Johan Cruyff once said football is a game you play with your head and that perfectly defines Dutch football. Tactically wonderful and aesthetic football played by players far better than many would expect, but can this golden generation do the one thing the others couldn’t and dominate the world?
If there is one thing that the Dutch have been sensationally good at over the years, it’s been producing exceptionally good players. Not just good players but exceptionally good, great and world-class even and it’s not just one or two. It’s a laundry list of players that never seem to end and it’s been wonderful to watch. But their biggest issue is the sheer fact that they’ve never won anything major; that is barring one single Euro, a couple of third and second-place finishes at World Cups. But nothing major, nothing that would cap their dominance on football.
That isn’t to say that the Dutch did absolutely nothing for football, but instead the complete opposite. What this does mean to say is that while the Dutch gave football a whole new meaning, they failed to make the most of their dominance on the world and give themselves a notch in history. It means that unlike the Germans, who are the polar opposites to the men in orange, the Dutch failed to etch their name in football’s history books. That is completely unlike the Germans. Because if there is one thing that Die Mannschaft have excelled at, it’s producing exceptional teams.
From their 1974 World Cup-winning side - which coincidently beat The Netherlands in the final - to their 2014 World Cup side and especially their 1996 Euro winning side. All great teams, sprinkled with superstars but never built around them, which made all the difference. The Dutch, on the other hand, have only managed to create superstars. The greatest of superstars that will always be loved by the world, but even with their golden generations, the Dutch never had a team good enough to match them. That is, hopefully until now. It’s what hurt their progress in the world more than anything and it’s what stopped them from winning more than that lone trophy.
Of course, there’s always the should-haves; they should have atleast won two world cups, a couple of Olympic Golds and even a few Euros, but yet their international trophy cabinet is about as empty as Lionel Messi’s. And it’s why they (the Dutch, not Messi) have been stuck in a rut since the 2010 World Cup final, after a tough loss to Spain. They lost a few stars after that, and it lead to an immediate fall from grace, with them failing to play proper football. Whether it was the hangover from the 2010 Final or something else entirely, it saw them spectacularly crash out of the 2012 Euro and in the group stages, no less. Some may say, but they did well in the 2014 World Cup or did I just imagine that?
No, they did do well but it was a manager and maybe Arjen Robben dragging them across the finish line. The sheer fact that the Netherlands did finish 3rd at that World Cup was a shock, but it was a testament to just how good Louis Van Gaal was. He somehow in a world full of superegos, managed to do the one thing that the Dutch never thought possible and assembled a team. He did not stumble upon but he assembled a team best suited to take on the best teams in Brazil, which they did. Not in an atypical Dutch style but in a more pragmatic and a-typical Louis Van Gaal method, completely unlike what the Dutch stood for.
And it worked, rather brilliantly with his side going all the way to the semi-finals. But that World Cup would prove to be the last great thing they did, until now, as they slumped back into a rut and a terrible one at that. It saw them fail to qualify for both the 2016 Euro and the 2018 World Cup, which was the last straw for everyone involved and they left their ideals behind. Walking away and looking for change, but insisting on doing everything the Dutch way, in a way. First came the appointment and who better than a former captain, leader of the golden generation (atleast one of them) and one of the best to have ever played.
In Ronald Koeman, the Dutch had a manager with some sort of idea of what he wanted to do. But he walked in and somehow stabilised a Dutch side in disarray, a side that failed to make their last two major tournaments under three separate managers. A Dutch team that wasn’t even a team when he walked in to take charge of the mess they called a national side. But it was there, he slowly yet steadily stumbled upon a group of players. A group of players perfect for his cause, albeit a young and incredibly talented squad, which he moulded and has now turned into a team.
Not a team built around one or even two superstars, but instead a group of players who have put country before an individual, a tactic that has worked ever so brilliantly for the Germans. Of course, the Virgil Van Dijks, the Matthijs de Ligts, the Frenkie de Jongs and even the Memphis Depays will be the core of this side but they are far from the superstars that their predecessors were. In fact, even comparing them in the same breath would be blasphemous but put them all together, even Ryan Babel, and they form a rather wonderful team. A team built to put the needs of the many over the needs of the one.
A team that takes no prisoners when defending and brings about memories of the past when attacking. But like the past, they still lack trophies. Like most of Netherlands' golden generations, they lack a cabinet overflowing with past glories that see the older generation tell tall tales of. Superstars come and go, but that oddly shaped silver thing? That always floods memories more than anything just as much as the football played. And like every other international side in the world, the Dutch have their eyes set upon silverware. Trophies to give that 1988 Euro a friend, or rather many friends but their time will come.
The UEFA Nations League would have been a great one to have but it came too early for this Dutch side and yet they did well. They did well against a Portugal side in the ascendency, which was preceded by a run that saw them oust Germany and France in the group stages, before trouncing an English side that still believed it was coming home, in the semi-final. Performances that brought fans back running just as fast as they had left. Performances that should give the Netherlands hope for the future and a reason to watch international football once again.
But they need time, time to bond, time to adapt to new players and time to bring new men into the fray. But if the past is anything to go by, then the Dutch and everyone involved with the Flying Dutchmen are in for a great time. Because this is the third Ajax golden generation and a large portion of this Ajax golden gen are Dutch players all doing exceptionally well. What happened to the last two, you ask? Well they just happened to coincide with periods of time where the Dutch were the dominant force in football.
And the third?? Well, for that, we must wait with bated breath but fear not because they will (hopefully) peak just in time for not one but two major competitions.