There is something about a European Championship held in France that gives Holland a terrible fright. Thirty years ago the Oranje’s entrance was blocked by Spain thrashing Malta 12-1; this time around the 2014 World Cup bronze medallists suffered the biggest Euro qualifying humiliation since November 1963, when they were eliminated after a 2-1 defeat by Luxembourg.
For many abroad it was a shock. However, at home most people had seen it coming.
Nearly everything went wrong – from Daryl Janmaat’s last-minute mistimed backheader against Czech Republic in September last year, which handed David Limbersky the perfect opportunity to score the winning goal, to Robin Van Persie heading into his own goal Holland’s 3-2 home defeat by the same opponents 13 months later.
Injuries to key players like Arjen Robben, foolish red cards, disastrous defending and too many defeats: it was a catalogue of disasters. Frankly, a team that took only one point against their main rivals Iceland, Czech Republic and Turkey simply didn’t deserve to be in France.
Since Danny Blind took over in June, after the Dutch FA had shown Guus Hiddink the door, things deteriorated. Under former Ajax captain Blind, Holland lost three of their four remaining matches. All had been crucial if they were to have any hope of reaching France, either automatically in second place or via the play-offs.
Elimination is just another sign that Dutch football has lost its dominance. There have been warnings for some time. For eight years, not one Dutch club has reached the knockout phase of the Champions League. Holland will lose its automatic qualifying berth in 2017 and even a second (preliminary) spot in 2020 if its clubs continue like this. The level of the domestic Eredivisie is declining every year with no sign of change.
The Dutch FA organised a summit on the future of the country’s game last December, attended by prominent people from across Dutch football, including Johan Cruyff. A masterplan is not expected until May 2016, but FA director Bert Van Oostveen has already revealed: “Mentality will be an important factor.”
That is an indirect challenge to the way Memphis Depay has behaved of late. A symbol of recent times, he was praised at the World Cup but heavily criticised during the Euro qualifiers – for his over-the-top fashion statements and refusal to talk to the media despite the FA code obliging him to do so. And if Depay didn’t like a question, he would answer: “Next question”.
His attitude would not be a talking point if he had done his talking on the pitch, but the Manchester United striker did not. Eight matches, no goals, not even an assist, in the qualifying campaign says it all.
Apart from mentality there are other important questions to tackle. Why did Holland stubbornly stick to a static 4-3-3 system? Even Louis Van Gaal showed at the World Cup that there are other ways. Why has no decent defender emerged since Jaap Stam?
“That eternal focus on ball possession seems to be the ultimate goal in Dutch football,” said the Dutch FA’s technical director Jelle Goes, showing that Holland has been caught up in its own dogmas for too long.
With so many deep-lying problems to solve, sacking Blind would be of no use. So the coach, who was originally scheduled to take over from Hiddink after Euro 2016, will stay – backed by Van Oostveen, who has no choice since two sackings within a matter
of months would make his own position untenable.
There is no suitable successor. Van Gaal is finishing his career at Manchester United, while Ronald Koeman, bluntly dismissed as a top candidate by Van Oostveen in favour of Hiddink, and Frank De Boer won’t step in now.
Blind has his work cut out to stabilise a young team (it had the youngest defence of all teams in the qualifiers with an average age of 23.9 years) and find a more realistic way of playing. He also needs to show his qualities as a leader – though many doubt he can – and steer the team in the right direction. The immediate future, though, is bleak.
Blind must hope veterans like Wesley Sneijder and Robben remain fit and are willing to go one final round. As for Van Persie, who collected his 101st cap against the Czechs but has been hardly fit for over a year, there are serious doubts about his future.
It is more likely Holland have entered a footballing Dark Ages and it will take years to come even close to third place at a World Cup. Now, even qualifying for a tournament is an insurmountable hurdle.
By Klaas-Jan Droppert