A Decade of the Nearly Men: Holland in the 1990s

Rich WilcockContributor IFebruary 24, 2010

7 Jul 1998:  Phillip Cocu of Holland has his spotkick saved by Claudio Tafferel of Brazil during the penalty shootout of the World Cup semi-final at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille, France.   \ Mandatory Credit: Ben Radford /Allsport
Ben Radford/Getty Images

When Paul Gascoigne "Cruyff turned" two Dutch defenders and left them for dead in the 1990 World Cup, the Dutch model of Total Football was dead. The era of the Dutch rampaging forward with their "one position fits all" model of football was well and truly over. Not because it didn't work, because when tweaked, it most certainly could. But the Dutch were no longer the flying Dutchmen, they were no longer the best at what they invented.

The Dutch were a team in transition. They had some talented individuals including Rijkaard, Gullit and Van Basten, players who were pretty much in the prime of their careers. Two years earlier, they were exacting revenge on West Germany by winning the European Championship. For many in 1990, they were either dark-horses or champions-elect. So when they limped out to West Germany in the second round, a score line that hurt the Dutch more than most, the world was surprised. Much of that failure can be down to a far from fit Gullit, a clipped Van Basten failing to score and defensive frailties, but it was the need for change that finally made the Dutch stand-up.

The attacking abandon that had characterised Michel's team of the late 70's and 80's slowly and gradually changed at the start of the 90's, into a more conventional system. Defensively, they had grown in stature, with Koeman and Blind offering a very real defensive barrier. Not only this, but Michel's recognised that an investment in the young talent was needed. Bergkamp, Roy, Viscaal and De Boer found themselves in the squad and playing a much bigger part than a periphery one.

The 1992 European Championship was a relative success compared to the 1990 World Cup, it saw the emergence of Dennis Bergkamp who scored three goals, Aron Winter, De Boer and Bryan Roy all having good tournaments. A Semi-Final defeat to eventual victors Denmark saw that further changes were needed.

This came sooner rather than later, with Van Basten retiring in his prime, Rijkaard stepping down and Michels finally saying goodbye to the National Team and calling time on his career.

Dick Advocaat was the new manager and he went about plugging the gaps and making Holland competitive again. This was made easier by the emergence of a quite simply electrifying Ajax side and there brilliant youth academy. 

24th May 1995 saw the start of a New Holland. It was the date that Ajax were crowned European Champions. The team was full of Dutch Internationals and up and coming talents. Overmars, Kluivert, Seedorf, Davids, Reiziger and Van Der Sar were just some of the outstanding talent that was at Ajax's disposal. The Ajax side had not gone unnoticed and Advocaat went about utilising this talent into the Oranje.

When this team began making an impact, in the qualifiers for Euro 96, it was apparent that the Dutch side had some of their attacking verve back, especially with the wingers of Overmars, Hoekstra and Jordi Cruyff. By the time of Euro 96, Holland were brimming full of young players ready to make an impression. Overmars and De Boer missed out because of injury, but they still had plenty in the locker to trouble the best of teams. 

And trouble they did. Although losing four-to-one to England in the group game, Holland played with a certain degree of excitement. This was different though to the 80's line-up. Defensively they were now stronger and Euro 96 looked like a tournament they could win.

It's a story though that I have said before. Holland crashed out to France on penalties in the quarter finals. The nearly men had struck again and the Dutch slinked off home to lick their wounds.

It didn't take long for Holland to re-group. The Ajax generation had moved on to pastures new and that special generation had grown up. Guus Hiddink was brought in, just before Euro 96, but he was a man known for his defensive formations and went about making sure Holland had bottle. Holland had, however, more problems than just formations and the constant quest for bottle. As the qualifications for the France 98 were underway, there were constant rumblings of discontent and arguments with the bigger egos in the squad. Kluivert, Davids, Van Hooijdonk and Hasselbaink all had arguments with Hiddink and his staff at some point, and whilst Holland had garnered a reputation for being difficult to beat, the harmony was not there to hold things together in a major tournament. 

France 98 was testament to this, and Holland went into the tournament with a reputation of Entertainers but not credible contenders. This was proved correct. But only just. They managed to negotiate a difficult second round tie with Yugoslavia, and overcame a talented Argentina side, and found themselves in the Semi-Finals. Brazil were the opponents and defending champions. They took them all the way, finally going out in penalties. 

The heart shown and skill on display earned the team plaudits, but the disharmony in the camp meant Hiddink saw now option but to leave.

Rijkaard, who had played in that game against England in Italia 90 , became manager and Holland had almost come full circle.

They started the decade hoping to add defensive acumen to an impressive arsenal up front. They succeeded in part, managing to change to a more conservative style. But they ended the decade as bridesmaids and never the bride. Something which Holland is getting quite tired of.