James Lawton: Can Van Persie steal the show and end the Dutch wait for glory?

The World Cup's Great Players: How much firepower does it take to blast a path through those Dutch demons - the fatal capacity to fire high calibre bullets at their own feet?

Here is a short list of the most implausibly gifted and, some would say, egocentric Dutch footballers: Johan Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp and Robin van Persie. There is an accompanying question. Who is the odd man out?

It is Van Persie for the extremely basic reason that at the age of 26 he still has a chance of doing something that was, on two particular occasions that still haunt the psyche of one of the world's most sophisticated football nations, beyond his legendary countryman. He might just win a World Cup.

The bookmakers hold it a long shot, at 14-1, but here at the dawn of the 19th tournament a small but insistent group of hard-nosed football men believe that finally the Oranje might just be in position to deliver on the promise that came with their concept of Total Football 40 years ago.

Ruud Gullit, another to list in the category of sublime but ultimately unfilled Dutch talent, is one of them – and he agrees that if it should happen Van Persie, vain, self-obsessed but brilliantly sharp at the striking head of attack as well as coming from wide angles bearing a murderous left foot, could very well be the reason.

Gullit had the young van Persie in his charge during his brief stewardship of Feyenoord and was deeply impressed with the force of his talent, his speed and his instinct for goal. But his personality, well, it was another matter. The 20-year-old was sent out for a brief stint as a substitute and the old Dutch master was stunned by the boy's arrogant manner. Van Persie perhaps had the Dutch disease of overweening belief in his own powers – and a sense of team that could be fractured in one moment of breakdown.

Now, though, Gullit and other Dutch football men believe that the boy may, competitively speaking at least, may have become a man. Gullit says, "He has had setbacks with injury but what maybe you see now is someone who realises what talent he has and how easily it can slip away. Coming into this World Cup, and after the frustrating season he has had, he may well be in exactly the right zone."

It is certainly at the centre of the hopes of Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk, the latest to be entrusted with the task that proved beyond some of the most formidable football intellects down the years – and crumbled to two of its most crushing disappointments when the team built by Marco van Basten – another name to number among the world's best players never to win football's greatest tournament – utterly failed to justify their billing before the last World Cup and European Championships.

Van Marwijk believes that he has a team of characteristic Dutch flair but also one which might just have a shrewder sense of their own possibilities. Neither Van Persie nor the brilliantly resurrected Champions League winner Wesley Sneijder have ever been inclined to underestimate their own potential, but Van Marwijk likes both the self-confidence and the evidence that they are indeed men who believe that their moment may have arrived. It is a sense also supported by the passion Arjen Robben has shown in his determination to overcome injury. The coach has additional encouragement from his son-in-law, the veteran midfielder driver Mark van Bommel, who says, "We have a group of players who can achieve anything if they put their mind to it and think, after all the recent disappointments, the mind set is now right."

Yes, of course the Dutch have heard this many times before and some of the older ones say it is imprinted in their souls.

The coach says, "I know there has been a problem in the past with the mentality of the Dutch team, but we do know our strength going into this competition. I am a realist. We know we are capable of beating any country and when you know that you do not go to the World Cup just to take part – you go to win.

"Can we beat our national character, our football category? I know it is a big question but, yes, I am confident. We are a small but creative country and we have what Johan Cruyff always described as 'a kind of arrogance'. We cannot let that arrogance become negative. It must be positive. When Holland are good, we are very, very good – and then you can lose."

Tactically, Van Marwijk has been less than emphatic about the likely look of the Dutch when they make their first appearance here against Denmark at high noon on Monday. But camp insiders are ready to back the mortgage that Van Persie will appear at the front of a 4-5-1 formation bristling with aggressive instinct. Restricted to a mere 11 games for Arsenal because of injury last season, Van Persie appears to be straining at the leash as never before.

Earlier this week he was speaking of his great ambition. It is to join the pantheon of today's great players. "The World Cup is the perfect platform for players like Messi and Ronaldo and Kaka and I want to be in their company," he was saying. "I believe in my ability and this is my greatest chance to prove it."

But how much firepower and ambition does it take to blast a path through those Dutch demons – the fatal capacity to fire their highest calibre bullets at their own feet?

The Dutch pratfalls litter the history of modern football after all, the greatest of them coming in Munich in 1974 when they stunned West Germany in the opening phase of the final. They were ahead in two minutes, Johan Neeskens striking home a penalty after Cruyff ran through the German side, evidently intent on proving that he could them on his own. The Dutch played mesmerising football, they wanted not just to win but produce a fantasy of the game. Of course the Germans do not do fantasy, not even in the minor parts, and they fought their way back to defeat the team the world was waiting to greet as the worthiest of world champions.

It is easy to flick forward 24 years to Marseille, where another Dutch team of infinite promise were facing Brazil in the semi-final, and a conversation between the penalty scorer in Munich, now assistant coach Neeskens, and a Dutch journalist.

The sports writer asked a plaintive question, "It this finally our time, can we really go all the way now?" Neeskens frowned and said, "Well, a lot depends on whether Bergkamp plays." The reporter said, "but I didn't know he was injured."

Neeskens paused before giving the reply that serves well enough as a brief, poignant history of Dutch football. "I didn't say he was injured, I was wondering if he will play."

Play, Neeskens meant, as sublimely as he had in the quarter-final against Argentina few days earlier. Then, Bergkamp scored a goal that is still rated, 12 years on, as one of the greatest ever scored in a World Cup. Frank de Boer sent the ball deep into the penalty area on the right, Bergkamp controlled it with breath-taking ease, rounded the fine defender Roberto Ayala as though he didn't exist, and stroked it home. There was a minute left on the clock.

Unfortunately, the fears of Neeskens about Bergkamp – and the fault-line in his nation's football – were swiftly confirmed. Brazil won a disappointing game on penalties and Bergkamp spent most of the time on another planet.

Two years earlier, in Euro '96, England celebrated a dramatic 4-1 victory over the Dutch but national jubilation was to a certain extent based on a falsehood. The real Dutch team had disintegrated some days earlier, rent by squabbles which on this occasion were reported to have elements of racism, with Edgar Davids, the combative midfielder, making some typically forceful objections.

However, in the wake of the disaster, one saddened Dutch observer said, "What the issue was this time, there is always going to be something. It could easily have been that one Dutch player woke up hating the hotel interior decoration."

Van Marwijk agrees that "there is always something, but, who knows, this time it could just be different. It will not be easy because big countries have more players. We have 16 million people where in Germany they have 80 million and have more potential from which to choose.

"In England or Germany or Spain if a player is injured they just open a door and another three or four good players come out. But we don't have that, we have to be a little lucky. All our players have to be fit and in form – and have the right mentality."

Sceptics in the bars of Amsterdam and Rotterdam may say, with the injury fears of Robben apart, two out of three is about par for the course. Yet there is, too, an old groundswell of belief that one day a great Dutch footballer might finally come riding home. The yearning – and the talent – of Robin van Persie might just make it so.

Robin van Persie: Dutch master

Holland & Arsenal

Van Persie has scored 18 international goals in 44 games.

Both of his club trophies have come in cup competitions - the Uefa Cup with Feyenoord in 2002 and the FA Cup with Arsenal in 2005.

News
people'Interview of the year' no letdown
Sport
Wayne Rooney
sportBut which sporting Brit beats him to top spot in Sunday Times Rich List?
News
Maxine Peake at home in front of a poster for Keeping Rosy
people
Arts and Entertainment
Boys in blue: Peter Firth and (right) Kit Harington in Spooks
filmHow well will Spooks make the leap from the small to the big screen?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Royal fans covered with Union Jacks and royal memorabilia wait for Kate, Duchess of Cambridge to go into the Lindo wing at St Mary's Hospital to give birth to her second child in London, Friday, April 24, 2015.
peopleLive updates in the wait for Duchess of Cambridge's second child
Sport
Arsène Wenger (left) and Jose Mourinho have to be separated by the fourth official, Jon Moss, during last October’s Premier League match at Stamford Bridge
football
Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

How Etsy became a crafty little earner

The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

Don't fear the artichoke

Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
11 best men's socks

11 best men's socks

Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

Paul Scholes column

Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

Frank Warren's Ringside

Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

Khorasan is back in Syria

America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

On the campaign trail with Ukip

Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

Expect a rush on men's tights

Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

In the driving seat: Peter Kay

Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road