Why the Netherlands Are the World Cup's True Greatest Underachievers
When The Simpsons first became a cultural phenomenon in the early 1990s, Bart was a controversial character. A t-shirt depicting the yellow 10-year-old underneath one of his catchphrases outraged middle America when it was banned in schools. It read "Underachiever and proud of it, man!"
Nobody likes an underachiever. Bart Simpson had captured the world's attention with his entertaining ways, but he was maligned for failing to fulfil his potential.
So, if Homer and Marge's ne'er-do-well son was a national football team, which would he be?
Prior to the period of tiki-taka domination that commenced in 2008, the obvious answer would have been Spain.
La Furia Roja won the European Championship that they hosted in 1964, but then proceeded to spend 44 years in the wilderness of mediocrity. In that period, an appearance in the 1984 European Championships final was anomalous with constant major tournament disappointment.
At Euro '96, Spain even suffered the ignominy of crashing out of the quarter-final stage to England on penalties. Frankly, if you lose to England in a shootout, you're not doing it right.
The Three Lions would also be another excellent candidate for the World Cup's biggest underachievers. Since winning the tournament in 1966, England have managed just a semi-final appearance in 1990, in which a penalty shootout with the Germans started a psychological 12-yard stumbling block that has haunted the nation ever since.
Even in 1970—when Alf Ramsey had an even stronger squad at his disposal than the winning team of '66—they went no further than the quarter-finals. They were absent from the next two tournaments.
Today, the England team operates under an unbearable weight of expectation and a group of players who—despite what Steven Gerrard may say—would rather save their energy and focus for their well-paying domestic gigs.
Another candidate for the biggest underachiever might be Portugal, who have boasted the likes of Eusebio, Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Cristiano Ronaldo among their ranks through the years. Despite high expectations, the Iberians have never bettered their third-place World Cup finish in 1966, although the last vestiges of their so-called Golden Generation made the semis in Germany in 2006.
None of these teams, however, are the true World Cup underachievers.
Add England's football heritage to Portugal's faltering Golden Generation, then mix the red and yellow of Spain together, and what do you get? Oranje.
The Netherlands are, undisputedly, the best national team never to have won the World Cup.
After a notable absence from the tournament between 1950 and 1970, Holland burst onto the scene in spectacular fashion in 1974. Feyenoord and Ajax were dominating Europe playing "Total Football," a novel system which promoted organisational flexibility on the field.
Feyenoord won the European Cup in 1970, while Ajax claimed the biggest domestic prize in European football in 1971, 1972 and 1973. The Amsterdam side's talisman was a precocious forward you may have heard of named Johan Cruyff, and they were managed by Total Football forefather Rinus Michels.
The Netherlands cruised through the 1974 group stages and maintained a 100 percent record in the second round, earning a place in the final against hosts West Germany, who boasted Franz Beckenbauer, Uli Hoeness and Gerd Mueller. The stage was set for the Oranje to upset their hosts and fabled rivals with their dazzling style, but it simply wasn't to be.
The Netherlands has a second bite of the cherry in Argentina in 1978 under Ernst Happel, reaching the final once again albeit following a famous group-stage defeat to Scotland. They faced the hosts for the second consecutive tournament, and they fell at the most important hurdle once again. They blamed cynical tactics from the Argentineans, but little could excuse the fact that they had squandered two opportunities to bring the trophy home.
Total Football was totally absent in the 1980s. Marco van Basten was enjoying red-hot form with Ajax, but the legendary striker's talents were not seen on the biggest stage, as the national team failed to qualify for the World Cups of 1982 and 1986 and the European Championships of 1984.
Rinus Michelsa returned for Euro '88 and van Basten shined as the Dutch lifted their first and only major tournament trophy, but at the World Cup two years later, they struggled to get out of their group and were dismissed at the quarter-final stage by eventual winners West Germany.
Fast forward to France '98, where the Dutch were heavily fancied thanks to a squad that included Marc Overmars, Dennis Bergkamp, Edgar Davids, the de Boer brothers and Patrick Kluivert. They met Argentina in Marseille in the quarter-finals, but even Dennis Bergkamp scoring one of the greatest goals of all time couldn't keep them from being sent home.
If Holland never had to play Argentina or Germany, things could have been very different.
La Maquina Naranja only made the semifinals of Euro 2000—a tournament they were hosting—and were the most high-profile absentee from the 2002 World Cup, thanks to qualifying defeats at the hands of Ireland and Portugal. Under coach Marco van Basten, Portugal also halted their progress at the 2006 World Cup at the quarter-final stage, in a match that was famous for its utter lack of discipline.
And this brief history of Dutch disappointment leads us to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. After a thoroughly impressive qualification campaign in which Bert van Marwijk's side maintained a 100 percent record, the Oranje conceded just five goals on their way to the final, where they met fellow serial underachievers Spain.
One of these teams was destined to make up for decades of unfulfilled potential by winning their first World Cup. And of course, as we all know, the momentum was Vicente del Bosque's Spain, whose dominance has barely faltered since.
Holland may have lost the World Cup, but they wrestled the World Cup underachievers trophy away from the Spanish.
Expectation was high after making the final in South Africa, but once again the Dutch followed a tournament in which they had finished runner-up with a forlorn campaign. They were in No. 1 position in the FIFA rankings in August 2011 and finished Euro 2012 qualifying with a 100 percent record, but they couldn't have capitulated any quicker in their tricky tournament group, going home from Poland and Ukraine with three losses on the board.
Holland are, for want of a less trite analogy, always the bridesmaid, but never the bride. They have stood on the precipice of glory more times than any other nation without actually lifting the world's biggest prize.
With the likes of Cruyff, van Basten, Gullit, Rijkaard, Seedorf, Neeskens, the de Boers, Davids, Bergkamp and Kluivert having pulled on the famous orange jersey over the years, it is quite shocking that they have never won a World Cup.
They may not be proud of it like Bart Simpson was, but the Dutch are tremendous underachievers.
Last month, the Netherlands joined Italy as the first European teams to qualify for Brazil next summer, after an undefeated campaign in which they dropped just two points.
This isn't the first time the Dutch have shown very strong form before a tournament, but expectations seem to have been tempered based on their history: They are currently just sixth favourite to win the tournament in Brazil, with Belgium, Spain, Germany, Argentina and the hosts being given shorter odds by the bookmakers, according to oddschecker.com.
A European side has never enjoyed success in a World Cup in the Americas, and the Netherlands are very much an outside bet. For now, it seems that the Oranje's first taste of World Cup glory will continue to elude them.
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