IT’S quarter-final time, the Dutch are flying, the Oranje Army is in full voice and expectations are high.
Under normal circumstances the next chapter would be a footballing feast against Brazil and a rueful wave goodbye from the Netherlands at the end of the night; but this time the script could well be different.
There is a growing feeling in the Low Countries that Bert VanMarwijk’s side are the team that could break the mould and end the stereotype that hangs to the Netherlands’ back like a screaming toddler who doesn’t want to leave the house.
Results in the tournament so far have been impressive without being outstanding; steady wins over Denmark, Japan and Cameroon in the group stage and a last-16 victory over Slovakia. But the team spirit, so often an issue in the past, appears strong and there is something changed about the way this set of players approach the task.
Perhaps this is the time to expect something different because the Dutch, who reached the World Cup Final in 1974 and 1978 but lost on both occasions, are now an interesting mix of footballing skills and defensive steel; there is enough flair to keep the reputation of Total Football going but the emphasis is more on attacking on the break than playing 50 passes to score the perfect goal.
Brazil, managed by Dunga who was regarded as a pragmatist even as a player, are not dissimilar. They no longer throw caution to the wind by relying on their ability to out-score an opponent and will go into this match also vowing to play on the break, which could make for quite a stalemate in midfield – not what you would necessarily expect from such a glamorous fixture.
But Brazil still like to get their defenders forward, often leaving spaces behind them, and that perhaps is where the Netherlands could win it because as well as the skills of Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart they have the defensive grit provided by Nigel De Jong and veteran Mark van Bommel to prevent similar problems in the Dutch half.
De Jong, in particular, seems to be an under-rated player. He quietly went about his job at Manchester City last season without receiving too many plaudits but at this World Cup he has been crucial to the new Netherlands,providing a base for more skilfulplayers to attack when the time is right.
As you would expect of a top Dutch footballer he is eloquent off the field, too, and feels the team have moved on from the days of Euro 2008 when they wiped the floor with France and Italy in the early stagesbefore fizzling out against an Arshavin-inspired Russia.
“We are two years more experienced,” he insisted. “A lot of players have played in big competitions so we know what to bring on the pitch.
“Everyone knows that Holland always go out in the quarter-finals and semi-finals with nice football. So we have to continue with the way we play but add something extra. The team is set up differently these days. Mark and I are there for the balance, for the passing to go to the front guys.
“It’s important in a team to have a block that controls the midfield in front of the defence so the rest of the guys up front can do whatever they want to do. So we stand together on the pitch and fight for every ball.”
De Jong stops short of backing the Netherlands to lift the trophy for the first time but you get a sense he has belief in the men around him.
“We know we have got the qualities to win something but everybody likes to hear always that we are going to win the final. That’s the positivity of Holland, certainly from the fans.
“We know whatever happens we will have great support – that’s the Dutch people for you. There are always some crazy Dutch people supporting us. The whole stadium will probably be orange against Brazil.
“But in the media even now it can be different. At the minute everyone is complaining about the way we play football. They say we don’t play nice football! But we got nine points in the group stages and are now in thequarter-finals.
“That’s the culture and history of Dutch football.
“It’s been like that for years and years and we can’t do anything about it.”
De Jong decided against adding ‘unless we win it’, but perhaps he should have. It could be the only way for the Netherlands to break the mould.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved