by Michael Phillips - 03/17/06
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If sporting cliché is to be believed, second place is the first loser; as Jamie Foxx's character in Any Given Sunday asks: 'Can you remember who came second in the 100 yard dash at the Olympics?'
Holland is different. The Dutch side that went to the 1974 World Cup in Germany is remembered as one of the all-time great teams, second only to the immortal Brazil side of 1970. And yet that team was a runner-up, beaten 2-1 by the Germany of Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller.
The current squad goes into the 2006 World Cup dragging a history of brilliant underachievement behind them, due to a national attitude towards soccer that usually leaves glory tantalisingly out of reach.
The 1974 defeat to Germany defines the character of Dutch soccer. Animosity between the countries stemming back to the Second World War meant they were desperate to win a match that should have been the culmination of a glorious progression towards soccer perfection.
The Dutch revolutionised the game in the late 1960s and early 1970s, creating a 'Total Football' system pioneered by coach Rinus Michels and star player Johan Cruyff, where players interchanged positions as the needs of the game demanded, and intelligent passing and movement created the space to dominate sides and score almost at will.
This team did, perhaps, achieve perfection, for the first minute of the 1974 final. A devastating 23 pass move straight from the kick-off led to a converted penalty, and Holland was ahead, 1-0, without Germany even touching the ball. After this, however, came a period of play that has marked Dutch football ever since.
By the admission of its own players, after this first goal Holland passed the ball around, not intending to score, but trying instead to humiliate the German team. This arrogance stopped the Dutch from killing the game off, and Germany slowly rallied and eventually took a 2-1 lead. Despite intense Dutch pressure for the final half hour of the game, the Germans held on to win the World Cup, and the loss left a deep scar on the national psyche of their opposition.
After this, Dutch football conformed to a particular pattern; squads packed with technically gifted players who had achieved the highest honours at club level, but who would underachieve at international tournaments, if they qualified at all. The one high spot was victory at the 1988 European Championship, where the great side of Marco van Basten, Ruud Guillit and Frank Rijkaard provided the Dutch with a win they craved, coming as it did in Germany, site of their previous defeat.
At the 1996 European Championship they were heavily fancied, but infighting along racial lines within the squad led to disharmony, and an early exit to the French. Their 1998 World Cup is summed up by two images: Dennis Bergkamp's sublime last-minute winner against Argentina and Frank de Boer berating his twin, Ronald, after he had missed a penalty in the semi-final shoot-out defeat to Brazil. In the 2000 European Championship semi-final the Dutch again lost on penalties, missing five during normal time and the shootout against Italy.
In his book Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, author David Winner examines the reasons for the consistent failure of Dutch sides, and credits it to something present in those images of the 1998 World Cup; an arrogance born of the belief that football should be played beautifully, and thus to win in any other way is a debasement. The Dutch public prefer to lose beautifully than win ugly.
This is why they are awful at penalties; they do not see the shoot-out as an acceptable way to win, and thus lack the determination of penalty masters such as Germany or Argentina. Thus the match against Italy in 2000, where they missed two penalties in normal time and three in the shoot-out, a game that was described in the press as 'a cause of national embarrassment'.
So can the 2006 squad make the changes necessary to win this year? They have shown good form going into the tournament, qualifying undefeated from a group containing a Czech Republic team No. 2 in the FIFA world rankings. But because they did not qualify for the 2002 World Cup they were not a top seed, and have been placed in by far the hardest first round group.
The rich talent of the Argentina squad justifiably makes them one of the favourites, while the debutante Ivory Coast look to be the strongest of the African nations, having reached the African Nations Cup final this year. Serbia and Montenegro looks like the weakest of the sides, but poses a tougher challenge than some of the other sides from the group of fourth seeds.
Winner believes that it is a different Holland heading to Germany: "It's not a traditional Dutch team, it doesn't have the silky skill or the arrogance," he said when I spoke to him. "This team is less experienced, but it does have that energy and passion that have been lacking previously.
"The main difference seems to be a generational shift. They've got rid of the old guard of players like Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert, the guys who used to go about the pitch like they had a God given right not to be tackled."
For Winner, Marco van Basten was a brilliant appointment as coach. "He seems to have the right mix of steel, openness and wisdom to be a success. He also has the absolute respect of the players because of what he achieved himself. And he seems to be a lucky coach, and Napoleon said that what he wanted more than anything was lucky generals"
There is also none of the upheaval that usually precedes a major tournament with the Dutch. "It seems to be a very settled camp in the run up to the tournament," Winner said. "You could say that the Dutch are the only team ever to fail because of artistic differences, but I don't think we'll see that this time."
What about a final prediction for how the Dutch team will fare? "There are some advantages for them. Being in Germany it'll almost be like a home tournament, there will be hordes of orange fans. And, of course, there will be the extra edge for them because of the history between the two countries. But ultimately I think they'll only make the quarter-finals.
"Don't expect to see much total football, but don't expect to see a failure of nerve either, this is a much more determined and hungry group of players than in previous generations."