Football: Hiddink's orange men opt for peace

The `Bergkamp generation' are the men who may today put the Dutch on course for glory. By John Lichfield in Versailles
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The Independent Online
THE FIRST question anyone wanted to ask the Dutch was: "Are you fighting among yourselves yet?" The second question was: "Will Dennis Bergkamp be fit to play against Belgium tonight?"

The answers were, respectively, "no" and "yes and no."

"Yes and no" on the Bergkamp question, because the Arsenal striker's hamstring is now "medically fit" but the rest of his body is not yet strong enough for a full game. He may come on during the second half of tonight's match at the Stade de France - the unofficial championship of the Benelux, and potentially the most attractive single game in the first phase of the World Cup.

On the other question - the in-fighting question - there is ominous news from the squad's luxurious quarters beside the Chateau de Versailles. Peace has broken out among the Dutch.

Appropriately, the Netherlands team held its first press conference in the gilded room at the Trianon Palace Hotel in which the final peace terms for the Treaty of Versailles were presented in May 1919, formally ending the Great War.

In almost every international competition since the Dutch became a football force in the 1970s, the skilful but quarrelsome men in the orange shirts have blown up their own chances of success. Not this time, said the team's coach, Guus Hiddink.

"In the past, Holland has had very, very talented generations - the Cruyff generation, the Van Basten generation," said Hiddink. "They all failed to succeed in the final goal, for various reasons. That's why in 1996, I laid down a new framework of disciplines, responsibilities and values. The players are totally aware of those values. We are a good, tight squad of 22, prepared to go as far as we can go."

What Hiddink did not say was that the new "values" (starting with no open challenges to the authority of the manager) were laid down after a typically disappointing and fractious Dutch performance under his command at Euro 96. He also failed to account convincingly for the presence in France of not one but three "assistant coaches" - all experienced former Dutch internationals.

Some say that the trio - Johan Neeskens, Frank Rijkaard and Ronald Koeman - are Hiddink's "enforcers". They are on the trip to stop the barrack- room lawyers in the squad from whispering that Hiddink, an undistinguished player who never won a cap, lacks the authority to be national coach. Others in the Dutch media suggest that the trio are there because the country's football authorities have the same doubt as some of the players.

No matter. The mood in the squad seems relaxed and determined. They come to the Belgium match, the key game in Group E, after a sparkling run in pre-World Cup friendlies: 2-0 against the USA; 3-2 against Mexico; 5-1 against Paraguay. The word from the eight players offered to the press yesterday followed a single script: "This time, we are all playing on the same side."

More specifically, Bergkamp said: "We succeeded at Arsenal last year because there was a very good attitude in the dressing-room, right through the season. It's the same in the Dutch team now."

Can the "Bergkamp generation" succeed where the previous generations failed? Much depends on the fitness of the great man himself. "I couldn't play a full game now," he said. "But I could come on, if I am needed, after half-time. If all goes well, I should be completely ready for the next game in a week's time [against South Korea in Marseilles on 20 June]."

The Dutch squad is packed with skilled and powerful defenders and midfielders - the De Boer brothers [Ronald and Frank], Jaap Stam, Wim Jonk, Clarence Seedorf, Aron Winter, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars. Other than Bergkamp, it has only one central striker of undoubted international class, the young and enigmatic Patrick Kluivert, who had a poor season at Milan. To go all the way to the last four, or even the final (they are many people's dark horses) the Netherlands need a fit Bergkamp.

The manager hinted strongly yesterday that he would be used against Belgium tonight only in dire emergency. "I must be 100 per cent certain that he does not risk another heavy injury," Hiddink said.

Judging by the size of the media clusters around individual players yesterday, the 1998 Dutch vintage may go down as not just the Bergkamp Generation but also the Stam Generation.

Jaap Stam, the world's most expensive defender, after his pounds 10m transfer from PSV Eindhoven to Manchester United was agreed last month, seemed pleased with all the attention. After all, when he went to England for Euro 96 he did not get a game. Stam, 25, is a brutal-looking figure - tall, skin-headed and roman-nosed - but a charming, soft-spoken man. No, it would make no difference to him that Alex Ferguson would be in the crowd tonight. He knows he will be under pressure anyway.

"Everyone will be pointing to me and saying `that's the expensive one' and hoping I make a mistake. But pressure is good. I will soon settle down."

This has not been a happy World Cup for defenders. Does he blame the new rules outlawing tackles from behind?

"It's bound to be on your mind when you're off the field. You don't want to be the first one to do something stupid. But as soon as you go on the field, you have to remember the rule but also forget it. If it is making defenders hesitate, making them think about what they are doing, then they can't afford that. You have to be free; you have to be yourself. You have to put it out of your mind, or you shouldn't be an international defender."

The Netherlands heavily defeated Belgium on two occasions in the qualifying competition. All Dutch squad members, from Hiddink down, are refusing to take that as a form guide for tonight's game.

The Belgian team has been rebuilt since then. Above all, Guus Hiddink said, they are "more of a team". So, it seems, are the Dutch.