Passion lacking in demise of Big Five

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The Independent Football

Ruud Van Nistelrooy threw a bottle at him. Ruud Gullit is still in shock 11 years after he withdrew him from a vital World Cup qualifying game and most Dutch fans think that among his assistant coaches in the dug-out at least one of them should be wearing a white coat. However, it could just be that Dick "The Little General" Advocaat is right and it's most of the rest of us who need to be locked up.

Not that he was correct in the most shocking substitution of the tournament - the replacing of the quick young winger Arjen Robben, who had helped to create a 2-0 lead over the Czech Republic, with the defensive midfielder Paul Bosvelt. That came straight out of the Trapattoni-Eriksson manual "Let's find a way to lose" and prompted the bitter question of one banner-writer, "Dick, does even your wife understand you?" No, where Advocaat hits a chord is in his assertion that this European Championship has been played out as much in a fog of false assumption as the fierce Portuguese sunshine.

He is saying that the unconvincing progress of the Netherlands to Wednesday's semi-final with Portugal should be a matter of relief rather than condemnation, even if it is true Saturday's penalty shoot-out win over a previously impressive Sweden dragged us to a new low in technical and artistic shortcomings.

"People still think we are a big football nation, but we are not. That's in the past," says Advocaat. "Failing to reach the semi-finals would not have been a disaster; you have to look at your true strength. You also have to look at what happened to Italy, France, Spain, Germany and England."

Those implosions naturally enough cost the coaches of Italy, Spain and Germany their jobs as Tottenham rewarded the dismal performance of France's Jacques Santini with a soft landing at White Hart Lane and the FA burbled the traditional platitudes about the continued value of the surviving Eriksson. The fate of the coaches was determined by style and quite how much importance the different national bodies attached to the need for successfully run teams. That had to be so because the coaching effort of the Big Five was uniformly feeble ... and utterly exposed by the work of Greece's Otto Rehhagel, Portugal's Luiz Felipe Scolari and, going into last night's quarter-final with Denmark, the Czech Republic's Karel Bruckner.

In the end, though, the probings for the reasons behind so much spectacular failure has to go beyond the deficiencies of the men in the dug-out. Italy's Trapattoni, as he did in the World Cup two years ago, slipped into a coma of caution that went on after it was too late to change. Eriksson's tactics were as passive here as they were in the World Cup. Santini sent out a hopelessly unbalanced France. Rudi Völler had to wrestle unavailingly with a German team in which only Michael Ballack seemed to be up to the job. Spain, for all their talent, never looked like breaking beyond the blinkers of the taciturn Basque Inaki Saez.

That said, why is it that inspiration and passion has come in such limited measure, with the hosts Portugal lifted by the yearnings of their compatriots, Greece, playing hard and thoughtful football, and the Czechs rediscovering the pride of a fine tradition? It may just - as we were suggesting before the first ball was kicked here - have something to do with what is represented by the monster fun boat of Roman Abramovich parked on the banks of the Tagus. That is, money flooding into football as never before, but with what assessment of value? Robben played well against the Czechs before being yanked off so bizarrely by Advocaat, but is he really worth £12m of Abromovich's money - and with such riches already assured, how desperately is he likely to care about his future in the Dutch squad?

It is hard to say who were more inadequately prepared, France or England, but in most cases the English did fight against their unpromising fate and from Wayne Rooney, 18 and still blessedly unaffected by the madness around him, there was the warm blast of pure desire to play the game. It may be significant that at the other end of the spectrum were David Beckham and Steven Gerrard, Beckham whingeing about the pressures of publicity in Spain after spending most of his career cultivating it and Gerrard, having urged Michael Owen to re-sign for Liverpool for most of last season, contemplating a hugely profitable move to Chelsea. Making the old spirit of commitment in international football, under a coach who has already made such a parody of his own loyalty to the cause, is possibly a problem that is finally biting into England.

The French, the most talented team in the tournament, were burdened with a game plan which had David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry competing for the ball in the middle of attack and Robert Pires providing width only sporadically. But whatever their difficulties, did anyone see passion in their appalling surrender against Greece? Did the great Zidane or Henry or Pires muster much more than a pout or a shrug, and if they didn't, why not? Could it be that this Championship is no longer central to their ambition? Would they not, when you got round down to it, prefer to be on a beach on the Cote D'Azur or Martinique?

It is said that one of the reasons Advocaat is often driven to a frenzy is that he believes the most talented players are often the least committed. A journeyman player himself, his coaching ability was recognised by the father of "total football" Rinus Michels. In the quarter-final against Sweden, Advocaat passed the record of 53 matches set up by his mentor. Though softened by eventual victory, it was the bleakest of milestones.

The taut Advocaat's defining moment as a controversial coach was that time when he withdrew Gullit as the Netherlands trailed England 2-0 at Wembley in a World Cup qualifier in 1993, then pulled up to 2-2 for the point that would carry them to the finals in America - and cost Graham Taylor his job. On Saturday night the only superstar to replace was Van Nistelrooy, and that would have been to travel old, rocky ground. He could only envy the choices of the man whose record he had just passed - and speak of football's new reality. It was that Holland is no longer a super football nation, but then in Europe who is?