The Dutch break your heart every time
For there to be winners, we need losers, too.
And to enable the overachieving Cinderella-type stories we so love, somebody has to underachieve.
Luckily, we have the Dutch.
Need someone to entertain but ultimately fall short? Looking for a heartbreak story to balance out the outlandish boisterousness stemming from stunning upsets?
Call the Dutch.
The Dutch were once a happily hapless side, oblivious to the pain of dreams crushed by misfortune and missteps. Entering the 1934 and 1938 World Cups, the Dutch lost their opening games, 3-2 to Switzerland and 3-0 to Czechoslovakia, respectively, and were sent home by the single-elimination system.
Then came 36 mercifully World Cup-less years for the Dutch in which they were spared the mind tricks soon to be dependably sprinkled over them every four years.
1974:The soccer tide had suddenly and fantastically shifted in the favor of the Dutch in the 1970s. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Dutch had it all: an all-conquering style in Total Football, premised on a rapid interchange of positions and a revolutionary versatility among its players; an all-conquering club in Ajax, which had won Europe's top club trophy in 1971, '72 and '73; and the most tactically savvy coach and the world's best players, led by splendid forward Johan Cruyff.
With such an arsenal, the Dutch were poised to turn the 1974 World Cup, in West Germany, into a tournament-long celebration.
In the first group stage, the Dutch strolled past Uruguay and Bulgaria and drew with Sweden. In the second group round, the Dutch disposed of Argentina, East Germany and Brazil, all by comfortable margins to reach the final.
Just like that, the Dutch became the tournament's sensation.
In the final against a technically and athletically inferior West Germany, the Dutch took an early lead, scoring on a penalty before the Germans had even touched the ball. Then the Dutch dialed down the pace and, as many of its players have since acknowledged, became more concerned with showing off the superiority of their skills and embarrassing the Germans than cementing the lead. By the end of the first half West Germany had taken the lead through a penalty given after Bernd Holzenbein flopped in the Dutch penalty area (Paul Breitner converted the kick) and a 43rd-minute goal by Gerd Muller that proved to be the game-winner.
The Dutch never recovered in that World Cup, or any other.
1978:No longer an outsider, the Dutch traveled to Argentina to right the wrongs of four years prior, albeit without Cruyff, who said he was concerned for his safety in the junta-ruled South American country. (It is thought to have had more to do with his wife withholding her permission after a story had surfaced accusing her husband of partaking in some boozy skinny-dipping with some German girls before the '74 final.)
The Dutch slogged through its group, beating only Iran and losing to Scotland while drawing with Peru. The second round of the group stage treated the Dutch better. With wins over Austria and Italy, and a tie with West Germany, theOranje reached the final again. And just like 1974, the Dutch would face the host nation, this time Argentina.
Tensions ran high. Dictator Jorge Videla and his murderous regime badly needed their team to win the World Cup to quell growing discontent among the people. The Dutch players, who recall feeling intimidated throughout their time in Argentina, had to put up with gamesmanship even before the first whistle blew. The Argentines came out to the pitch late, only to snipe at their opponents (questioning, at one point, whether a Dutch player was breaking the rules by wearing a cast).
A rough-and-tumble game saw the in-form Argentine Mario Kempes score the opener in the 38th minute. It wasn't until the 82nd minute that the Dutch equalized, and in the final minute of regulation they hit the post. In overtime, Kempes and Daniel Bertoni both scored, denying the Dutch the title.
1982 & 1986:In '82, a disastrous start to its qualifying campaign, in which the Dutch lost to Ireland and Belgium, would prove debilitating. It all came down to the final qualifier against France. The Dutch lost and were deprived of the 1982 World Cup in Spain. In '86, the Dutch went through three managers and failed to qualify outright. A two-game playoff against neighbor Belgium was lost on the away-goals rule.
1990:The Dutch returned to the World Cup in 1990. A new batch of stars had risen and romped its way to the 1988 European title. The golden threesome of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard had turned AC Milan into the world's foremost club, and they were widely expected to lead the Netherlands to glory. This wasn't a shy lot, either, as the opinionated Holland team made it known that it wanted Cruyff to be named as the team's manager. Instead, the Dutch got Leo Beenhakker, who had been appointed a week before the tournament started. Relations between the two sides weren't exactly cordial.
Nevertheless, the Dutch scraped three draws in the group stage and squeezed through to the round of 16, where West Germany knocked them out, 2-1.
1994:A transitional team, composed of the veterans of 1988 and the youngsters about to win everything there is to win at the club level with Ajax, won its group in '94 and knocked out Ireland in the round of 16. Next up: Brazil in the quarterfinals.
The Dutch had managed to answer goals by Brazil's lightning-quick forwards Bebeto and Romario. But a heartbreaking, quickly taken 81st-minute free kick by Branco would prove the difference-maker.
1998:With the golden Ajax-generation fully formed and matured, the Dutch brought a formidable team to France. Would this be the year Oranje reversed its fortunes at long last? Although it underwhelmed in the group stage, stunning last-ditch winners against Yugoslavia and Argentina saw the Netherlands through to the semifinals. Fate wouldn't be kind, however, as the Dutch next faced defending-champions Brazil.
Patrick Kluivert made up for Ronaldo's goal for Brazil in the 87th minute, eventually sending the game to penalties, which Brazil would win 4-2. Goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar's tears spoke volumes.
2002:Once again, the set-up seemed perfect for the Dutch. The golden generation was at its peak, with a new coach, Louis van Gaal, who had helped oversee much of the team's development at Ajax. But the squad no longer meshed well with van Gaal. Together, they failed to qualify for the World Cup, bombing out in a fairly straightforward qualifying campaign with losses to Portugal and Ireland.
2006:Drawn into the Group of Death, the Dutch beat Serbia & Montenegro and Ivory Coast and drew with Argentina to advance to the next round. There the Dutch faced Portugal, which had bounced the Oranje from the semifinals of Euro 2004. In the preposterously poorly refereed match, which would come to be known as the Battle of Nuremberg, no fewer than 16 yellow and four red cards saw the outside of Russian referee Ivanov's pocket. While those cards were divided fairly among the teams, the goals were not. Portugal 1, Netherlands 0.
Will the Dutch experience redemption at long last in South Africa? Believers may point to the team's perfect record in qualifying. Impressive, but such a track record guarantees nothing, especially when the Netherlands is concerned.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.