the last World Cup, says: "The big difference with for instance Bayern is that there he often gets the ball 20 meters from goal. In those 20 meters everything has to happen: dribbling, getting up to speed, beating people and deciding what to do in front of goal. The way Oranje is playing now gives Arjen more room to use his pace." Here in Brazil, notably for the goal in which he outsprinted Spain's Sergio Ramos, Robben often gets the ball near the halfway line with the route to goal nearly open. In that situation, he may be unmatched among humankind.
Yet the Dutch haven't forgotten their weaknesses. In a domestic league game in October 2010, PSV Eindhoven beat the historical giant Feyenoord 10-0. Feyenoord's team that day included four men who have played for Holland here: Stefan de Vrij, Leroy Fer, Georginio Wijnaldum and Bruno Martins Indi. True, they are more mature now, but they haven't suddenly become world-class players. One example of naïve Dutch defending: against Australia, right-back Daryl Janmaat gave away a penalty by letting a ball hit his hand, something that experienced international defenders do everything to avoid. Then De Vrij made the same mistake against Chile, but got away with it.
Former Dutch international Ronald de Boer remarks: "That unrest on the ball. The absence of overview and team play. Boys like Sneijder, but also [Nigel] De Jong and [Dirk] Kuyt: they are so unsettled on the ball. Ron Vlaar isn't born to build from defense, and defensively he's been excellent, but he doesn't have to bash away every ball blindly."
Before 2010, Dutch soccer aspired to moral superiority: they didn't win World Cups, but they played the right way. Older Dutch pundits in particular cannot appreciate the current team. "The soccer is poor," says Cruyff. "It does hurt your eyes," agrees De Boer. Arie Haan, who played for Oranje in two World Cup finals in the 1970s, says: "I want to call for Holland to drop this system and keep our identity. Our squad doesn't have enough real top players, but we can at least make sure that our style, the Dutch school, keeps its meaning." Chile's coach, Jorge Sampaoli -- a lover of Holland's tradition -- complained after his team's 2-0 defeat that the Dutch didn't want to play soccer.
Still, many foreigners admire the team that scored the most goals in the first round. Brazilians are also seduced by the ordinariness of Holland's players. Whereas England holed themselves up in Rio as if in a war zone, the Dutch have often been out strolling along the beaches. A communal dip in the ocean almost ended badly when a kite surfer fell practically on top of Van Persie and Janmaat. The players' kids and wives keep visiting too. One training session was disrupted when the children showed up. Off the field at least, the Dutch have charmed.
After the great Dutch teams of the past, it might just be guys like Wijnaldum, Vlaar and De Vrij who end up with the Cup in their hands.