How the Dutch must resent the current German side. The Netherlands has long seen itself as a uniquely progressive and artistic football culture. The generation of players born in 1983 and 1984 – Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie – is an astonishingly gifted vintage, one certainly worthy of an international trophy.
But as the European Championship, the world's most reliable stage for high-quality and competitive football, arrives again, and the Dutch play at Wembley tomorrow night in preparation, they are not considered the most plausible seizers of the Spanish crown.
It is Joachim Löw's German side that is seen as the vanguard of innovation, youth and entertainment. Bert van Marwijk's Netherlands might have reached the final of the 2010 World Cup, but Germany, who fell one stage earlier, impressed more people, playing consistently more enterprising football, and vivisecting England and Argentina 4-1 and 4-0 respectively.
Having built from their victory in the 2009 European Under-21 Championship, Germany provide a model for the moulding of a young national side. The late 1980s generation of Manuel Neuer, Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller and Jerome Boateng, supplemented by the even younger Toni Kroos and Mario Götze, are generally 3/1 second favourites behind Spain to win this summer's tournament in Poland and Ukraine. The Dutch are third favourites, out at 7/1.
When the two old rivals met in Hamburg for a friendly last November, Germany played with the cohesion and fluidity of a confident club side and won 3-0, with goals from Müller, Özil and Miroslav Klose. "We played with enthusiasm and lightness and combined with ease," Löw observed afterwards. "The Dutch were apparently overwhelmed."
Van Marwijk's team will need to do much better in Kharkiv on 13 June, when they face the Germans again. The Dutch have been placed into the hardest group in the tournament, along with Denmark, against whom they start, and Portugal, against whom they finish.
But four years ago they were handed at least as difficult a group: Italy and France, two years before World Cup finalists, and Romania. They won it, of course, winning all three games before a surprise defeat to Russia.
And so the Netherlands can be forgiven for approaching the next few months with a tingling of desperation. Because if this generation of players cannot lift the trophy in Kiev on 1 July, it is uncertain whether they will ever do so. The next World Cup is in Brazil, putting the European elite at a disadvantage to their South American rivals. And by Euro 2016 in France, Sneijder, Robben and Van Persie will all be 32.
Clearly, another great effort will be required by those three, if they are to deliver on their obvious gifts. In Van Persie's case, they can be most confident. In a remarkable run dating back to New Year's Day 2011, he has scored 51 goals in 58 appearances for Arsenal. He can confidently claim to have been the best forward behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in that period. Wojciech Szczesny described him as "the best player in the Premier League" on Sunday night and only David Silva can legitimately claim even the slightest offence at that.
There are greater worries, though, over his two great partners. Sneijder has seemingly stagnated along with Internazionale since the famous treble of 2010. Jose Mourinho has gone, and with him much of Sneijder's drive, at least according to Dutch legend Marco van Basten. "He knows he cannot win the [Italian] championship and is already thinking about the European Championship," Van Basten said last week. "When Mourinho was there, he was at his most motivated but now at Inter there is a bit more chaos and suffering. But it's not just the fault of Inter, it's also Sneijder, who should be more professional."
Internazionale manager Claudio Ranieri has struggled to build his team around Sneijder as Mourinho did. This year Inter have taken 12 points from the 13 games in which Sneijder has played, and 24 from the 12 he has not.
Robben, too, has not been replicating his 2010 form, largely due to groin surgery in October. "I still have painalmost every day," the Bayern Munich player said at the weekend. "This has been the worst injury of my career. During training it often feels uncomfortable. I am heading in the right direction but I need games to get my rhythm."
Van Marwijk knows how much he needs those two, but trusts their class. "Fortunately form is something that comes back," the coach said. "Maybe Arjen wants to be happy and that also goes for Wesley. They should get back to basics, that will be for the best." They certainly need to if they want to overthrow Germany and Spain, or else they may never win what they were seemingly destined for.
Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben both played a role but the Dutch lost the semi-final 2-1 to Portugal.
World Cup 2006
Robben scored the winner against Serbia and Montenegro, and Robin van Persie scored in the win over Ivory Coast, but the Dutch went out again to Portugal, at the last 16.
Sneijder, Robben and Van Persie all excel as the Netherlands win another tough group but they are beaten by Russia in the next round.
World Cup 2010
Sneijder scored five goals as the Dutch reached the final but they were beaten in extra-time by Spain.Reuse content