Despite being a relatively scarcely inhabited country, with a population of just under 16.6m, the Dutch continue to produce world class footballers, thanks mostly to the nation’s development and support for both sport as a whole and their most popular sport, football. Of the population, approximately 1.7m are registered players, 1 000 of them professional. The country’s domestic league, Eredivisie continues to live in the shadows of the Spanish, Italian and English football leagues, but in recent years has seen Az Alkmaar and FC Twente break the dominance that Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord had established over the last 20 years. Although the competitiveness of the league has improved dramatically, Dutch sides have failed to make a sustained impact in Europe since the dominance of Ajax back in 1970s and briefly in the 1990s.
The 23-man squad that took part in the 2006 World Cup finals consisted of 14 Eredivise players, perhaps indicating that the country’s domestic leagues were growing in stature. However, four years on, the squad selected for the friendly against USA on 3rd March 2010 contained just 11 players based in Holland.
Netherlands are currently ranked fourth in the FIFA World Rankings with only Brazil, Spain and Portugal recognised to be superior to them. Their qualifying campaign for the World Cup could not have been more impressive with eight wins from eight games, conceding only two goals throughout the whole of qualifying. Despite the fact their qualification group was arguably the weakest in the European section, they must now be considered serious contenders for the title in South Africa.
Realists in Holland however will certainly not be getting ahead of themselves this time around, having seen their national team fail to produce on the world stage on countless occasions. In the 2008 European Championships, the Dutch impressively cruised through Group C, defeating France, Italy and Romania to top the group, only to be thoroughly outplayed in the quarter-finals, losing to dark horses Russia. It was a similar story in the 2006 World Cup as they progressed through a tough group with relative ease before falling to Portugal in the Last 16. Add to this their failure to qualify for the 2002 World Cup and the nation feels it is about time their country delivered.
Expectations will be high with star players such as Arsenal’s Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart. Other notable names include Liverpool striker Dirk Kuyt and Milan’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar both seen as dangerous forwards and capable of scoring plenty of goals. Manchester City’s in-form Nigel de Jong has been a regular in the Dutch team since the Germany 2006 and is likely to prove key to the side’s progress. De Jong is very effective in the screening role in front of the defence and is expected to break up attacks from the opposition and allow the more attacking midfielders freedom to press higher up the pitch and alongside Mark van Bommel, there are few stronger midfield units going to South Africa.
Current Coach, former player Bert van Marwijk has lost just one game during his reign and remains optimistic of their chances of success. While acknowledging that the Dutch possess big names and quality players he has recently stressed the importance of consistency. In recent years, the Oranje adopted the 4-5-1 formation with the two wide players making a line of three up-front when they are in possession. This formation seems to work well for the Dutch as it allows their most influential players in midfield to attack and look for the breakthrough. The flexibility of players such as Dirk Kuyt, Ryan Babel and Robin van Persie gives van Marwijk the option to mix things up if necessary.
There is no doubt that Holland have the firepower and the famous Oranje fanbase to go far at this year’s World Cup finals, but they may just lack the strength in depth that other top nations possess and could well be found wanting in the latter stages.