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ENTERING THE 2008 EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIPS, IT SEEMED THE ONCE-REVOLUTIONARY DUTCH CONCEPT OF TOTAL FOOTBALL WAS ON LIFE SUPPORT. THE ORANJE HAD FAILED TO qualify for the 2002 World Cup and had crashed out of the round of 16 in '06. "Dutch football's golden age seems suddenly as irrecoverable as the artistic era of Rembrandt and Vermeer," read a feature-length obituary in the British soccer magazine FourFourTwo. But the Dutch dazzled everyone at Euro 2008, playing the stylish, imaginative soccer of Holland's heyday, in the 1970s. They cruised to a 3-0 victory over Italy—the worst defeat in a major tournament for the World Cup-holders in a quarter century—and followed it up with a 4-1 humiliation of France. Even though Holland lost to Russia in extra time in the quarterfinals, it was evident that reports of Total Football's demise were greatly exaggerated.
That outstanding form carried over to the qualifying matches for this year's World Cup. Under manager Bert van Marwijk, Holland was the first European country to punch its ticket for South Africa, with eight wins in eight matches (albeit over modest competition such as Norway, Scotland, Macedonia and Iceland). While the Oranje may not play an exact replica of Total Football—that fluid tactical system in which any player could (and would) play any position—it still has an attractive, expansive offense predicated on individual flair and clever vision. (It also has some of the sport's most engaging fans, many of whom show up in elaborate orange costumes.) Having climbed to No. 3 in the current FIFA World Ranking, the Netherlands enters this year's finals as one of the outside favorites.
Despite the nation's tradition of great players—from attacking midfielder Johan Cruyff in the 1960s and '70s to striker Marco van Basten in the '80s and forward Dennis Bergkamp in the '90s—the Dutch traditionally have been bridesmaids at the World Cup. They were runners-up in 1974 and '78 and lost a heartbreaking semifinal to Brazil on penalties in '98. Dogged by a reputation for crumbling in the biggest matches, the Netherlands must show a stronger constitution if it is to fulfill its fans' eternal dream this summer.
Few sides can match the Dutch offense for verve and aesthetics. Robin van Persie, who has come of age as Arsenal's lone striker, thrives in the same role for the Netherlands. Often, Van Marwijk's 4-2-3-1 formation looks like a 4-3-3, as wingers Dirk Kuyt and Arjen Robben push the attack while Wesley Sneijder pulls the strings from the midfield. Kuyt's indefatigable effort and Robben's menacing pace can overwhelm lesser sides. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who led the Netherlands to the European Under-21 Championship (and won the Golden Boot), can also do damage up top. When all three men are fit, the attacking triumvirate of Sneijder, Robben and the free-roaming Van Persie may be the world's most fearsome unit.
Jettisoned by Real Madrid to clear space for Kaká and Cristiano Ronaldo during the superclub's $330 million spending spree last summer, Sneijder has excelled with Italian giant Inter Milan. The dead-ball specialist knows when to remain behind Van Persie as a deep-lying playmaker and when to push forward to score goals; many consider his acrobatic volley against Italy at Euro 2008 to be the tournament's most spectacular strike. While Sneijder coordinates the offense alongside Kuyt and Robben, two holding midfielders bolster the defense: Manchester City's Nigel de Jong is an effective screener for the back four, while the combative Mark van Bommel provides the requisite hard edge for a team with a surplus of finesse.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst wears the captain's armband, but center backs Andre Ooijer and Joris Mathijsen are the back line's key players. John Heitinga is the first choice at right back but takes advantage of the system's tactical freedom and often contributes in attack. Ajax goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg, longtime understudy to the retired Edwin van der Sar, conceded goals just twice during qualifying. The Dutch back line is experienced, but given the squad's unassuming opposition during qualifying, it's regarded as somewhat untested.