Holland winning with humility
Past Dutch squads have been done on international stage by oversized egos
New generation of Dutch stars have not been burdened by failures of past teams
Netherlands has taken underdog approach in reaching Wold Cup final this year
CAPE TOWN -- A side that has spent 32 years in (relative) World Cup wilderness as everybody's favorite losers since finishing as runners-up in Argentina 1978 was not likely to make excuses now for reaching a final without setting the world alight. And in listening to Mark van Bommel say, "I feel like a little kid," and Dirk Kuyt confess to having "goosebumps," the Dutch are wholly pleased with a run to the World Cup final on the back of six straight wins, no matter how ugly they were.
Hundreds of thousands of delirious fans in Amsterdam also illustrated that the Netherlands is no longer unduly worried about the aesthetic quality of the Elftal's football. Coach Bert van Marwijk, 58, caught the mood perfectly: "I am very pleased and proud that we as a small football nation have qualified for a another final (after 32 years). It is almost beyond belief and a great testament to everybody's hard work."
Talk of the Oranjes turning their back on their footballing ideals is, for a number of reasons, misguided. But van Marwijk's words and the reactions of the supporters at home show that their mentality has changed to some degree. The manager's praise for the achievements of "a small football nation" spoke of a new realism and a humility that had sometimes been missing in competitions past.
The Dutch stars of the 1990s, the Kluiverts, Seedorfs, Davids and De Boers were never afraid to have a dig at the more successful, but less technically astute, rivals from Germany, for example, and their talent was only matched by the size of their egos. The promise of the "golden generation" that had won the 1995 Champions League with Ajax Amsterdam was strong enough to make the country assume that success was more or less a given. Before the 1998 World Cup in France, for example, anyone walking through a major Dutch city could be forgiven for thinking Holland had already won the competition: there was something about the plethora of orange banners and flags that betrayed a sense of entitlement, not just anticipation.
Then two things happened that drastically altered the self-conception of the orange football nation. First, a widely-fancied team crashed out on home turf in the semifinal of the 2000 European championship when Frank Rijkaard's side missed two penalties in regular time and three more in the penalty shoot-out against a 10-man-man Italy. The result led to much soul-searching and the realization that more mental toughness was needed. Two years later, the Dutch didn't even qualify for the 2002 World Cup under manager Louis van Gaal.
The one-two punch saw the last remnants of the old guard (Kluivert, Marc Overmars) now totally discredited and their successors (Roy Makaay, Pierre van Hooijdonk, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink) not quite at the same level. Although it didn't feel that way at the time, the Oranjes were clearly in transition, waiting for a new generation to emerge. Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder were unburdened by the failures of the Ajax generation and had a much more realistic take on their national team's abilities.
In the 2006 round of 16 against Portugal, Marco van Basten's men lost their nerve in the face of aggression; two years later, one off-day against Russia was enough to get them knocked out in the Euros. But it had become apparent that this team had a real future. Van Basten's successor van Marwijk changed very little, apart from re-introducing his son-in-law Mark van Bommel (Bayern Munich) into the side.
Despite winning all its qualification games and going onto an unbeaten run of 18 games, little euphoria was discernible in the Netherlands before this World Cup started. With the endearingly gruff van Marwijk in charge -- interestingly enough, the last Dutchman to win an international title, the UEFA Cup with Feyenoord Rotterdam in 2002 -- Holland managed to mix a healthy dose of confidence with humility. Van Marwijk, who had never been featured at a big club in his playing career, did proclaim winning the World Cup as his aim in 2008 but kept stressing that each and every game had to be taken seriously along the way, too. "We don't want to get ahead of ourselves," he said before the Uruguay match.
This bunch of players can be prone to the odd personality clash, as well, but van Marwijk has so far been able to bring them all together in a remarkable fashion. The win over Brazil marked a Dutch squad that approached the match in the true spirit of an underdog. There is certainly little chance that this team will try to humiliate their opponents and then lose the as the 1974 team did against West Germany. Arrogance and pretensions are out.
Van Marwijk sees parallels with his unfashionable Feyenoord team from 2002. "We didn't have the best players but we had the best team", he said. The Bondscoach might not be a master tactician like Rinus Michels or Guus Hiddink, but he could succeed where his more prominent predecessors have failed. Thanks to the prevalence of humility and a strong team ethic, the Dutch can win their first ever World Cup on Sunday.
SI Now: Should NCAA Student Athletes be treated as pros?
SI Now: What role will Tim Tebow fill for the Patriots?