In a long, windowless bunker fully eight levels down from the top tier of the Lusail Stadium, Louis van Gaal’s final Dutch era came to an end. Qatar’s air-conditioned World Cup would continue but, almost in solidarity with the eliminated Oranje, the cooling machines weren’t working in the press conference room.
It was oppressively stuffy as Van Gaal lamented an all-too-familiar ending. “It is incredibly painful,” he said. "Particularly because I did everything I could to prevent this from happening.”
The dank humidity seemed apt as Dutch journalists ignored the manager’s clear agony and poked and prodded one last time before a particularly fractious working relationship (even by Van Gaal’s standards) closed.
Didier Deschamps would sit, nine days later, in the exact same chair, physically but metaphorically too: a defeat caused as much by champions Argentina as his own side’s inability to handle penalty pressure had ended his World Cup dream just like it had Van Gaal’s.
A mere three months separate then and now. Yet as Group B of Euro 2024 qualifying begins on Friday night without Stephen Kenny’s Ireland, the two top seeds meet in Paris as entities very much in flux. For France and the Netherlands, a hell of a lot has happened since Qatar. A hell of a lot hasn’t happened too.
In a qualification campaign with everything on the line for Kenny, those who will occupy technical areas opposite him on Group B’s most starry nights loom so large. The Dutch, as we knew they would, twisted and turned to Ronald Koeman to begin his own second era at the helm. The French however stuck. Stuck with Deschamps when Zinedine Zidane had been waiting so patiently in the wings.
The decision to stretch Deschamps’ reign into a second decade had plenty of merit: he’d guided them to the final of two World Cups and Euro 2016. That they lost two of those and failed to make it beyond the last eight in his other two major tournaments, in spite of the vast, deep riches at his disposal, provided counterweight. As did Zizou. But Noel Le Graet, the all-powerful but just as controversial octogenarian at the helm of the French Football Federation, dismissed the iconic alternative as he extended Deschamps’ contract all the way to 2026.
Le Graet, already under fire for a toxic culture at the heart of the French game, caused a storm as he said he “wouldn’t even pick up the phone” to explain his decision to Zidane. “I don’t give a damn,” said the 81-year-old. “He can go wherever he wants.” Change, especially change packaged in the shape of Zidane, had made sense to many — and still does. If continuity and stability had been one of the selling points of sticking with Deschamps, neither quality feels particularly plentiful in Paris.
With harassment and bullying allegations swirling, Le Graet was finally ousted three weeks ago after a damning audit by the sports ministry. A week later the manager of the French women’s team was fired, just months out from the World Cup. Even with his own attempt at change, Deschamps has caused unrest in his retirement-hit and injury-ravaged squad, handing the captaincy to Kylian Mbappé and upsetting the spurned Antoine Griezmann to the point that he reportedly considered walking away.
Into all this walk the Dutch, who have found both change and continuity in Koeman’s return. There is positivity and new light, even amid their own injury crisis exacerbated by a bout of food poisoning. The press, who found Van Gaal and his approach as stuffy as that Lusail press room, are back on side.
"I saw moments in [Qatar] when I thought, 'This can be different, this must be different’,” Koeman has said. “In the Netherlands we try to play — and that is often the most difficult path — good, attractive, attacking football.”
Leading players like Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum who shone in Koeman’s first spell in charge, are vocally on board too. “I’m grateful to Van Gaal for what he has meant in my career,” said the fit-again Wijnaldum. “But with Koeman I have a better feeling than with Van Gaal.” Depay meanwhile welcomed the return to Koeman’s 4-3-3 approach.
On both sides, opening night nerves are not jangling like they might have. That the top two advance automatically to Germany next summer makes it a little less urgent, makes the injury absence feel a little less dire. We Global, a data and analysis platform that focuses on the international game, gave the Netherlands’ probability of qualifying automatically at a nerve-settling 86.8%, just a sliver behind the French at 87.7%. The eye was drawn almost to the floor before you found Kenny and Ireland, wedged between Bulgaria and the Faroes, at 40th in the rankings with a 2.4% probability of automatic qualification.
Yet this still feels big and shapes to be fascinating. Regeneration was not just a theme but a necessity for both Deschamps and Koeman over this campaign. The past week ensured it is now an urgency.
A dodgy ‘Kipcurrie’ wiped out another five of Koeman’s squad on Thursday, the in-form Matthijs de Ligt and Cody Gakpo among the quintet who, you sense, won’t be ordering the KNVB’s chicken curry again any time soon. With Frenkie de Jong and goalkeeper Andries Noppert, a revelation in Qatar, injured and Denzel Dumfries suspended, things are threadbare.
Koeman caused a small controversy by omitting wing back Jeremie Frimpong and then questioning his defensive skills. New blood was found elsewhere with uncapped Feyenoord pair Lutsharel Geertruida and Mats Wieffer, seen by many as the long-term midfield foil for De Jong, likely to win first caps at the Stade de France where most Dutch eyes will be on PSV’s Xavi Simons, the most prolific teenage talent in European football.
With Monday night in mind, the eyes of Kenny and his Ireland team will understandably mostly focus on those en bleu. The list of elite French absentees is remarkable yet so too are the options that remain. Deschamps is rumoured to be leaning towards the future with Randal Kolo Muani leading the line instead of Olivier Giroud. Milan’s Mike Maignan will attempt to fill the Hugo Lloris-shaped hole in goals. Otherwise the faces in the starting XI, at least, will be familiar. So much will rely upon the new captain and his disgruntled vice-captain. For his part Mbappé tried to make an early mark in the job by calming tensions on Thursday.
“I spoke with Antoine. He was disappointed and that’s understandable. I am not his hierarchical superior,” he insisted. “He and I will be hand in hand to try to allow this team to impose itself on a global level. A good captain is one who looks to the rest of the team and brings everyone together.”
France could certainly do with a little bit of that.
Maignan; Koundé, Upamecano, Konaté, Hernandez; Rabiot, Tchouaméni; Coman, Griezmann, Mbappé (C); Kolo Muani.
Cillessen; Geertruida, Timber, Van Dijk (C), Ake; De Roon, Wieffer; Wijnaldum; Berghuis, Depay, Xavi.
M Mariani (ITA)