Johnny Metgod: Oranje appeal
Johnny Metgod learnt from the best in Brian Clough. Now he's part of the team hoping to help the Dutch master the world
Johnny Metgod's misfortune, if playing international football can ever be classed as such, was to represent Holland during the lean years between the first great flowering of Dutch football led by Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens and the second coming spearheaded by Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit.
One group reached a World Cup final on two occasions, the other became European champions. In Metgod's prime, nothing. He won 21 caps in five years, starting immediately after the second successive final defeat, by Argentina in 1978. Incredibly, the famous orange shirts were absent from the global extravaganzas of 1982 and '86.
But this summer – when he tips Arsenal's Robin van Persie to light up a tournament which he is convinced Holland can win – the player who flitted elegantly between midfield and defence for Real Madrid, Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest and Tottenham Hotspur has finally found a key role in a Dutch World Cup campaign.
Metgod, now 52 and coach to Nigel Clough at Derby County, is in South Africa as part of a four-man scouting team set up by the Holland manager, his old Feyenoord boss Bert van Marwijk. The unit, which includes ex-Rangers full-back Arthur Numan, has already reported in depth on Denmark, their opening opponents tomorrow at Johannesburg's Soccer City, and on their other Group E rivals, Japan and Cameroon.
"We watched Japan against England in Austria at the end of last month," Metgod said. "But it's not just the teams in our group we're here to study. We have to be positive and assume we're going to progress to the later stages. If we do, we'll play someone from Group F, which is Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia, so we'll be analysing them. If we get through that, it could be Brazil or Spain."
The Amsterdammer's eyes light up at the thought of the latest generation of the Oranje testing their vaunted technique – "the Dutch way", as he calls it – against the five-time world champions or the Euro 2008-winners. Meticulous attention to detail could, he believes, be crucial.
"This World Cup is going to be decided not so much on who scores most goals but on who concedes the fewest. The margins between success and failure are likely to be very fine, and a lot of games will be settled as much by teams that exploit set-pieces well as by one outstanding piece of skill by a player such as [Lionel] Messi or Van Persie."
Metgod is confident that the Arsenal striker, whose talent and temperament he knows well after coaching him at Feyenoord, will be one of the most influential performers at South Africa 2010. "I think we have a big advantage, though it was unfortunate for Arsenal, in that Van Persie was injured for four and a half months. If you compare that with players who've had long, hard seasons in Spain, Italy or England, he will be fresh and rested. Knowing him as I do, he will be buzzing."
To lift this trophy, however, don't you need world-class players? Do the Dutch still have them? "To win any tournament you need a team rather than star individuals, though obviously it helps if you've got players who can really affect a game, whether you call them 'world-class' or not. We've got Van Persie and [Arjen] Robben in that category and [Wesley] Sneijder, who can create a chance out of nothing with the quality of his free-kicks and passes. We've also got a 22-year-old right-back, Gregory van der Wiel from Ajax, who could shine here."
Mention of Robben and Sneijder, who reportedly do not get on, is a reminder that the Dutch are renowned for self-destructive rifts as well as for Total Football. Previous internal feuds reputedly pitted Amsterdam against Rotterdam and black against white. Metgod is adamant that in-fighting will not be a factor this time. "You have to be realistic. If you get 23 players together, it's impossible everyone will like each other. But the only thing on their minds should be to get as far as they can in the tournament.
"When you cross that white line anything else is irrelevant. Van Marwijk has already proved in the qualifying series that there are no damaging differences. He could never have won all eight group games if there had been something. The media would have picked up on it, believe me."
Metgod and the once-capped coach were team-mates at AZ '67 Alkmaar in the Seventies. "He was a tricky winger with a magnificent left foot and a super cross, but he didn't have great pace, which meant he had to be very clever. As a coach he's always thinking about how he can get his team playing better, but he's down to earth. He'd love to play beautiful football for everyone to enjoy but if it didn't guarantee he'd win the game, he'd rather play rubbish and be sure of winning."
He argues that Van Marwijk's squad contains "a balance of nearly everything – skill and strength, experience and youth", adding: "Van Persie and Robben won't give you the physical element, but Nigel de Jong and Dirk Kuyt can put a foot in, work their socks off and do it in almost the English way."
All four followed his trail to England, though Metgod took an exotic detour. "In 1982, after Alkmaar played ADO Den Haag, I got a call saying the Real Madrid coach – Alfredo di Stefano! – and his chief scout had watched me. I thought someone was taking the piss. A lot of Dutchmen have played for Real – Sneijder, Robben, Huntelaar, Van der Vaart, Seedorf and Van Nistelrooy – but I was the first. Only two foreigners were allowed per club and at the Bernabeu it was me and Uli Stielike, a German. In the second year they signed an Argentinian, Jorge Valdano, so I had to move.
"Brian Clough signed me for Forest, and playing for him was a marvellous experience. On the psychological, mental side of the game I picked up things from him that I still use now. He was magnificent at that and it is even more important in today's football."
Best remembered in Nottingham for one of his extraordinary free-kicks which almost decapitated the West Ham goalkeeper Phil Parkes, Metgod suffered at Spurs from injuries and being labelled the replacement for Glenn Hoddle. "They didn't see the best of me."
Speaking of seeing the best, the Dutch scouts aim to know each country's capabilities in forensic detail. "I think England have a fair chance; Spain, Brazil, Argentina and even Germany, too, though Italy may have a weaker team than usual," he says. "But I don't think there's one outstanding side, just five or six who have it in them to do really well. I'm sure that Holland is one of them."
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