The Holland juggernaut has rolled through two major qualifying campaigns in recent years, crushing most of its opponents, winning 17 times and losing only once - an impressive track record that catapulted Oranje to top-seed status for Euro 2012.
Behind this achievement lies a new attitude to the game, an almost German-type winning mentality, says Johan Orrenius, sports reporter with Sweden's Expressen newspaper.
Holland: a strong brand
Nicknamed Clockwork Orange or the Flying Dutchmen, the Netherlands national football team has been a strong brand for four decades, boasting several successive generations of outstanding talent.
Cruyff, Gullit, Van Basten and Sneijder, to name just a few, have become household names around the world.
They’re known as the paragons of Total Football, a phrase coined by legendary Holland coach Rinus Michels, who refined this dynamic and dominant playing style which allows players to quickly switch positions depending on the situation on-field.
Holland have never won a World Cup, but no other nation has come as close so many times.
This short series of articles explores what lies behind Holland’s fame and changing fortunes, focusing on the current generation of Dutch stars led by manager Bert van Marwijk.
“When they played ‘the beautiful game’, they were regarded as ‘the beautiful losers’ in Sweden. Obviously a much better team than Sweden, but they always had one bad day in a championship and that was enough for them to go a bit too early.”
The turning point, he says, came during the 2010 World Cup, when Holland went all the way to the finals - for the third time in history - and lost in ugly fashion to a team that had perfected the Dutch playing style, Spain.
“During the World Cup, we saw maybe the beginning of a new era. I think the Dutch weren’t really ready yet to beat Spain at the time, but their manager Bert van Marwijk has developed a team since and now they have like a new winning mentality while still maintaining their way of playing. And that combination makes them very dangerous.”
Individual character and a collective professional attitude are essential for Van Marwijk, who spent some time in Germany during his long coaching career. Orrenius sees a touch of the German Kampfgeist (lust for battle) in Holland’s new attitude, which is something the average Dutchman might not like to hear.
“The Germans are experts when it comes to fighting spirit and winning attitude. They always give 100 percent. And I think Van Marwijk has really been influenced by that.”
“Look at the excellent performance during the qualification campaigns, both before the World Cup and now for Euro 2012. I mean, even if you have a good team, that’s not enough. With good players, you need to have strong heads, character. And that’s why I call them a machine, because they just go on and on, trying to improve every time.”
The new Dutch style of play takes some getting used to, Orrenius admits. Holland’s rough play at last year’s World Cup left its supporters divided between purists and pragmatists.
“Some tackles weren’t called for, but the tactic was good I think, because he was playing Spain, which at that time was pretty much Barcelona and Real Madrid, i.e. the best players in the world and therefore the best team in the world. And they played like Holland played before but only a bit better. This was the only way to do it, at the time. Now Van Marwijk is trying to develop [the team] and maybe if they play each other again in another final, he can meet them in a different way. That would be interesting to watch, certainly.”
After losing their final Euro 2012 qualifier, 3-2 away against Sweden, the Netherlands also suffered a 3-0 rout in a friendly in Germany in early November. “A temporary dip,” says Orrenius, who regards Spain and Germany as the hot favourites to win next year’s European title, followed by Holland.
“The Netherlands haven’t won this trophy since 1988 and I would say that anything else than a final would be a disappointment now. And I certainly think that they have a chance to go the whole way this time.”