James Lawton: Mirage of Oranje glory works the old magic once again

Rudi Krol, a true representative of Dutch football, in that, apart from being a natural-born player of sumptuous talent, he could have picked an argument at the Last Supper, once shared a bottle of Rioja in the hills above Barcelona – and a haunting fear.

We had just watched a new generation of Brazilian football making familiar fantasies at a training session that entranced a packed house of villagers. It was the World Cup of 1982 and while the likes of Socrates, Zico and Roberto Falcao had promised rather more than they would deliver, you could see that the Brazilians remained serene in their belief in the most thrilling tradition in world football,

Not so the Dutch, who will always swear they should have won the World Cup finals of 1974 and 1978. They were absent from Spain and would miss the next World Cup finals, too. Said Krol: "The worry is that the best of Dutch football, [Johan] Cruyff and all that, has come and gone for ever – that it has just gone up in a puff of smoke."

It was an irrational fear, we know now. Six years later they were the masters of Europe, playing football that simply engulfed Sir Bobby Robson's England on the way to an almost formal victory over the USSR in the final. Yet which admirer of Dutch football, even after this week's beautiful – and vital – performance against the world champions Italy in Berne, does not have at least half a sense that he has been drawn into yet another Oranje mirage?

It is always the risk with the nation that gave us the "total football" of Rinus Michels and the sublime Cruyff and with each generation produces fresh players of both wonderful facility and and the grittiest character.

The trouble is they do not, of course, guarantee that such qualities always come in the same package.

When Real Madrid's Wesley Sneijder scored the Netherlands' second goal on Monday night we might have been contemplating again the exquisite touch of Dennis Bergkamp. Yet can we be sure that Sneijder will not disappear as profoundly as did Bergkamp after he scored the goal of the 1998 World Cup in the quarter-final against Argentina in Marseilles? There may never have been a better goal in any major tournament than when he collected a 60-yard pass from Frank de Boer with one feathery touch, flicked it inside the formidable Roberto Ayala, and then volleyed home. No one, not the favourites Brazil or the growing hosts, France, could surely live with such virtuosity.

Yet when a Dutch journalist visited his team on the eve of the semi-final against Brazil he was shown again the fault line which runs – except for the 1988 European Championship splendour of today's coach, Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard – through the entire history of the nation's football.

"Is it our time, finally, to win this thing?" the journalist asked the assistant coach Johan Neeskens, one of those great Dutch players who did incorporate a consistent measure of iron into fine skill. "Maybe, just maybe – if Bergkamp plays," Neeskens replied. At first the reporter thought he was being alerted to a shocking injury story. But then Neeskens said, "No, he is not injured, he will be on the field – but will he play? Who knows?"

We can only speculate on how many times Van Basten has asked this question of his team since the huge promise of the World Cup in Germany two years ago. With victories over Serbia and Ivory Coast, and a draw with the early favourites Argentina, there was a terrible denouement in the "Battle of Nuremberg", a 1-0 defeat by Portugal in a hideous example of failed discipline on both sides which produced four red cards, a World Cup finals record.

Van Basten, who takes over at Ajax when Euro 2008 is over, arrived in Switzerland with deep ambivalence about the future of the team that had promised so much. Now, despite a dressing room which seethes with personal animosity – "the Dutch", it was once observed, "could wake up one morning and stage a rebellion over the decor in the team hotel" – he must feel at least a touch of the confidence experienced by his great predecessor Michels in the 1974 World Cup.

Led brilliantly by Cruyff, they swept to the top of their second-round group with victories over Brazil, Argentina and East Germany and, in the final in Munich, they opened with exquisite arrogance, denying the West Germans a touch of the ball before winning a penalty converted by Neeskens after two minutes.

Later, the Dutch star Wim van Hanegem said that the team's intention had been to humiliate the Germans, pay them back for old hurts which lingered way beyond the boundaries of a football field. Others argued that it was the genius of Franz Beckenbauer and the killer touch of Gerd Müller which turned the game around. Whatever the truth, the result was the first great example of the negligence of a football nation touched by a sudden rush of unfulfilled genius.

Van Basten knows well enough the frailty of the old dream that was refashioned by the likes of Sneijder, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Orlando Engelaar and the magnificent veteran Giovanni van Bronckhorst this week. But he also knows the classic depth of ability at his disposal. His pressure is somebody else's daydream and if it goes wrong he can expect little sympathy. Least of all, maybe, from an Italian named Fabio Capello.

Gallery of rising talent The new Dutch masters

*ORLANDO ENGELAAR The 6ft 6in captain of Twente is a towering presence and helped Nigel de Jong to dominate the midfield against Italy. Plays the simple pass – but is not scared to ping a 50-yarder – and strong in air and tackle. Covers ground quickly.

Suitors? Flamini successor?

*WESLEY SNEIJDERA product of the Ajax academy, the attacking midfielder became the second most expensive Dutchman when he moved to Real Madrid last year. Monday's man of the match – strong on the ball, with impeccable passing skills.

Suitors? Ronaldo makeweight?

*RAFAEL VAN DER VAARTThe Hamburg playmaker may finally be realising his vast potential. Can turn a game with his creativity and a wonderful array of passes – note the through-ball on Monday that Ruud van Nistelrooy squandered at 2-0.

Suitors? One for Chelsea?

*NIGEL DE JONGAnother Ajax product, now Van der Vaart's club team-mate, he ran the midfield in Monday's first half, then played the classic holding role under pressure from the Italians, proving a perfect complement to Engelaar.

Suitors? Another for Arsenal?

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