Van Basten's art makes the future look Oranje

The Netherlands' young coach has rebuilt his side's team spirit. Phil Shaw reports from Frankfurt
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"Dutch World Cup shock: no splits." In one tournament after another, the Netherlands squad have been riven by divisions. Thirty years back it was Amsterdam against Rotterdam. A decade ago there were allegations of a racial rift. This time, if the atmosphere is awkward, it is only because the players have discovered that the salubrious but aged hotel that serves as their headquarters in Germany is not fitted with air-conditioning.

Marco van Basten, who brings the current generation to the Wald Stadium tonight to face Argentina in a match that will decide the winners of Group C, knows all about bad blood and the effect it can have on a team. He was the principal striker when the Oranje arrived at the 1990 finals as European champions. They left without a win.

Before going to Italy, the players voted almost unanimously to remove the coach, Thijs Libregts, and replace him with Johan Cruyff. The Dutch federation, led by the technical director credited with creating "Total Football", Rinus Michels, installed Leo Beenhakker instead. Van Basten was among the most vocal dissenters. Now, as coach himself, the great former Ajax and Milan centre-forward, whose mentor is Cruyff, has evidently learnt the lessons of history.

There has been an untypical peace and harmony in the Netherlands' base at Freiburg. Rafael van der Vaart, the 23-year-old who plays in the north with Hamburg, made a pointed comparison with Dick Advocaat's Euro 2004 squad. "Team spirit has really improved," he said. "Van Basten is also younger than his predecessors, so he's closer to us. He knows what's going on and what we need."

With two victories, by a one-goal margin against Serbia & Montenegro and Ivory Coast, the Netherlands appear set for a strong run in a tournament in which they have twice finished beaten finalists. Why, then, is there such a feeling of disquiet back home? After the 1-0 win over Serbia, an opinion poll showed that 60 per cent of the Dutch people expected them to reach the semi-finals. The 2-1 defeat of the Ivorians, far from sending expectations soaring, saw the figure plummet by 10 per cent.

Respondents cited doubts about the quality of Van Basten's side after they had spent the second half grimly defending against an African team in their first finals. Gunter Netzer, the former West Germany playmaker who has been nearly as ubiquitous on television here as Franz Beckenbauer, posed an incredulous rhetorical question after the display against Ivory Coast, asking: "Was this a Dutch side?"

Van Basten's standing remains undiminished. The Netherlands went a goal behind 60 seconds into his first game, which came after he had been coaching for 10 months, but they have hardly looked back. He is also something of a television personality for his occasional savagings of the Dutch equivalents of Alan Hansen and Andy Gray.

The squad he brought to the finals - which had no place for Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert or Roy Makaay - was both youthful and more Dutch-based than on previous occasions. However, the suspicion is growing that, for all the emphasis on unity, he may not be blessed with the talent many thought he had after a qualifying campaign in which his side twice beat the Czech Republic.

There is no shortage of technical ability. Dutch footballers learn that as soon as they can walk. But many critics - not including Cruyff, who is unstinting in his support of his one-time protégé - argue that where there was once the element of fantasy provided by, say, the wondrous No 14 of Dennis Bergkamp, there is now functionalism.

"We didn't play well against the Ivory Coast, but we showed spirit and kept fighting," Van Basten said. "To see a real team makes me proud. But it isn't just the spirit that's important. We also want to control and dominate matches. We still haven't done that satisfactorily."

Passing judgement on the Netherlands on the basis of their performance against Argentina may be inadvisable. Matches between the countries tend to be dramatic - behind the Dutch boast that the South Americans have never beaten them in 90 minutes lies the bitter memory of their extra-time defeat in the 1978 World Cup final - but with a place in the last 16 assured, Van Basten is expected to field a weakened side.

Six players are one booking away from being suspended, including Arjen Robben. The starting XI should still be strong enough to give a good account of themselves, especially with Argentina likely to rest Gabriel Heinze, Hernan Crespo and Javier Saviola.

The spine of the team, with the exception of the centre-backs, will not want for experience. Edwin van der Sar is in line to equal Frank de Boer's Dutch record of 112 caps; Phillip Cocu should become his country's third centurion; and Ruud van Nistelrooy will lead the attack, probably flanked by Dirk Kuyt and Robin van Persie.

The Netherlands might be expected to want to avoid Portugal, their likely opponents should they finish second to Argentina. The Portuguese are regarded as their bogey team, having beaten them in the semi-finals of Euro 2004 and effectively scuppered their chances of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup.

But Van Basten does not believe in jinxes. Claiming he would be equally happy to face Portugal or Mexico, he has noted that the Group C runners-up have an extra day to prepare.

Then, perhaps, given that young teams often grow during tournaments, we shall begin to learn whether the Netherlands are a spluttering imitation of the Oranje sides - or a breath of fresh air.

From Cruyff to Gullit and beyond: The past is a story of near misses

1974 A Johan Cruyff-inspired Netherlands lost 2-1 to West Germany in the final after leading through a second-minute Johan Neeskens penalty awarded by English referee Jack Taylor.

1978 Without Cruyff this time, they still reached the final but finished runners-up again, this time losing 3-1 to Argentina after two Mario Kempes goals and one from Daniel Bertoni.

1982 Did not qualify.

1986 Did not qualify.

1990 The brilliant team of Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit, the best since Cruyff's generation, lost in the second round to West Germany. Again 2-1.

1994 Controversially beaten 3-2 by Brazil in quarter-finals. Romario scored Brazil's second goal after coming back from an offside position.

1998 Again beaten by Brazil, this time 4-2 on penalties in the semi-final.

2002 Did not qualify.