In the three and a half years after winning the Bronze Medal at the World Cup 2014, Dutch football found itself in the wilderness, both at club and international level. But Ronald Koeman’s appointment as KNVB boss in February has born fruit and Holland are riding a wave of confidence again following their spectacular wins over Germany and France, that have seen them top the hardest group in the UEFA Nations League. Besides, with Ajax reaching the knockout rounds of the Champions League for the first time since 2006, it’s fair to say that the Dutch are back on the map.
However despite their European success in the past, powerhouses Ajax Amsterdam and PSV Eindhoven no longer carry weight outside of Holland while the national team became a laughing stock worldwide after missing out on back-to-back tournaments to Euro 2016 and World Cup 2018.
The suddenness of demise undergone by the nation of Marco Van Basten and Johan Cruyff is hard to accept. The three-time European Cup winning Ajax side of the mighty 70’s are hailed as one of the best Europe has seen and Holland are arguably the most prominent footballing nation never to win the World Cup.
The European careers of superstars like Ronaldo, Romario and Zlatan Ibrahimovic took off in the low countries, yet as money has dried up in Dutch football, clubs can no longer compete with England, Spain and Italy in the transfer market. Moreover, due to the financial austerity affecting Dutch football, clubs like Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord are forced into selling their prize assets prematurely.
The table shows the number of Dutch Players playing for big European clubs during World Cup years ( In the analysis the Dutch Eredivisie is considered as big league in 1974,1978,1990,1994,1998, which is no longer the case since 2006)
So where did it all go wrong for a country which once belonged to the game’s aristocracy and that was envied by other nations for their highly successful Total Football in the 70’s and 90’s?
Part of the issue is generational. In recent years, the finest Dutch players, and perhaps the last generation of greats like Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder faded while the new pool of youngsters coming through are not sufficiently talented to fill the boots of their illustrious forbears.
“Ajax’s academy de Toekomst was way better before because you can see what stars they produced then and now”, suggests FC Watford and former Ajax defender Marvin Zeegelaar.
Another part of the problem could lie in the fact that players leave Holland to go abroad too early- usually around the age of 20, before they’ve had the chance to mature. By contrast, Cruyff was 26 when he joined FC Barcelona from Ajax in 1973, Van Basten had already blown 23 candles when Milan signed him up in 1987, while Ruud Van Nistelrooy was 25 when he left Eindhoven for Manchester United. Their patience to stay on for a bit longer paid off as they benefited from playing with experienced stars and managed to retain their distinctively Dutch identity. All three left an indelible mark on European football.
It’s common knowledge also that the standards of the domestic Eredivisie have declined to such a drastic extent that the league’s best players making the jump to the Premier League or Serie A fail to adapt on and off the pitch, before fading into oblivion, like in Ricardo Kishna and Amin Younes’ cases.
Marvin Romeo Zeegelaar during our interview in June. Credit: Alessandro Morolli
Zeegelaar, who is struggling himself for game time in the Premier League, also questions the competitiveness of the Eredivisie:“Being the best player in Holland doesn’t mean you will become the best in England, you can’t compare Holland with the Premier League. I don’t even watch the Eredivisie anymore…”.
The examples of Memphis Depay and Davy Klaassen, who were PSV Eindhoven and Ajax’s most influential players before losing their way with Manchester United and Everton in the Premier League, reflect Zeegelar’s evidence.
To get a measure of how times have changed, countless Dutch players including Clarence Seedorf, Dennis Bergkamp, Edgar Davids and Marc Overmars were once the soul and heartbeat of some of Europe’s most decorated sides.
By contrast, barring Liverpool duo Virgil Van Dijk and Wijnaldum and Inter Milan defender Stefan De Vrij, most Dutchmen ply their trade at lesser clubs nowadays. Apart from goalkeeper Kasper Cillessen, no Dutchman features for Real Madrid, Juventus, Manchester City, Chelsea, FC Barcelona or Arsenal in the 2018/2019 campaign.
In addition, whilst Dutch football stagnated before regressing, other nations like France and England grew in stature, making Holland’s return at the top of international football an increasingly daunting task.
To compound matters, Holland’s most celebrated footballer Johan Cruyff passed away in 2016, and with him Piet Keizer a year later.
So while fans were mourning their loss, they had to watch a second consecutive tournament on their TV screens.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the regular poor showings of Dutch clubs in European competitions, where they reached the knock-out rounds of the Champions League only once in a decade, saw the Eredivisie get relegated in 12th in Europe and deprived of an automatic place in the Champions League group stage.
With haunting memories of failing to qualify for two consecutive tournaments still fresh in the players’ and fans’ minds, the situation was largely spiraling out of control, yet 2018 marked the start of a new era as things picked up sportingly. Holland and Ajax have been rolling back the years and many talk about a Dutch renaissance. And rightly so.
After reaching the final of the Europa League in 2017, Ajax qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time since 2016 this year after leaving Benfica and AEK Athenes in their shade and now have the chance to pip Bayern Munich to the first spot in group E when the two sides are meeting in Amsterdam. PSV gave Inter Milan and Tottenham Hotspur a run for their money, while Holland defeated Germany and France and can now win the UEFA Nations League in Portugal next summer.
So what led to Holland’s awakening in such a short space of time?
One of the key factors is Ronald Koeman. His arrival marked a turning point and he takes most of the credit for restoring belief to a side that was dead on its feet.
Initially it took time for him to implement his ideas and for the players to buy into his philosophy because his playing style bore little relation to Dutch football’s ideal of Total Football, a tactical theory invented by legendary former Holland boss Rinus Michels and in which any outfield player can take over the role of his teammate on the pitch.
Fans grew accustomed to that style of play, yet Koeman knew that he had to break with the past and adapt to the changing times if he wanted to make Holland a force again.
While predecessors Michels and Guus Hiddink were obsessed with style, Koeman favours substance, playing high-intensity and counter-attacking football. While playing attractive football and winning were two sides of the same coin in the past, the new Holland side has the ability to grind out wins.
To get Holland going again, he reshuffled his backline, placing Van Dijk and Matthijs De Ligt at the heart of it, with rising star Frenkie De Jong in front of them for protection.
His blind trust in Memphis Depay has also been repaid as the 26-year old’s finally living up to expectations.
Holland may not yet be in a league of their own like in their heyday but equally they are no longer being beaten in their own game too. Before taking over the reins, Koeman’s reputation was on the line but he has successfully reversed Holland’s decline and the feeling is growing that the World Cup runners-up of 2010 are destined to go all the way at Euro 2020.
After years of turmoil on and off the pitch, Holland command respect again and Koeman wants to make up for lost time, setting his sights on winning a second European Championship.
The first time Holland clinched it was in 1988, when Koeman was the unsung hero in a stellar side that featured Van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard.
Yet if back then he was one of many, now he clearly is the jewel in Holland’s new crown.