Road to the finals
Befitting a qualifying stage riddled with surprises, the Netherlands only managed to finish second in their qualifying group to the Romanians. However, their final position did not reflect what was, ultimately, a rather comfortable road to Austria and Switzerland. With a supremely talented squad marrying youth in the shape of Robin van Persie, Ryan Babel and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, and experience in Edwin van der Sar and Clarence Seedorf, the Dutch qualified with a game to spare. Although, with opponents including Slovenia, Bulgaria, Albania, Belarus and tiny Luxembourg, the outcome was hardly surprising.
Qualification was a series of professional victories and performances, with some notable starring acts from individuals. Arsenal’s Robin van Persie, in particular, proved a trump card for the Dutch, kickstarting the campaign after a mediocre 1-0 victory away to Luxembourg with two fine goals to cap off a 3-0 triumph against Belarus at the Philips Stadion in Eindhoven. The Arsenal striker would also take the headlines in the next home game in Amsterdam with the opening goal against Albania, as the Netherlands took the match 2-1.
However, it was not a totally easy ride. The Romanians, in particular, proved a very tricky proposition. After a 0-0 stalemate in Rotterdam, their group rivals took the opposing fixture at the Gheorghe Hagi Stadium 1-0. Nevertheless, a 2-0 win over Slovenia in Eindhoven meant victory against Luxembourg in Rotterdam would do the trick. The team duly delivered courtesy of a solitary goal from Danny Koevermans. With qualification secure, it was not entirely surprising that they took their foot off the pedal, falling foul of Belarus in Minsk 2-1 and thus slipping down to second, taking the shine off what had been a relatively stress-free passage to the finals.
What more can you say about Marco van Basten? One of the greatest strikers in football history, he is well on the way to establishing himself as one of the best in the managerial game as well – all before the age of 50. Born in Utretcht on October 31st 1964, van Basten played at just two clubs, but defined the fortunes of those clubs while donning their shirt.
Joining Ajax’s youth side in 1981, he made his debut with the first team in the 1982 season. However, it would not be until 1984 that he enjoyed a solid run in the first team, and he capitalised in astonishing fashion. For the next four seasons, he was the league’s top scorer, and even picked up the European Golden Boot in the 1985-1986 season courtesy of his staggering haul of 37 goals in 26 matches. By the time he left the Amsterdam club, he had massed 128 goals in just 133 games, and helped Ajax to three league titles, three Dutch cups, and the UEFA Cup Winners Cup in 1987 (during which he scored the winning goal in the final).
It was no surprise when Italian heavyweights AC Milan came calling, and van Basten joined along with fellow countrymen Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. There began a period of astonishing success for Milan and van Basten personally, as the Italians dominated European football, winning four Serie A titles and two European Cups. The striker was pivotal to that success, notching 90 goals in 147 games. He also made time to propel the national side to success in the European Championships in 1988, including that famous goal in the final from the most acute of angles. By this time named European Footballer of the Year twice and FIFA World Player of the Year, van Basten’s career was then tragically cut short by a troublesome ankle injury, and he finally conceded defeat in 1995.
He took a long sabbatical from football thereafter, only returning to the game properly in 2003, when he took over at Ajax B. His passage as a manager, as with his time as a player, was swift, and he was a somewhat surprising choice as Netherlands manager in 2004. The new boss brought radical changes, dropping former favourites and propelling youth through the ranks, before eventually re-introducing some experienced personnel. Their performance in the 2006 World Cup was up and down, as they were eliminated by the Portuguese in the last 16.
The European Championships will be van Basten’s final hurrah with the national side, as he will be taking over his former club Ajax after the tournament.
Three to watch
One of football’s hottest prospects for a few years now, Huntelaar is entering the prime of his career. Having joined Ajax from SC Heerenveen in 2006, his scoring record is nothing short of amazing and most recently added 37 goals to that tally in just 39 games during the 2007-2008 season.
The striker made his debut with the national side in 2006, having enjoyed a prosperous time with the under-21s. With 11 caps to his name, he has already banged in 6 goals and could well provide the Netherlands with that x-factor in the Euros.
Another of Ajax’s new golden generation, Sneijder is one of the finest attacking midfielders in Europe and a vital part of the national side. Having spent 5 years with Ajax, scoring 43 goals in 126 appearances, Sneijder was pursued by Spanish giants Real Madrid and eventually signed for the princely sum of 27 million euros. His time with Madrid thus far has been a positive one, scoring 8 goals in 32 appearances and helping the Spanish side to retain the La Liga crown.
Sneijder is also one of the most experienced players in the Dutch squad. Making his debut in 2003 at just 19 years old, he now has 42 caps and considerable responsibility lies on his shoulders going into the finals.
Rafael van der Vaart
Hailed as the next big thing in Dutch football for years, van der Vaart is something of an enigma. Exploding onto the scene with Ajax in 2000 at just 17 years old, he quickly became one of the most wanted players in the European game after scoring 16 and 20 goals in the 2001/2002 and 2002/2003 seasons respectively – not bad for a midfielder!
However, van der Vaart’s career floundered somewhat since then. Surprisingly opting for a move to Hamburg in 2005 after a series of disappointing seasons with Ajax, he has just about got back on track, and enjoyed a particularly good season in 2007/2008. As van Basten remains uncertain about van der Vaart’s mentality and commitment, his time with the national side has been limited. However, he still has the ability to produce something out of nothing, so the Euros may be his chance to shine and realise his remarkable potential.
Win or lose?
With odds of 12/1 to win the competition from William Hill, 888 Sport and Ladbrokes, the Netherlands are a pretty good shout if you’re a betting man. They have one of the finest squads in the competition and, with the finals marking the 20th anniversary of their last win in 1988, there are some positive omens.