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“Orange on the way to Gold”, said the message in big letters on Holland’s team bus. The presumption of it so irritated Marco van Basten, the Dutch manager, that Holland got a new bus.

The Dutch players, who face Serbia and Montenegro in their first match in Leipzig on Sunday, have a modesty unusual in Dutch footballers. In fact, this team’s only star is the manager.

For 30 years the Netherlands produced more great players than any other small country. The first crop reached two World Cup finals in the 1970s. Van Basten’s own generation won the 1988 European Championships.
In the late 1990s came the “just-not generation”, named for their habit of reaching the semi-finals and then
flying home. But now the Dutch are out of stars.

You may never have heard of Joris Mathijsen, Kew Jaliens or Khalid “The Cannibal” Boulahrouz. Nor had many Dutch fans until Van Basten picked them. However, all may play against Serbia and Montenegro.

Five of Holland’s squad spent the Dutch league season playing for AZ in the cheese town of Alkmaar in a tumbledown stadium seating 8,000. The few Dutchmen who are with big foreign clubs mostly warm their benches: Mark van Bommel at Barcelona, and Ruud van Nistelrooy, Robin van Persie and Jan Kromkamp in England.

A fourth generation is on the way. Van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Rafael van der Vaart and Johnny Heitinga were born in 1983 or 1984. Last week, those of their Dutch peers who were not picked for the World Cup won the Under-23 European Championships in Portugal. At the 2010 World Cup, this lot could become Holland’s fourth vintage.

But for now the national tradition of player-power has been replaced by manager-worship. Dirk Kuijt used to sleep under a Van Basten-duvet, Sneijder owned a statuette of him, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink “was” Van Basten in street games, while Danny Landzaat held the great striker’s hand as a child Ajax mascot. These are good boys who obey the boss. On the rare occasions when a player arrives late, his punishment is to tell a joke in front of everybody.

Van Basten must know his squad lacks quality. However, the history of Holland and at recent World Cups teaches that quality is overrated. Greece won Euro 2004 and Turkey and South Korea excelled at the last World Cup because they were fit, hard-working and motivated – all strengths of Van Basten’s team.

If Van Basten can correct another Dutch flaw he could turn Holland into perpetual champions. Since 1992 the team has exited three European Championships and one World Cup on penalty shoot-outs – bizarrely missing five of six penalties against Italy in 2000. Sports scientists at Groningen University have calculated that a quarter of big knockout matches are decided on penalties. Germans take them best. Van Basten has asked the academics for secret advice.

Luckily, the orange-clad Dutch nation never demands gold. It asks only that the Dutch team plays Dutch football: an attacking, joyful game with wingers. Van Basten, fighting globalisation, even had that style written into his contract. However, he admitted after last Sunday’s home draw against Australia that the team’s execution had not improved much in his two years
in charge. Furthermore,
the Australians kicked
dents into the Dutch. As a result, Sneijder and Phillip Cocu may not feel perfect tomorrow.

A Dutch 4-3-3 formation will probably spend the afternoon probing the Serb defence. This may yield little. Serbia’s centre-forward Mateja Kezman, who spent four years in Holland with PSV Eindhoven, says: “They have a young team, with little international experience. Holland are certainly not unbeatable.”

Perhaps the message on the bus should have said: “Orange on the way to a penalty shoot-out”. 

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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