'Pretty football gets you nowhere,' say Dutch

Unified Holland believe this is their time as fired-up Robben claims 'I don't need friends, I want to be a world champion'

All teams are imprisoned by their past. England have yet to escape the shadow of 1966. Every Brazilian player is judged against the template of 1970. The Dutch are expected to thrill, twist and spin their way to a final as they did in 1974.

As his World Cup collapsed around him, Dunga – probably the worst-dressed and certainly the most- vilified coach in South Africa as the head honcho of a failed Brazilian side – made one parting shot. The boys of 1970, he said, were only ever seen in highlights, giving the impression that every time Tostao and Rivelino crossed their own halfway line they scored like a footballing version of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Nobody ever mentions that Brazil arrived in Mexico in crisis, having fired their manager, the chain-smoking, one-time television commentator Joao Saldanha, who had suffered a nervous breakdown. Or that in 1966 Alf Ramsey's England were booed not just after the opening goalless draw against Uruguay but during the infamous quarter-final with Argentina because they were so stultifyingly dull. Or that Holland, with their ever-increasing financial demands and threats of strike action, behaved as badly in West Germany as the France of Patrice Evra did here.

However, in one very significant way, the Dutch story is different. They lost. And not only did they lose in 1974, but it was to a German side they should have swept away in Munich had they been able to control their desire to showboat. In South Africa, only Robin van Persie, who with artists for parents and a constant desire to speak his mind – particularly when Wesley Sneijder's name is mentioned – is recognisably part of the mindset of 1974. Midway through this World Cup, after a laboured display against a Cameroon side that had gone from Indomitable Lions to Bagpuss in the course of this tournament, Van Persie said the Dutch had to start playing better football; it was their duty.

This they did not do, although they beat Brazil, just as they had done 36 years before, but once Arjen Robben had finished celebrating their journey to a third World Cup final by somewhat riskily standing on the advertising hoardings at Cape Town's Green Point Stadium, he said there was no requirement on the Dutch, other than to win. "The point is, we are in a World Cup final," Robben said. "From now on, how you play no longer matters. The intent is there to play good football but the result is far more important. We have heard enough talk about how our football is very nice but it gets you nowhere. We want to achieve something."

Robben, who has been the most artistic and inventive of Bert van Marwijk's footballers, was bemused to learn that Dirk Kuyt had been exchanging text messages with his Liverpool team-mate Pepe Reina. He had not been doing the same with Iker Casillas, whom he had known at Real Madrid. "I do not need friends," he said. "I want to be a world champion."

In many ways, Kuyt is the epitome of this Dutch team, just as Cruyff was in 1974 – both men, incidentally, had to change the spellings of their surnames for English audiences. But while the young Cruyff learnt his football in the streets around Ajax's De Meer Stadium, where his mother worked as a cleaner, Kuyt's playgrounds were the dunes of Katwijk, where he discovered the kind of stamina that astonished the watching Sir Alex Ferguson; the stamina that Brazil seemed utterly unable to summon in the fateful second half in Port Elizabeth.

"There are players who change the course of a match with a single touch and others who are there to serve the cause," said the fisherman's son. "I've no problem admitting I'm in the second category."

Van Marwijk has plenty of footballers who belong in the second category, not least his son-in-law, Mark van Bommel, whom he brought back into the Dutch team knowing he had not exacly been a popular member of the squad that was forced out of the 2006 World Cup by Portugal in an anarchic match of four red and 16 yellow cards in Nuremberg.

However, Van Bommel was back for a reason. The most obvious disparity between Spain and Holland tonight will be in defence. Every one of Vicente del Bosque's rearguard is of high Champions' League standard. Van Marwijk's come from Ajax, Hamburg, Feyenoord and Everton – all Europa League teams. They have not kept a clean sheet in the knockout stage of the competition and they have to be protected by Van Bommel and Manchester City's Nigel de Jong, who missed the semi-final against Uruguay and pronounced it the most draining match he had ever been involved with.

"Maybe we haven't got there with very pretty football but we have stuck together and fought as a team. In the past that hasn't always been the case and that is why we are in the final," De Jong said. "The story of 1974 is a positive one because it put Dutch football on the map but this is a new generation and we have to go into the final with no memories of the past. They had their squad but this is our squad and our time."

Dutch path to the final

Group stage

Holland 2-0 Denmark (Agger og, Kuyt)

Two Liverpool players on the scoresheet, an unfortunate own goal from the Danish centre-back Daniel Agger while Dirk Kuyt tapped in late on.

Holland 1-0 Japan (Sneijder)

The only goal came from Wesley Sneijder, whose powerful shot from outside the area was fumbled in by Japanese keeper Eiji Kawashima.

Cameroon 1-2 Holland (Van Persie, Huntelaar)

Robin van Persie scored a top goal from a tight angle before Samuel Eto'o equalised. The Dutch had the final say as Arjen Robben's shot hit the post and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar finished from close range.

Last 16: Holland 2-1 Slovakia (Robben, Sneijder)

Robben, making his first start of the tournament, scored a cracker from 25 yards before Sneijder stuck away the second. Robert Vittek's late penalty was a consolation.

Quarter-final: Holland 2-1 Brazil (Sneijder 2)

Robinho scored early but Sneijder's cross clipped Felipe Melo's head and went in. Sneijder headed in the second from a corner before Melo saw red for a stamp on Robben.

Semi-final: Holland 3-2 Uruguay (Van Bronckhorst, Sneijder, Robben)

A 35-yard screamer by Giovanni van Bronckhorst, followed by Sneijder's fifth goal in all and a super header by Robben put the Dutch in the final.

Chris Heal

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