Dutch desperate to keep 'famous four' onside as they attempt to gel talents

At every World Cup the Netherlands are undone by infighting but the coach has so far kept the peace. Can it last?
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The Independent Football

The Dutch have already conquered southern Africa once – it is why Afrikaans has been part of the continent's lexicon for over 300 years – and with Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben preparing to hit territory which the colonisers of the Dutch East India Company made their own, some with a passion for the Oranje believe they have reason to dream.

A sense of the true depth of Bert van Marwijk's squad might be provided in Freiburg tonight when a Netherlands team minus the Champions League competitors Sneijder, Robben and Mark van Bommel – who do not report for international duty until today – face the Mexico side which gave Fabio Capello's midfield such a run-around at Wembley. But the nation has displayed a curious reluctance to trumpet its prospects this time, perhaps because it is so inured to disappointment following the round of 16 elimination by Portugal in 2006 and the quarter-final exit to Guus Hiddink's Russia in the European Championship two years ago, when Robben's absence cost the country dear.

Listen to Van Marwijk speak and you would think the Netherlands were one of the continent's minnows, rather than purveyors of some of its finest football in a qualifying round which saw them win all eight games, scoring 17 goals and conceding just two. "It will not be easy because the big countries have more players," Van Marwijk said recently. "We have 16 million people, whereas in Germany they have 80 million and they have more potential from which to chose. In England or Germany or Spain if a player is injured they just open a door and another three or four players come out." Fabio Capello can afford himself a good laugh at the last one but Van Marwijk's comments seem to be part of a concerted effort to dispel the arrogance which he has spoken of as a Dutch problem. "We are a small but creative country and we have what Johan Cruyff always described as 'a kind of arrogance,'" he also said recently. "We cannot let that arrogance become negative."

The coach's strategy to ensure that the Dutch's lesser lights are not dictated to by the small coterie of superstar names – "the famous four", as Van Persie, Sneijder, Robben and Real Madrid's Rafael van der Vaart are know in the Netherlands – was to summon that quartet to a team meeting and demand respect for the rest of the team. The marquee names were also banned from talking about their superior salaries. "Accept everybody," they were told.

By popular consensus, that team talk has worked so far. Van Marwijk's powers of man-management are one of the reasons why he is such a popular national coach and why, despite a relatively modest club career at Feyenoord, he has recently been given a new contract taking him through to Euro 2012.

The question is whether the Dutch togetherness can prevail through the pressures of a tournament. There has already been a chink in the armour, put there by Van Persie when he recently posited the idea that the "famous four" could actually all play together in the same starting XI in South Africa. Van Persie, whose recovery from ankle ligament trouble in time for the finals is critical to Dutch hopes, suggested that he should be playing up front with, from right to left, Robben, Van der Vaart and Sneijder behind him. That did not best please Dirk Kuyt, the Liverpool player whose tireless work on the right has made him an integral part of qualifying. Kuyt responded with words to the effect that "Van Persie doesn't pick the team" to which the Arsenal player insisted he was only answering a journalist's question about how the four might fit together. Kuyt certainly needs to be on his game tonight, with Robben expected back when the Dutch face Ghana in another friendly in Rotterdam next Tuesday.

The spat reveals the powers that Van Marwijk is going to need at his disposal in South Africa, where his decision to base his players at a hotel in busy central Johannesburg, rather than out in the sticks, forms another part of his subtle psychological efforts. ("I remember when I was a player how it felt being cooped up in a hotel for just two days," he said.

On the face of things, the group stage in which the Netherlands are placed with Denmark, Cameroon and Japan should not pose a problem but it is the knockout rounds, when the serious competition kicks in, which have troubled the Dutch, who have proved a poor tournament side in recent years. The attacking powers at their disposal should be strong whoever the opposition – Ruud van Nistelrooy has not even made the squad – and the holding midfield partnership of Manchester City's Nigel de Jong and Van Bommel (Van Marwijk's son-in-law) looks durable. But the defence is a problem. At left-back Giovanni van Bronckhorst seems vulnerable to a sharp turn of pace and some in the Netherlands view goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg – the first choice since Edwin van der Sar's retirement – as uncertain at crosses.

Those who do dare to hope that the Netherlands can win the trophy that has eluded them suggest the difference from four years ago is that the key players are now steeped in the rigours of elite European competition and there is no question that they will wither. Robben has dismissed suggestions that his fitness, which all but ruled him out of the first half of Bayern Munich's last Bundesliga campaign, might make his reliability questionable now. "Specialists compared me to a F1 racing car – whenever one little screw is loose the engine is blown – but my problems are behind me now," he declared recently.

Van Marwijk is creating some wriggle room if things do go wrong, with several tributes to Vincente del Bosque's Spain, whom he has said, quite simply, are better than the Netherlands. But those who have studied the fixture permutations know that an even more unpleasant menace lies just beyond the group. If games go to form and the Dutch beat Paraguay in the first knock-out round, they are looking at a quarter-final against Brazil on 2 July. A day, if ever there were one, for the Dutch to inscribe their name in their nation's rich football history as a famous XI.