Drawn in one of the strongest groups, they beat world champions Spain 5-1 and overcame Chile, the toughest of outsiders, 2-0.
For the second tournament running they took maximum points from the group stage: They hadn’t lost a group stage match since 1994.
In the knockout rounds they struggled in the heat against South American opposition, but even so they finished in third place in the competition after beating Brazil 3-0.
Less than three years on, they meet Italy in a friendly tonight in Amsterdam, hoping desperately to steady themselves after a shocking 2-0 defeat in Bulgaria and the sacking of manager Danny Blind.
The Netherlands are fourth in their group and are in obvious danger of failing to qualify for a second major tournament in succession.
It seems like an amazingly rapid collapse, but long-time Dutch football fans are less surprised than outsiders.
To begin with, they say, the Dutch overachieved in 2014.
They outscored everyone except Germany in qualifying, but they were in a remarkably weak group. They then had a great win against Spain but rode their luck in subsequent games, beating Mexico with two late goals and going through on penalties against Costa Rica.
New manager Guus Hiddink, who replaced Louis Van Gaal, had unusually bad luck with injuries, but the new regime was at loggerheads. The idea was that Blind would be Hiddink’s assistant and eventually replace him, but the two men have different approaches to management, and Hiddink is also in many ways the opposite of Van Gaal.
“My predecessor was more a top-down dominant leader. I am more bottom up,” said Hiddink. “I need players to start thinking for themselves.”
That didn’t happen and just months into the job Hiddink was already having to deny reports of differences between him and his assistant. Blind felt he should have got the senior job.
The KNVB, the Dutch football association, clearly did not believe that one poor season in charge of Ajax was sufficient qualification.
But they were also unwilling to entrust the job to the obvious candidate, Ronald Koeman, leaving them with the worst managerial option on offer.
The KNVB also wanted a break with Van Gaal’s counter-attacking style and a return to free-flowing football. What they got was a mix of ageing and injury-prone stars, such as Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, and a group of younger players with talent but still immature.
Ruud Gullit is not necessarily the most reliable expert on football management, but his diagnosis of the Dutch disease rings true, and it’s arrogance.
“In Holland we still think we know everything,” he said last year. “We pride ourselves on how good we were with Cruyff in 1974. The same as 1988. But that’s a long time ago. So maybe we don’t know everything. Maybe we need something more.”
Gullit argues that an obsession with 4-3-3 and ‘the beautiful game’ led Dutch football into a blind alley — no pun intended — but that it is also based on a myth. Johan Cruyff was a purist, but he was a purist who was prepared to mix it and use defenders who could kick both the ball and opponents into touch.
Dutch football management has always been prone to internal conflicts, sometimes creative, more often destructive. What has saved them from themselves has been the tremendous output of young talent from their top teams, above all Ajax. That talent is still coming through, but it has suffered from lack of direction, on and off the pitch.
Against Bulgaria the 17-year-old Ajax rookie Matthijs de Ligt was put in the firing line in the absence of three first-choice centre backs. It was a big risk and it backfired horribly, with the youngster at fault for both Bulgaria’s goals.
Now the KNVB is again in a quandary about who to appoint to the most awkward job in international management.
They have probably missed their chance with Koeman. Gullit is an option. So possibly is Jaap Stam. And lurking in the wings is a tall figure last seen leaving Old Trafford.