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Dutch have reason to believe

July 7, 2010
Schaerlaeckens By Leander Schaerlaeckens
ESPN.com
(Archive)

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- The Netherlands has long been considered a beautiful loser. Two finals, but no World Cup titles to show for its effort. Sure, the Dutch will win a few matches, maybe knock off a big team, but they'll break your heart in the end.

However, after a resounding 3-2 victory over an albeit weakened Uruguay in the semifinals, this Dutch team might be ready to finally shed that not-so-beautiful reputation.

What's the difference between the Netherlands now and those teams of previously doomed World Cup campaigns? Previous teams hoped they could win. This team believes. Believes it's good enough to beat any opponent, as Brazil learned firsthand. Believes it's good enough to fight back, as Uruguay found out after it tied the game 1-1 on Tuesday night. Believes, most of all, that it can win the World Cup.

Only one match stands between the Netherlands and its first world championship. This is unexpected, given that more talented Dutch teams in the past have made a habit of famously flaming out.

"What's different is that we believe we can be world champions," said assistant coach Frank de Boer, who played on the 1998 Dutch World Cup team, which finished fourth. "In 1998, we didn't realize that we could be world champions."

"They believe in it, that they can actually do it," concurred Phillip Cocu, who also is an assistant coach and a veteran of that same '98 campaign. "They all have one big goal, and that's where we draw our strength from. That wasn't always the case. There are little things that are different. This team will do anything to reach its goal."

It was this strong self-belief that helped propel the Netherlands past Uruguay on Tuesday. De Boer saw something in the Uruguay side that reminded him of previous Dutch teams.

"When I saw the Uruguayan players walk onto the field with their cameras before the game," he said, "I thought they were happy just to have made the semifinals. We were like that, too, in '98."

Of course, the Dutch's improvement hasn't been overnight. The team's confidence is a product of a long and successful World Cup campaign that started about two years ago. "It's a progression," de Boer said. "It starts on day one. That day, the coach's first words to the players were: 'We have one mission. And that mission is to become world champions.' They don't all believe it straight away. … But I think everybody has now realized it."

Said a tearful head coach Bert van Marwijk at the news conference: "You can't be satisfied too quickly. That's happened so often in the past. Over those two years, you begin to realize that players are starting to get that."

Will the Dutch get their hands on the ultimate prize, the World Cup trophy? You might be skeptical, but the players aren't.

They believe.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com.