No nation in football dissipates its talent with needless rows like the Netherlands. In 1978 they might have won the World Cup if Johan Cruyff had not been sulking elsewhere and in countless international competitions since, the loudest noises coming from their camp has been the sound of broken crockery.
It is the same tonight. Every sane observer would place the Dutch in the top 16 nations in Europe, yet they have to face the Republic of Ireland in a play-off at Anfield for next summer's European Championship finals. This the legacy of another bust-up about style and formation.
Indeed, had Guus Hiddink, the Dutch coach, not had his thinking changed by a strike by the Ajax players earlier this year, they might have been denied even a chance of making it to England by the back door. Now the Netherlands play it the Ajax way and Hiddink is a tactical hostage to his players.
"It's difficult," Marc Overmars, the Ajax winger, replied diplomatically, when asked why the Dutch began their qualification period so badly. They needed to win their last three matches just to make it to Anfield. "I have been asked that so many times. The last few games it is Ajax style, but before that it was a little different. Maybe."
For maybe read definitely. As a consequence, the Dutch team tonight will start with seven players from Ajax, something that has pleased the Irish, notwithstanding the Amsterdam side's status as the European Cup holders and World Club champions.
"A lot of countries have tried to base national teams round club sides - England tried it with Liverpool a few years ago - and it's never worked," Jack Charlton, the Ireland manager, said. "That's mainly because clubs play other clubs. When you play at international level, you are playing the best in a country."
The intrigues in the Dutch camp are not mirrored in the Republic's, who are thrilled to have any chance of playing in the finals at all after conceding 10 goals in their last five matches, only one of which was won. Even Charlton, grumpy as an old grizzly before the last qualifying game in Portugal, has a serenity before a match that might see the end of his nine-year term in charge of the Irish.
"I'm not too bad actually," he said. "My mind isn't dwelling on the game as much as it has in the past. Mainly because I know we're playing a good side. They're probably expected to beat us. I'm relaxed because of the expectancy."
History favours the Dutch, who put the Irish out of the European Championship in 1988 and expelled them from the World Cup in the United States in Orlando last year. The difference this time, according to Charlton, is that the match is being played on Ireland's terms.
The venue, in a stronghold of the Irish community in England, is an advantage for a start, but so is the cold, dank air and the inclusion of a tall target man, around which the Irish attack in swirls. In Orlando, neither the debilitating humidity nor the lack of Niall Quinn and Tony Cascarino were in their favour and they lost 2-0.
"We were forced to readjust," Charlton said of that disappointment. "We like to play the ball behind people, we like to condense areas and we like to chase them. We can do that in these temperatures, but we couldn't in America. We're back to what we do best."
Cascarino, a revelation for Marseille this season, plays tonight as Quinn is suspended. "He's a big strong lad," Charlton added, "who moves about well and his touch has improved for being in France. We've used him in the past to replace Niall. I see no problem."
One problem Charlton does perceive, however, is the threat of the Dutch wingers, Overmars and Glenn Helder. Estimating that two full-backs might not be enough, he has selected four - Jeff Kenna and Terry Phelan to guard the flanks from midfield in addition to Gary Kelly and Denis Irwin. John Aldridge, too, will operate from a withdrawn position.
"We've never played two up front," Charlton said. "We've always had one striker coming back into midfield when we lose possession. You lot come to me and say five across midfield is a defensive formation, but it doesn't have to be. It depends how many people you throw forward when the ball's there."
That last equation will be solved only if Irish enthusiasm can bridle the Netherlands' individual advantages. "If we played them 10 times," Danny Blind, captain of Ajax and his country, said, "we would win six or seven times. But quality does not always count." Ireland and Charlton would probably concur with the maths. They will hope their own qualities, those of spirit and teamwork, add up to the greater sum tonight.
REP OF IRELAND
R DE BOER
VAN DER SAR