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
The guide, since withdrawn, used illustrations and text to help people understand the court process (Getty)
newsMinistry of Justice gets law 'terribly wrong' in its guide to courts
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
scienceFeed someone a big omelette, and they may give twice as much, thanks to a compound in the eggs
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
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

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links