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Monday, June 26, 2006
ESPNsoccernet: June 28, 11:16 PM UK
Bright side of the road to nowhere

Ernst Bouwes

'It will take years for the Dutch to repair their once-proud reputation for stylish, attacking soccer. The team fielded by Coach Marco van Basten turned to violence when its skills fell woefully short. If Portugal was the pickpocket, then the Netherlands was the thug.'

A quote from Grahame L. Jones, a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times.

We are used to listening to the opinions of Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer or Alan Hansen so the critique of a hack from a country where they play 'soccer' instead of plain old would therefore patronisingly be usually laughed away.

However, I have to agree with Grahame L. Jones. Shame on us, shame on the orange shirts, although the team played in white against Portugal.

I have a vision of thousands of readers of Jones' regular columns in California, or all those other football fans in the United States and around the globe, watching their televisions in bewilderment.

They have followed World Cups through the years and taken the Dutch team as their first or second favorites, dependent on whether their own country would compete.

Johan Cruyff, Wim van Hanegem, Johan Neeskens, Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp and maybe Ruud van Nistelrooy as a United player conquered the hearts of purists.

Somewhere in a little house in Outer Mongolia or the middle of the Australian outback an Oranje fan may have invited friends and family at an ungodly hour with hefty pay TV costs to show them the 'Total Football' that he has been so enthusiastic about over all these years.

The match against Portugal was supposed to be the connoisseurs' pick and a feast on the eyes.

It was eight years since the Dutch team featured live on most foreign screens in breath-taking semi-final against Brazil, when they nearly knocked the favorites out of the tournament. Since then global fans might have seen only a couple of goals as the Dutch never got the World Cup in 2002.

It all started so brightly in Nuremburg as Mark van Bommel's shot just went wide in the first minute. From there on in all went downhill.

The next minute the same van Bommel hacked down Cristiano Ronaldo and got booked. Then Khalid Boulahrouz was the next to assault the unfortunate Portuguese winger and was lucky to get away with a yellow card.

Over the next period it started to dawn that this Van Nistelrooy-less team was incapable of keeping possession, especially in midfield, where Phillip Cocu was never able to raise his game after three colorless performances during the group stage.

Wesley Sneijder, who had not played much in the second half of the season at Ajax due to injuries, did not fare any better.

There is always the myth in the Dutch camp that a recently recuperated player can improve his form during the tournament as Marco van Basten did himself during Euro 88. He was fresh, fit and ambitious, not taunted by any unfortunate end of a club season. Eager to prove himself.

But that was Van Basten, the super talent. Since then several players have come back from injury without making an impact at all and Wesley Sneijder was the latest. As third midfielder Mark van Bommel was mostly preoccupied with showing the Portuguese how much of a nuisance he can be.

So there was scant passing or proper build-up. Kuyt worked on his own up front as wingers Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben were seemingly only interested in finishing their runs with shot on goal. Going behind was no surprise.

Hopes were raised during half-time after Costinha's red card, but so were fears that it would not be the last dismissal. When Cocu then almost crushed the bar from close range one began to sense that this just would not be our lucky night. Although there were not a huge amount of fouls most cards seemed justified.

The ensuing mayhem was to be expected from a combination of the cunning Portuguese, a nervous Russian referee and the unexperienced Dutchmen.

So Grahame L. Jones is spot on to be utterly disappointed by a team which used to showcase their brilliance at a World Cup over the decades, usually after stumbling through qualifying campaigns which went largely unseen by fans around the globe.

They got their first glimpses of that beautiful orange only when the tournament started.

But this team was just good at the World Cups as it was in qualifying. So not very. They made the best of the talent on offer, then did the best they could in Germany. At the moment only keeper Edwin van der Sar is truly world class.

All the others were, will be, might be or should be, but just were not of that highest level in the month of June 2006. Just an average second round competitor in a tournament, who fought for dear life to stay in. And it was not a pretty sight.

The bright side though is, that Van Basten will stay for another two years and that he set his sight on Euro 2008 from the moment he started. He ditched the old guard and is building a new team. Surviving the 'Group of Death' at this World Cup was a job well done, every other advancement in the tournament would be a bonus.

Van der Sar and Cocu probably won't be there, but the greater part of the team is still young while the Dutch Under 21 were recently crowned European Champions. They did not display much total football either, but at least they won some silverware.

Stijn Schaars and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in particular would not look out of place in the Oranje shirt. So for all those fans abroad who have been let down these weeks I should confess: yes, we are ashamed now, but the Dutch team will be back. And hopefully without a vengeance.

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