DICK ADVOCAAT'S face has struggle etched deep, and a wry smile widens the creases when the Dutch coach contemplates the biggest match of his switchback career, against England in Rotterdam on Wednesday.
Victory for the Netherlands would, by common consent, take them to the World Cup at England's expense, but Advocaat is in a classic no-win situation. If his team qualify for the finals, he will not be there with them.
The independent, think-for-yourself attitude which gives Dutch teams such flexibility comes at a price, and player power has seen to it that the more charismatic, not to mention pliable, Johan Cruyff will take over in the summer, come what may.
Advocaat appreciates the irony of the situation. If England qualify, Graham Taylor gets to keep his job. If the Netherlands go through instead, he loses it. A hard road? It was ever thus.
Dick Who?, just turned 46, was a more-than-useful defensive midfielder who had the misfortune to play in the Dutch golden era, when he was competing with the likes of Neeskens, Haan and Jansen.
International recognition was never on, but he had a good, journeyman's career with Roda Kerkrade, Sparta Rotterdam and Utrecht, and a spell in America with Chicago Sting, before becoming assistant to the celebrated national coach, Rinus Michels, in 1984.
To bring the CV up to date, he quit in 1987 to try his luck in club management, first with Haarlem and later with Dordrecht, but returned to assist Michels again in 1990, eventually succeeding him in the middle of last year.
An inauspicious start saw the Netherlands lose his first two matches - a friendly against Italy in Eindhoven (2-3), then their opening World Cup qualifier, in Norway (1-2) - and a 2-2 draw at home to Poland 12 months ago served only to fuel the murmurs of discontent. The men in orange had the pip. The Cruyff bandwagon hit top gear.
What was wrong? Nothing a coach could put right. Sporting success is cyclical, entirely dependent on the resources available, and the present squad are a pale imitation of the generation that gave us Total Football.
Without Marco van Basten, injured for the last six internationals, and Ruud Gullit, who went into foot-stamping 'retirement' after being substituted at Wembley, there are more pupils than Dutch masters.
The going got tough, but the Advocaat 'bottle' remained intact, and his luck changed with a 3-1 win in Istanbul which could easily have gone the other way. Given their inherent advantages in terms of technique and improvisation, no Dutch team could ever be truly bad, and the class of '93 finally proved their worth in retrieving a two-goal deficit at Wembley in April.
That was, by unanimous agreement, their turning point. 'Coming back from 2-0 down in England really kept our hopes alive,' Dennis Bergkamp said. 'It was a key result.' Jan Wouters nodded assent. 'If we had lost that one, we would have been finished. To come back like that was not luck. You have to give credit to the fighting qualities of the team.'
Subsequently, like England, they were held at home by Norway, but the 7-0 drubbing of San Marino a fortnight ago brings them to Rotterdam in good heart.
The Dutch might have had double figures in Bologna, such was the ineptitude of the Sammarinese, but Advocaat was not in a greedy mood. 'We were happy with 7-0,' he said. 'It was important to get more than the six England scored against them at home - and not just because of goal difference. You know how it is between our countries - we are always expected to do better than England.'
Public expectation will be at its peak on Wednesday, and Advocaat forecasts 'an exciting night - very dramatic.'
He had not expected it to come to this. 'Before it all began, I was sure England and Holland would qualify, but Norway made an excellent start, and no one has been able to catch them. They could still lose their last two games (away to Poland and Turkey), but they are strong favourites to win the group.
'My players would love to go to America, every bit as much as England's, but we have to fight for it, and sometimes England are better when it comes to a battle. I saw their last match, against Poland, and they played a physical game. They were very strong, and that's what we need in our team. We are not so strong, physically.
'One of the two teams will be going to the finals. It is a shame that it won't be both. Our countries have a big name in world football, and it will be very disappointing for everyone if England, or Holland, are not there.'
Against San Marino, the Dutch shaped their formation according to the flimsiness of the opposition, playing with just two defenders and an attack which was a throwback to the old forward line, with two wingers, Brian Roy and Marc Overmars, servicing Bergkamp, Wim Kieft and Johnny Bosman.
Wednesday is a much tougher challenge, and they will redeploy along conventional lines, with one of the wingers - probably Roy - dropping out. The target man, Kieft, is not even in the squad.
England would be happy with a draw, but the Dutch are not expecting them to play for one. 'It will be an open game, and I think it will be a very exciting one,' Advocaat says.
'We had a little bit of luck at Wembley. It was a great game, with good football from both sides, and England nearly did enough. They played well, tactically, and I think they will play exactly the same way again - waiting for us to push forward and then hitting us on the counter-attack. They have a good team for that, with two very fast strikers.'
Make that had. Les Ferdinand, not for the first time, is unfit, Ian Wright is doubtful, and England may be shorn of the pace which burned off the Poles. Paul Gascoigne, too, is missing - his absence hardly breaking Dutch hearts.
'I am pleased that Gascoigne is not playing,' Advocaat admits. 'I know England have good players to replace him, but Gascoigne has something extra, and without him the others must do better.'
Conventional wisdom has it that Graham Taylor will replace his errant genius by introducing Andy Sinton on the right of midfield, with David Platt moving into the middle. Advocaat begs to differ. 'I think Palmer will play.'
Whoever comes in, he expects England to be at their bristling, sleeves-rolled best, and has little sympathy for Taylor's problems. 'Yes, Graham has his injuries, but he has many more players to pick from than I have, and I have been without van Basten - one of the best players in the world - for the last six games, which has been hard.
'Before we started qualifying, I knew my team, but I never thought we would be without van Basten and Gullit.'
The falling out with Gullit, a QC in a squad of dressing-room lawyers, was rooted in m'learned friend's reluctance to play on the right, and came to a head with his substitution at Wembley.
Gullit, one of the leaders of the Cruyff lobby, announced afterwards that he would not play again under the present regime.
Advocaat said: 'He called me before our game against Norway (9 June) and told me he was retiring from international football. He wanted to play in the middle, but I would not agree to that. I prefer van Basten or Bergkamp there.' It was a case of que sera rather than mea culpa. 'Gullit didn't play well at Wembley in my view, and I didn't try to persuade him to change his mind. If he wants to play again, he should call me and say so. He hasn't'
Advocaat is sure Gullit will come out of 'retirement' as soon as the administration changes, in the summer. 'Cruyff is going to take charge then, whatever happens,' he says. 'I knew about that all along, and I have no problems with it. I will not be going to America. There can only be one boss.'
Will his team be going? 'Only if we win on Wednesday. We can't afford a draw. If that happened, and it came down to goal difference, England would win their last match, against San Marino, by whatever score they wanted, no trouble.'
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