Dutch doubts as Van Basten plays it safe

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The Independent Football

If a response to this summer's irritatingly persistent BBC query "Who will you support?" had been elicited at the fag end of the last millennium, there would have been no doubt about our instinctive response. It had to be Holland, didn't it? The nation that speaks English better than many Britons; a nation with an interesting line in coffee shops and attitudes towards sex; and, from a footballing point of view, a nation which, given its freedom by the school of Johan Cruyff, was the one England (and the other home countries) would most like to be.

In England, those suffering withdrawal systems from what will long be deemed Steve McClaren Syndrome seek alternative inspiration. But Cruyff, now in his sixties, bitterly laments the destruction of his vision in Holland. "Our quality has diminished," he rages at what he perceives as the death of the enlightened football he created. "Victory is not enough. There also needs to be beautiful football."

Even victory may not be forthcoming within the next 10 days. Apart from Holland, Group C is contested by both the 2006 World Cup finalists, France and Italy, as well as Romania, who should not be discounted as inevitable wooden-spoonists, having finished three points clear of Holland in qualifying, drawing with and defeating Marco van Basten's men without conceding a goal to them. No wonder Holland, who confront Italy, the victors in 2006, tomorrow night, have been practising penalties (which in this tournament could decide a group's final placings).

David Winner, author and professional Orangeviste, is distraught, claiming that the line of memorable Dutch teams died in 2000, and condemning Van Basten's product as "rather ugly, boring football".

He views the changing personality of Holland's football in socio-political terms: "Just as Total Football emerged in the optimistic and liberal 1960s, so the new Limited Ambition Football chimes with the harsher social, cultural and political climate of the Netherlands."

Or could it be that Holland no longer produces the Cruyffs, the Gullits, the Bergkamps, and, of course, the likes of Van Basten himself who, 20 years ago in the European Championship final against the USSR, scored a supremely executed goal to help his country to their only major international trophy?

Whatever the explanation, the latter, as coach, has adopted a decidedly more pragmatic identity for his team. Holland 2008 still possess sufficient talent – three familiar figures in Ruud van Nistelrooy, Edwin van der Sar and Robin van Persie (when fit) attest to that – to advance to the semi-finals, if they can escape from their group, which Van Basten concedes will be "a hell of a job".

But, as always with the Dutch, doubts will be harboured about their team ethic, with suspicion lingering over performers such as the former Chelsea winger Arjen Robben. Holland's followers are never quite certainwhat team will turn up, and with what attitude.

Van Basten, in charge at a tournament for the final time, has been badgered by players and pundits into switching from that old Dutch favourite 4-3-3 to a4-2-3-1, employing two holding midfielders with Van Nistelrooy as the lone striker.

"In the Netherlands we were indoctrinated with a certain vision of football and that became our style," says the Real Madrid forward as he considers the New Realism within the Dutch camp. "But there are more roads that lead to Rome. We always said a lot about our way of playing, but the German or Italian style has paid more dividends in the past. It is good that we made the change, as we hardly conceded any goals in qualifying for these finals."

The former Manchester United striker, who has been encouraging Cristiano Ronaldo to follow in his path and make the move to Madrid, insiststhat Italy, even without the injured Fabio Cannavaro, have no weaknesses. "If an opponent is vulnerable you can try to anticipate certain weaknesses, but on Monday we will get nothing. They are just not vulnerable," he says of Roberto Donadoni's team. "So we can focus on our own qualities and see how we can win, or not lose."

Words that suggest it willbe a match of caution, notcolour. And heresy to thearch-visionary Cruyff.