The annuls of World Cup history often have seen the greatest teams of their generation be crowned as World champions. The dominant Brazilian team of the late ’50s and early ’60’s; the elan and flair of Les Bleus in France ’98, and Spain’s victorious tiki-taka exponents.
But down the years there have arguably been sides that have gone unheralded on international football’s greatest stage. England’s so-called ‘golden generation’ between 2002 and 2006 left empty handed falling at the quarter final stages on both occasions.
Another side that know all too well about glorious failure on the world stage are the Netherlands, who despite having reached three World Cup finals, are yet to taste the ultimate glory as champions in ten attempts.
After finishing runners-up in both 1974 and ’78, the ‘Total Football’ side that had been etched into the ethos of Dutch football for many years following, was unceremoniously ditched in 2010 in the hope of finally ending their hoodoo. In South Africa that summer, it was a change of play that almost reaped the ultimate in rewards. Almost.
Coming into the tournament Oranje were ranked number one side in the world, but having came so agonisingly close in previous years, would the Dutch – who had been dubbed as bottlers at the final hurdle – again be denied under such pressure?
Under the stewardship of Bert van Marwijk however, this new guise of football for Holland seemed to have a cooler and more professional head to it. Indeed, when the Dutch cruised through their pool in Group E, beating all three of Denmark, Japan and Cameroon – scoring five and conceding just one goal – was a moment in history now within reach for a nation’s ever-suffering fans?
The reason? It appeared as though the Dutch had opted for a change of tactic in their desperation to finally sit on the throne of world football. Though the Netherlands’ game had naturally evolved away from the total brand of the seventies, there remained traits of the versatile and revolutionary ways in their play.
Whilst the squad that traveled to the Rainbow Nation in 2010 was very much capable of filling in for one another across the pitch – as was a key facet of Total Football – the decision was made to largely rip up the playbook of the last three decades. And it was beginning to pay dividends.
With Dutch confidence growing and having managed their tag as favourites – eliminating rivals Brazil in the last eight – van Marwijk’s men looked now every inch the champions elect.
As Uruguay stood between them and a third final berth, the two played out a titanic tussle in the shadow of Table Mountain in Cape Town.
After skipper Giovanni van Bronckhorst had give the men in Orange the lead, Diego Forlan levelled in the 70th minute before two goals in three minutes again from Sneijder and Arjen Robben effectively booked their date with destiny – despite Maxi Pereira’s stoppage-time goal to force a nervy finish.
For the first time in a major international football tournament, the Dutch seemed unstoppable. An altered approach had paid off handsomely, and surely it was set to be a case of third time lucky for the Netherlands? Unfortunately for them, the red-hot La Roja were set to inflict more woe.
In a final staged front of over 84,000 beying fans in Soccer City, Johannesburg their opponents Spain were reigning European Champions from Euro 2008, but had almost missed out even progressing from the group stages after a shock opening game loss to Switzerland by a goal-to-nil.
Wins against Honduras and Chile however, had seen Vicente del Bosque’s men advance to the last 16, where remarkably they had battled through the knockout stages with 1-0 wins against Iberian rivals Portugal, Paraguay and versus Germany in the semi-finals.
With the Dutch unbeaten and with a 100% record throughout the tournament however, could it be they that took the final step to immortality?
On an evening where no less than 13 players were booked by referee Howard Webb in the final with an astonishing 47 fouls committed, events spiraled out of control from the English official.
Aside from Nigel de Jong’s kung-fu antics, the fractious nature of the game played into Spanish hands, however it was Robben who had the golden chance for the Dutch to seal the win in normal time, but one-on-one with Iker Casillas was denied by the Real Madrid stopper.
As the body count piled up, a scrappy affair dragged into extra time as the jeopardy stakes doubled tenfold. A loss for either side would be unbearable. With just five minutes to go until a penalty shootout again decided the champions, the Spaniards struck to drive a dagger into Dutch hearts.
Cesc Fabregas found space in a congested midfield, the Arsenal midfielder found Andres Iniesta with a aplomb inside the area. With the ball bouncing, the Barca man looked up and drove home into the net as a collective wave of orange shirts sunk to the ground in disbelief.
With a mix of panic and shock engulfing the Dutch, Spain held on for a famous win as inquests were held across the pitch with referee Webb. In the shake-up however, the cold reality was that Oranje had again fallen at the final hurdle.
For all the seventies had brought the game in the Netherlands, Total Football had still left the Orange nation short on the biggest stage. It was remarkable then that 2010’s fresh approach brought them closer to world dominance then ever before, but ultimately just like before it was another case of heartbreak for the Dutch.