For decades, football in Holland has been parsed for its ferocious style and high levels of entertainment.
However, in recent years the standard has gradually—but notably—slipped to a point where Eredivisie has hit what is arguably its all-time low. Year after year, the gap to Europe's elite has increased and now it has arrived at a stage where some serious questions are being asked.
If the decline continues much longer, Dutch football will be in genuine danger of losing its place on the football radar. Here's why it is losing its way.
European Failing Highlight Lack of Quality
The Eredivisie's poor showing on the continental stage is a telling barometer of just how drastic the decline has been.
Back in the early 1970s, Dutch football was at the forefront of European football. The decade began with Feyenoord becoming the first club from the Netherlands to lift the continent's biggest prize. Just 12 months later, Ajax became the second.
The Amsterdam club then went on to retain their trophy in each of the following two seasons to complete a hat-trick of European Cup triumphs. Ajax had also reached the final, but lost to AC Milan, in 1969. Dutch football had been represented in five consecutive finals and was largely regarded as the pinnacle.
Twenty-two years later, in 1995, Ajax were at it again as they lifted the prize—now in its Champions League guise—by beating Milan, courtesy of a late Patrick Kluivert goal. Twelve months later, the Amsterdam giants reached the final again before falling to Juventus on penalties. Nevertheless, the club were once again amongst Europe's elite and highlighted the qualities of the Dutch scene.
Those past successes are nothing more than a distant memory now. That 1996 final was the last time a Dutch club has reached the final. Worryingly, a 2005 appearance by PSV is the only semi-final showing from an Eredivisie team this century; in all honesty, that is a sequence that seems likely to continue throughout the foreseeable future.
This season, Eredivisie did not have a single representative in the Champions League knockout phase. Equally worrying is the fact that PSV failed to get out of the Europa League group stage whilst Vitesse and Feyenoord were both eliminated in the qualifiers.
In fact, only AZ and Ajax, who only qualified by finishing third in their Champions League group, were still in Europe after Christmas. Even then, the Amsterdam club were humiliated by Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg courtesy of a 6-1 demolition—a result that led to manager Frank de Boer voicing concerns about the current state of Dutch football, as per Goal.com.
European football is a great barometer of where a league stands in terms of quality; unfortunately, in Holland's case, the result is not good.
A Fading Reputation
Last month, the IFFHS (International Federation of Football History & Statistics) released its annual rankings of each top-flight league—it does not make positive reading for fans of Eredivisie.
According to their data, which is compiled over a calendar year rather than a season, the Eredivisie is now the 21st best league in the world. This means Dutch football is ranked lower than the likes of Chile, Mexico and neighbouring Belgium and is a damning analysis of its current state.
Perhaps most worrying is the rate of decline. The 2013 report rated Eredivisie as the eighth best in the world, which makes it the biggest fall of any league in the top 50. Not only is the gap to Europe's elite getting bigger, but Dutch football is being overtaken by a number of other leagues, and that will undoubtedly make it even tougher for a return to the top of football's pyramid.
Admittedly, these tables should be taken with a pinch of salt and, in January, Bleacher Report's statistical analysis still ranked Eredivisie as the fifth-strongest league in Europe. However, the IFFHS standings aren't compiled on a whim and are regarded as a pretty accurate barometer of the footballing ladder—the domestic game in Holland is definitely in a trough at this moment.
Dutch football faces a real battle if it wants to remain near the top.
Quick Sells Lower the Overall Standard
Money talks. That's a fact of the world, and it's certainly true of the game we all love. Unfortunately, the Netherlands has become one of its primary victims.
Nobody can question the talent being produced in the Netherlands. Stars like Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder have lit up Europe's elite leagues in recent years, lifting almost every prize in the game between them. Likewise, the national team reached the FIFA World Cup final in 2010 and qualified for this summer's tournament in Brazil with consummate ease.
The problem is that all of those stars are making names for themselves abroad.
This is not an issue that's sprung up overnight. Take Robin van Persie for example: The promising youngster was just a 20-year-old when trading PSV for Arsenal in 2004. Similarly, Robben joined Chelsea at the same age.
The scouting networks of Europe's elite clubs are frightening, as are their bank accounts. Not wanting to miss out on a potential star of the future, the continent’s biggest teams will source the most promising talent at an early age despite the fact that for every van Persie there are at least half a dozen complete flops.
Losing future world stars is a major issue, but perhaps the bigger problem is that even those who are not going to make the grade in Europe’s elite leagues are shipped out as soon as the opportunity arises.
Wilfried Bony, for example, had one exceptional campaign with Vitesse last year and was instantly rewarded with a move to Premier League side Swansea City. Whilst the Ivorian has actually been pretty decent for the Welsh side, it does highlight just how prematurely players are now starting to seek a move away.
And once again, a host of Eredivisie’s most exciting talents are already being linked with summer exits. Both Alfred Finnbogason and Zakaria Bakkali are reportedly on Liverpool’s radar, whilst Fiorentina and Manchester United are considering bids for PSV defender Santiago Arias.
The 22-year-old only joined last summer for the minimal fee of €650,000 from Sporting Lisbon, and it would understandably be hard for the Eindhoven club to turn down the sums of money—believed to be in excess of £8 million—being mentioned.
With the continued economic growth of Europe’s elite, due to the financial rewards of Champions League football and TV revenue from playing in one of the more prestigious leagues, it is increasingly becoming a sport where the rich get rich and those less fortunate are in genuine danger of becoming little more than feeder clubs to those at the top.
However, there is still the question of "why don’t young players want to continue their development in Holland before making the move once they are the finished product?"
Perhaps players no longer see the Eredivisie as a real challenge. Or maybe they are aware of the declining reputation of the league and know that their performances in Holland will never be regarded as a credible achievement.
Then again, it might just be a case of players chasing the big bucks of the Premier League; you can’t really blame them.
Recently, NBC Sports’ Nicholas Mendola questioned the quality of Eredivisie and even suggested that the standard of MLS could now be on a parallel with the Dutch league—that alone should have the alarm bells ringing.
Can Dutch football recover from this current slump?
Mendola cited the example of USA forward Jozy Altidore, who has struggled for goals during two spells in England yet flourished at Alkmaar last season. He additionally raised questions about Eredivisie’s top-scorer this term, Graziano Pelle, who has found the net with ease despite registering just five over two years in Italy’s Serie A.
There are many factors as to why the Eredivisie has slid so far down the pecking order and it would be wrong to attribute any one as the entire reason for its decline. Dutch football is still affluent in terms of excitement, but it is definitely slacking when it comes to talent.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon.