Football: Trials for a team of two halves

Andrew Longmore studies the approach of a nation blessed with flair yet cursed by frailty; Dutch touch upon the revered style of the Seventies but the old divisions can easily return to undermine them
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RARELY have Holland arrived at a major international championship so unsung. But the bad news for the rest of the tournament is that the Dutch, for once, seem to be sharing the same hymn sheet. "A semi-final would be good for us," says their captain, Frank de Boer. Whether that proves to be undue modesty or a realistic assessment will be known better tomorrow in Toulouse. The Yugoslavs will punish the sort of slackness which allowed the Mexicans back into a game they had not glimpsed for an hour in St Etienne on Thursday.

In a tournament which has produced a lot of piped football, easily watchable but basically indistinguishable fodder for the masses, the Dutch have touched on a style reminiscent of the total-football generation of the Seventies. Taking advantage of the punitive refereeing, they have tiptoed into the last 16, almost too literally if their five-a-side brand of non-contact football is carried to its logical conclusion over the next fortnight.

In the absence of Patrick Kluivert, controversially sent off against Belgium, Guus Hiddink, the easy-going Dutch coach, paired Dennis Bergkamp and Philip Cocu in attack. The result, a 5-0 drubbing of the South Koreans, would have been more impressive had the South Koreans not defended like expendable extras in a Bruce Lee movie, but none the less represented the most progressive tactical manoeuvre of the opening round. "How many would they have scored with a centre- forward?" mused a Dutch colleague.

"The problem with the Dutch is that we have to win every game 5-0," said Bergkamp. "We are not happy like the Germans to win 1-0 and win the tournament. The Germans won the European Championship, but can you remember one match they played? I can't. Winning the World Cup without a touch of magic doesn't mean much to me." The words could have been uttered by Johan Cruyff, still the guru of Dutch football, who had pleaded in an article just before the start of the World Cup for the Dutch to succumb to basic instincts and attack. "So," he wrote, "we did not win the World Cup in 1974 or 1978, but people remember us for the way we played. That is much more important."

Hiddink's disappointment after a patchy 2-2 draw with the Mexicans was eased by the manner of the opening goal, fashioned instantly by Bergkamp for Cocu. "A beautiful goal," he said. In Dutch, the word for beautiful is "Mooi" and it is used a lot in conjunction with the national game. The importance of playing "Mooi Voetbal", of the aesthetic quality of football, is drummed into children the length and breadth of the land, finding ultimate expression in the academy at Ajax and in the breathtaking natural skills which infuse the national side. Perhaps only Brazil could contemplate a similar flirtation with such a fluid style. Bergkamp admitted he had not started a game as a central striker for two or three years, certainly not at Arsenal; Cocu, a versatile midfielder, had last played the role of second striker during his apprentice days at Vitesse Arnhem.

"I think the Dutch are going back to the system they used with Cruyff with the integration of the midfielders," Arsene Wenger, an expert summariser for Canal Plus in St Etienne last week, said. "It's easier for Dennis to play central striker here because the referees are being so severe on the tackle from behind. Dennis has the technical skills to play anywhere he wants, but I still think he is better playing as the second striker." Whether Hiddink will persist with his experiment now that Kluivert is available has been the subject of intense debate in the hypercritical Dutch press since Holland qualified for the second group. Other forces teeter on the fringes of the decision.

Despite the new profession of harmony within the squad, many believe the old divisions between black and white players, which surfaced so destructively in Euro 96, lie just below the surface. Already Seedorf has joined Bogarde, Van Hooijdonk, Reiziger and Hasselbaink on the bench. If Kluivert is omitted, only Davids and Winter of the starting line-up would be black, a suspicious imbalance for a country still searching to integrate its immigrant culture. "It's not a racial issue," one Dutch journalist said. "The black players have a very different style. They talk their own slang, eat differently and listen to different music."

Standing quietly, arms folded, at a Dutch training session at the Stade Geoffroy Guichard in St Etienne last week was the familiar figure of Frank Rijkaard. Unlike Johan Neeskens and Ronald Koeman, Rijkaard did not actively participate in the session. Though denied by the team, his role is widely thought to be more spiritual than football. He is a unifying figure in a complex community. Koeman and Neeskens, representatives of two different generations of Dutch football, bridge a gap with the past which too often has proved more burden than inspiration. "People like Ronald and Frank have so much experience," says the goalkeeper Ed de Goey. "They know what it's like for the players and they can spot a little problem in the team before it grows."

It is a little portentous to shoehorn every neurosis into the confines of the stadium in Toulouse tomorrow. No one is better qualified than Hiddink to ease the tension. Hiddink comes from the county of De Achterhoek where the nickname of De Graafschap, the local club, is the Superfarmers. Hiddink was good enough to run the midfield for PSV Eindhoven, not good enough to break into a national side which boasted the likes of Cruyff, Haan, Rep, Neeskens and Van Hanegem. But like most easterners he has a relaxed attitude to life. He is a fan of Pink Floyd and motorbikes and he coached PSV to win the European Cup in 1988, though, typically Dutch, he was criticised for not winning with enough style.

No one is quite sure which is the real Hiddink, the tough guy of that PSV side and the architect of the negative Dutch side which drew 0-0 with Belgium or the free thinker who prompted visions of the Seventies in Marseilles and, for an hour at least, in St Etienne. What will tax the likeable Hiddink's thoughts is how easily the Mexicans exposed a familiar mental frailty. The Dutch have not had a leader since Cruyff. "It's not possible with the new generation," Bergkamp says. "Johan would stand on the ball and order everyone where to go. That would not be possible now, unless Cruyff was there himself."

In a qualifying game in Turkey, the Dutch were 1-0 down but had a penalty in the closing minutes. The ball was put on the spot; no one stepped up to take it until Seedorf, aged 21, strutted forward and blasted the ball over the bar. "Some of the older players were very ashamed by that," said Rob van der Zanden of Het Parool, the Dutch evening daily. "But it's a typical Dutch problem. They won't accept a leader."

The comforting thought for the rollicking orange-shirted legion of Dutch supporters is that their traditional chorus of "Give us back our bikes" which accompanies a meeting with Germany has been postponed until the final. This Dutch team are in too delicate a stage of gestation to be matched with the German powerhouse just yet. "They are a fluid and intelligent team," says Wenger. "They are very impressive when they play well." Mooi Voetbal. And sweet music amid the muzak.