Though many seem to think it began in 1996, the seeds were sown long before that. The Dutch have always loved to talk. Across every element of society, they spend hours debating, discussing and arguing their way to the best course of action. In David Winner's impeccable and unbeatable 'Brilliant Orange', an intensely marvellous analysis of Dutch football neuroses, the architect Jan Benthem says: 'We don't like high peaks'. When high peaks do push through and permeate the fabric of something as delicate as a soccer team, the consequences are usually devastating.
Arguably, such an extreme form of democracy had an indirect effect on Holland's greatest World Cup tragedy – the unforgettable, almost obscene loss to Germany in the 1974 decider. The year before, the iconic Johan Cruyff, the biggest talker of the lot, lost the captaincy at club side Ajax after the players held an anonymous vote. Everywhere else, the captain was chosen by the manager. Not at Ajax. Cruyff felt betrayed and joined Barcelona. And something was fractured after that. Of course, it didn't help that preparations at the World Cup were far from ideal or that the Netherlands took it for granted that they were going to be crowned champions or that they wanted to toy with the Germans after scoring within the opening two minutes. But there were too many high peaks. Too many obstacles. So everything fell apart.
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Over 20 years later, another glorious Ajax side emerged, led by coach Louis van Gaal. He was a loyal disciple of Rinus Michels, the former Ajax manager who conceived and developed the possession-based system of Total Football that illuminated the sport in the early 1970s and was introduced to more modern soccer audiences by Pep Guardiola's incredible Barcelona team of just a few years ago. Van Gaal was blessed with a conveyor belt of immensely-talented boys. Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf were barely out of their teens and were crowned Champions League winners in 1995. Yet, at national level, there were too many peaks. During Euro '96, Davids was dropped for a game against Switzerland. Afterwards, he said the coach, Guus Hiddink, “should stop sticking his head up other players’ arses”. Davids was part of a Dutch clique – alongside Seedorf, Kluivert and Michael Reiziger. There was a division. They felt undermined because they were so young. Many suggested there was an underlying race issue as all four players were black. But that wasn't an issue. The issue was that they wanted to talk and couldn't. Because kids should be seen and not heard. Naturally, the Dutch were thumped in the group stage by England and crashed out in the quarter-finals to France.
Nowadays, we're hotly anticipating the next Dutch crisis. Usually, it all blows up at a major tournament and like any half-decent action film, it's entertaining for the first half hour and then boringly predictable after that. Four years ago, despite a run all the way to the final, there was the drama surrounding Klaas Jan Huntelaar. He talked. Of course he did. He had something on his mind. He was angry that he wasn't the first choice striker. Coupled with the egos of Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Mark van Bommel and Rafael van der Vaart, it was a minor miracle the Netherlands got as far as the deciding game. Too many peaks and there was an inevitability to that late Andres Iniesta goal that won Spain the World Cup.
So, what's gone wrong in Brazil? A recent 2-0 win over Chile meant the team has racked up maximum points from three games and have navigated a tricky group stage with ease. Along the way, they gained some revenge for that 2010 defeat by embarrassing the Spanish, the egos of Robben and van Persie blending beautifully as the Dutch ran riot. Where's the self-destruction? This week, midfielder Leroy Fer, a squad player on the periphery of the first-team said:
Coming off the bench to score shows that this is about 23 players not just 11 and that was a good point to prove for everyone. One of our strengths this time is that we are all together and united. We’re one team, we do it with 23 men, the technical and medical staff. One unit.
The difference appears to be van Gaal. He does the talking for everyone. Notoriously spiky with any remotely vague critic, his personality is big enough to handle any pitfall. This week, he challenged a journalist who claimed Holland wasn't playing attacking soccer. This week, Robben praised him. Robben doesn't praise anyone but himself. That's how much he's adored by this group of players. Van Gaal loves to discuss things. He allows players the space to air their feelings and get things off their chests. And then, a la Brian Clough, the eccentric but brilliant English coach who won back-to-back European Cups with the parochial Nottingham Forest in the late 70s, he'll just go ahead and do his own thing anyway.
Expectations were lowered substantially before the tournament. Van Gaal played down the team's hopes of reaching the latter part of the competition. He said they had a 20 percent chance of making the quarter-finals, adding there were 10 better teams at the World Cup. He had to change his team because of injuries to Kevin Strootman and van der Vaart. His defence was made up of raw, inexperienced, Holland-based players. And yet, here we are. The Dutch are quietly and efficiently impressing everyone. Egos are in check, attitudes are in check and those high peaks seem very, very distant for now.