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?
Friday 11 June 2010
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.
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