Holland arrive in harmony

Ian Ridley says Scotland have a fighting chance of beating the Dutch
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The Independent Online
They are the Brazil of Europe, or so goes the admiring appendage attached to Holland which made the oranges' encounter with the lemons of Brazil in the 1994 World Cup quarter-final the sweetest of encounters. That reputation is based on an approach to the game that reminds one of football's artistic merit and also of its capacity for self-destructive internal politics.

The Dutch -the European team Pele says he most enjoys watching -have never properly fulfilled their enormous potential even though they have have done staggeringly well considering they have fewer than one million players compared with England's two and a quarter million. Their 1974 team and Brazil's of 1982 are the best teams never to have won the World Cup. Holland have only the 1988 European Championship to show for 25 years of beautifying the game.

That Gullit-Van Basten-Rijkaard team should have gone on to win the World Cup two years later, but instead they bitched their way through the tournament, disunited and sulking that their coach was Leo Beenhakker not Johan Cruyff. A visit to their training camp in Italy was fascinating in journalistic terms but depressing for one who loved sport - so many talented players unable to set aside their resentments for what might have been four glorious weeks.

This time, harmony seems to reign, unless the unexpected treat of a sunny day in St Albans that greeted their arrival last week lulled them and us. Twenty-two tables were laid out on the lawn for 22 players to sit at and be approached. We refugees from the Bisham Abbey siege mentality felt like lads walking into a girls' school disco.

"We have a base of respect," the Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink, said. "Now we are fighting on the pitch." The disappointment of defeat for Ajax against Juventus in the European Cup final had disappeared within a day at the national training camp, Hiddink insisted.

But while the Dutch may be in array the team does not yet have a great player and those verging on greatness are unavailable. Few give Scotland much chance against one of the favourites for the tournament but there may not be a better time, possibly for another five years, to play the developing but denuded Dutch.

The Scotland manager, Craig Brown, may think he is being strung along about Patrick Kluivert but the 19-year-old striker's knee injury is a genuine concern. Already without the thrust of Marc Overmars, Holland will be missing the injured Frank De Boer and suspended Danny Blind from their defence.

"It affects us a lot," Hiddink said, drawing deeply on a Marlboro as he pondered the problems. "Blind and De Boer are our spine. They start our football, our organisation, the way of playing for which we are quite famous, I think. The leaders are these two and they are not easy to replace in a little time. There is no particular leader in this team so there are concerns."

There are concerns about replacing both their ability and their influence. The central defensive position is likely to fall to Johan De Kock, a semi- professional with Roda JC Kerkrade, but he is a stopper and not an instigator in the style that Blind continued after Ronald Koeman. Are potential replacements as well-versed? "Hmm. They are, but not with the same experience."

Hiddink will rely on the much-envied flexibility of the Dutch - what used to be known as utility players. Ask Michael Reiziger how he would describe his position and and he will reply: "I am a defender." Full-back or central? A shrug of the shoulders. "A defender."

Up front, Dennis Bergkamp is likely to play as the spearhead he prefers to feed from. He does not relish the idea that he might become the team's touchstone. "We are more a strong collective team. I don't talk about leaders, just 11 good players," he said. "It is important that all players do their job. I only see it as my job to score goals."

Collective seems the Euro 96 buzz-word so far. It applies more to the Dutch than most, their simplicity of passing and movement, attacking and defending as a team something that Terry Venables has sought to instill in England on the field.

It helps that Hiddink has mostly young, impressionable players these days rather than the 22 coaches that some of his predecessors had to deal with. "The young players are thinking and discussing, but they know there is only one coach," he said.

"We have made many changes since the USA two years ago and only a few remain," Hiddink added. "This group is skilful but there is a lack of tournament experience. Our aim is to do well in England but we can go on with this team for five or six years." A hint perhaps that this might be a tournament too soon.

While England dreams of Ajax, Hiddink believes there is still something to learn from the Brit brigades. "The commitment. Sometimes we are looking too much to technical and tactical solutions and forgetting the passion of the game.

"Every country has its philosophy. We are happy to bring our youngsters in early. It is hard to demand intelligence, but whether they are 20 or 28 we want them to understand and to read the game. I have been to England and Scotland a lot. You have your own style. The crowds come. You don't need radical change."

But Venables and Brown have both been trying to douse excess passion, to encourage thought. Indeed Brown began experimenting with his three- at-the-back formation against the Dutch in a pre-USA friendly in 1994. "Yes, but for a coach it is always about balance. Don't throw away your own identity," was Hiddink's advice.

He expects both home countries to play with fire, perhaps even hopes that the match between the two at Wembley on Saturday will see them cancel each other out. Indeed, perhaps like the Republic of Ireland against England in 1988, some Scots see their confrontation with the New Enemy as the be all and end all of their tournament. "Not Craig Brown, I think. The Scots will not be so foolish as to forget their first game."

Indeed not. Brown is well aware that at least a point can be pinched tomorrow night from traditionally slow starters to the tournament - they endured a 1-0 defeat against the Soviet Union before they went on to win the 1988 tournament, for example. And on the horses-for- courses principle, he could spring a surprise by including the elusive John Spencer to try to undermine De Kock even though Scott Booth and Gordon Durie emerged as a striking partnership during the recent US tour.

Any setback is unlikely to lead to in-fighting among the Dutch this time. They know Blind will return for the next match against Switzerland, when Kluivert might also be fit. For the Oranges, Scotland are not the only fruit.