The Decline of Holland’s Football Team: Doomed by Total Obsession with Past

London — In Graham Swift’s novel Waterland his narrator, a history teacher going through a mid-life crisis, says: “And where history does not undermine and set traps for itself in such an openly perverse way, it creates this insidious longing to revert. It begets this bastard but pampered child, Nostalgia. How we yearn to return to that time before history claimed us, before things went wrong.”

At some point analysis of decline becomes an ordeal, particularly when the causative factors seem numerous and varied and not independent of one another. Nostalgia lends itself to convenient explanations of why things are not as good as they were, which may overshadow the fact it is perhaps more important that one looks back to move forward and not vice versa. Dutch football has seen four talented generations of players, right from Cruyff and Van Hanegem’s cohort in the 70s, Gullit, Rijkaard, Van Basten and Koeman in the 80s, Bergkamp’s batch in the 90s and the 1983-84-born class of the 00s led by Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder.

In the wake of failing to qualify for next year’s World Cup finals in Russia Dutch footballers are now criticised for a lack of “winning mentality”. Marcel Brands of PSV, in a discussion in 2014 with his fellow technical directors of the so-called big three, Marc Overmars of Ajax and Feyenoord’s Martin van Geel, remarked: “We develop many intelligent, tactically strong players. We just need to improve substantially in the winning factor. I went to Portugal recently: Sporting, Benfica and Porto. There it is completely different. There it is all about winning. With us, it’s the exact opposite: ‘80% possession, played well, yes but we lose 1-0.’

“That’s not how it should be. If you look at Germany, they have taken a step. There was always physical football, a lot of running. Now, there is a lot more [technical] football than 10 years ago. They also observed us [the Dutch] a lot.”

Tellingly, nearly all of the successful recent exports from the Eredivisie have been players who were scouted between the ages of 16 and 19 – Uruguay’s Luis Suárez, Denmark’s Christian Eriksen and Belgium’s Toby Alderweireld found the Netherlands a prime location to hone their talent, having developed initially elsewhere. But even if the current Holland side lacked extraordinary talents, there was sufficient quality for them at least to make the qualification play-offs. That suggests there are deeper structural problems with the national team. It is clearly more complicated than just Memphis Depay’s preference for wearing hats.

In 2014 all the big three’s technical directors agreed that the KNVB, the Dutch FA, needed a strong technical director. Jelle Goes had functioned as “technical manager” since 2013 and played a big role in drafting the Winnaars van Morgen, “Winners of Tomorrow”, plan for reviving Dutch football; and, when Hans van Breukelen was made technical director in 2016, Goes’ focus shifted to youth.

However, this summer both Goes and Van Breukelen left their roles, with the latter resigning, having made a mess of the national coach situation after Danny Blind’s departure and saying he had not been able to make “his – and the KNVB’s — ambitions come true”.

The KNVB’s lack of a clear long-term vision seemed evident as they let Hakim Ziyech slip through their fingers. The 24-year-old, who played for Dutch youth teams up to the under-21s and was the outstanding Dutch midfielder of his generation, was injured on his first call-up in May 2015 and could not play, but then seemed to be overlooked. He then elected to represent Morocco, making his debut in October 2015.

In March 2016 Blind was asked why there had not been more of an effort to tie down Ziyech. The then Holland manager responded with the specious excuse that Ziyech was not playing as a “true No10” at Twente at the time but as more of a second striker. Immediately his then-assistant coach, Marco van Basten, sitting at the back of the room, turned to the reporter who had suggested the KNVB had failed in this regard and said: “Why? He has gone with the choice with his heart? Then, in my opinion, you should ask him.”

In May 2016 Van Basten called Ziyech and the St-Etienne winger Oussama Tannane “stupid boys” for not having the patience to wait for their chance: “How stupid can you be to choose Morocco if you are in contention for the Dutch national team?”

This, beyond the disrespect, suggests some delusions of grandeur and superiority persist despite Holland’s shortcomings on the pitch. Nearly two years later another young talent – Sofyan Amrabat –is set to follow Ziyech. He still has a chance of playing at the World Cup finals with Morocco, while the Dutch must watch a second consecutive international tournament on their TV screens, still lacking direction in their long-term planning as well as a player worthy of building a new side around.

The way in which Van Basten expressed his view is indicative of the way dynamics can shift when there are many big personalities vying for influence. For the Dutch this is not a new phenomenon. In 1981, as Ajax trailed Twente 2-3 at De Meer, Johan Cruyff, then in a vague directorial role, made his way from the stands to the bench and propped himself beside the coach, Leo Beenhakker, shouting instructions and making tactical changes. In 2004, when Ronald Koeman was manager of Ajax, Louis van Gaal, then technical director, used to sit on the sidelines and commentate on training sessions.

Recently Ruud Gullit, assistant coach to Dick Advocaat, recorded a video for his Twitter feed in the Holland dressing room. Advocaat was unaware of and unhappy with the breach of protocol, yet Gullit was excused. Less than a month later Advocaat suggested Gullit would be his ideal successor because of the way the France players seemed to approach him in reverence at full-time, after they had easily defeated Holland 4-0 in September. “The Netherlands really forgets what a great Gullit is,” said Advocaat. There is bias in choosing to remember the great player – but not the fairly mediocre manager.

Robert Maaskant, who has managed NAC Breda and Willem II, pertinently told De Volkskrant in August: “When I started as a trainer, I thought: ‘I did not have a great career as a player, so I need to get into [management] early. Because between the ages of 42 and 50, all those former internationals [Frank de Boer, Phillip Cocu, Giovanni van Bronckhorst] will start to get involved, and they will get the best jobs first.’ But the lead I had, ultimately led to nothing more. Because experience is no longer as important.

“It started with Marco van Basten’s appointment as Holland coach, without any experience. Since then you do not ‘build’ a career in Dutch football any more: it will ‘happen’ to you.”

Peter Bosz, now at Borussia Dortmund, is a Dutch rarity in breaking that ceiling in recent years but seemed to be swiftly pushed out by the powers that be at Ajax. So a picture emerges of an insular, constricted group of coaches who are granted opportunities with little or no coaching experience. Most share a common idea of possession-based 4‑3‑3 football, which makes Dutch teams predictable while other nations have either bettered 4-3-3 or moved on.

The most successful exponents of the “Dutch” style are no longer Dutch, and given there is little to lose now, perhaps a step in the right direction would be to experiment with appointing a foreign coach. The last one – the Austrian Ernst Happel – did not fare too badly.

Dutch football has always been a battleground of “philosophy” and winning football matches in the somewhat arbitrary “right” way over just winning. That there was still pride in losing the 1974 World Cup final to West Germany – when Cruyff’s talented side squandered a one-goal lead to their greatest rivals in Munich – seemed to set forth the belief that results were, to an extent, expendable in the pursuit of the ideal of total football.

Now, in the friction between the nostalgia for their great footballing innovations of the past and the reality of being surpassed in tactical relevance today, the Dutch seem to have lost their standing and ended up compromising on both the style for which they were renowned and the results they fail to achieve.

In retrospect their shock 5-1 drubbing of Spain at the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil signified a strange fork-in-the-road of a game, in which the defending champions had fallen into a predictable rhythm and the team who had lost the 2010 final seemed to be one step ahead. But Spain have recovered while the Dutch have regressed because that is where the insidiousness of nostalgia can lead – to regression, in the assumption that to achieve glory in the future we need to “go back” and recreate a past that has long been lost. Clearly Holland and Dutch football must now look to the future instead.

The Guardian Sport