Friday, 11 May 2012 08:45
THE HAGUE: World football's perennial bridesmaids, the Netherlands, will be hoping that Euro 2012 is the tournament at which they end their 24-year wait for a major title.
Making the latter stages of tournaments has never been a problem for the nation that has given the world Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp and Total Football.
Beaten World Cup finalists in 1974, 1978 and 2010, they have reached the semi-finals at the European Championship three times since they last lifted the trophy in 1988, only to fall before the final on each occasion.
The Dutch side that competed at Euro 2008 were the sensation of the group phase, beating Italy (3-0) and France (4-1) in scintillating fashion, but they went out timidly to Russia in the last eight.
In a bid to address the country's traditional football failings, coach Bert van Marwijk turned the team that went to the 2010 World Cup into a more dogged and pragmatic outfit.
It was enough to take them to the final -- and an extra-time defeat at the hands of Spain -- but the team were disowned by Cruyff, who accused them of betraying their footballing heritage.
Nobody could accuse the Netherlands of being boring on the road to Poland and the Ukraine.
With 37 goals in 10 matches they were the top scorers in qualifying, while their 11-0 annihilation of San Marino last September was the biggest victory in the country's history.
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar topped the scoring charts in qualifying with 12 goals and he has also been in sensational form for club side Schalke, plundering 29 goals to win Kicker magazine's award for the Bundesliga's top marksman.
Robin van Persie played second-fiddle to Huntelaar in qualifying but over the past 18 months he has belatedly emerged as one of the world's top strikers, netting 30 goals for Arsenal this season and being crowned the PFA Players' Player of the Year.
There have been mixed results in recent friendlies, with a 0-0 draw against Switzerland in November followed by a 3-0 humbling at the hands of Germany in Hamburg a few days later.
Key players, including van Persie, were missing for the Germany game, however, and there was encouragement to be found in February's 3-2 defeat of England at Wembley, where Arjen Robben scored a fine brace.
With Robben fit and firing for Bayern Munich, van Marwijk has plenty of options in attack but Wesley Sneijder -- talisman of the World Cup campaign -- has endured an injury-plagued season for Inter Milan, making just 16 league starts.
The Netherlands match with old rivals Germany in Kharkiv on June 13 promises to be the big match in Group B but van Marwijk says his players cannot afford to look beyond their opening game against the Danes four days earlier.
The game against Portugal will also revive memories of "The Battle of Nuremberg" in the 2006 World Cup, which saw an unprecedented 16 yellow cards awarded.
But van Marwijk said: "I only look at the first match. For me the first match is the most important. At the World Cup (in 2010), it was similar: we also played the first match against Denmark (which the Netherlands won 2-0), and now we will again.
"So that will be exactly the same. We just have to win it."
The weight of history is nothing new for the Netherlands, and nor is the burden of expectation.
As ever, the quality in their squad is undeniable but only by prevailing in the final on July 1 can the Dutch emerge from the shadow of their glorious predecessors.
Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2012