I grew up in Holland, and have supported the Dutch since the 1970s, and I'm familiar with the way the Dutch build up to World Cups. Cafés, houses, even entire streets are decorated orange. If one neighbor refuses to participate, a punch-up can ensue. Possibly no other country lives the World Cup more fully: when Holland played Uruguay in the semifinals in 2010, three-quarters of Dutch people saw at least part of the game on TV. Yet when I visited Amsterdam four weeks before the tournament kicks off, I didn't see orange anywhere in town. The Dutch are approaching this World Cup with expectations near zero. It's not merely that their team is mediocre. The era when this little country punched above its weight in soccer may be over for good.
There was a telling moment in Holland's last serious warm-up game, the friendly in Paris on March 5. A long pass reached France's striker Karim Benzema. He accelerated away from the Dutch central defender Bruno Martins Indi, who had obviously never seen anything move that fast before. The Dutch keeper, Jasper Cillessen, appeared to share Martins Indi's response, because he had barely begun to move when Benzema's shot rocketed into the net behind him.
When Dutch clubs play in European competition, you have long had the feeling of watching men play Teletubbies. That may be what awaits them at the World Cup. Part of the problem is a simple lack of muscle. In the showers after an international game last year, some of the Dutch players who play with clubs abroad were teasing Feyenoord center-back Stefan de Vrij, 22, about his weediness. Look at the muscles of his fellow center-back Ron Vlaar, they said. Indeed, Vlaar, who plays for Aston Villa, is one of the few Dutch internationals built like a modern international player. De Vrij got the message. Since Feyenoord did hardly any strength training, he hired his own trainer and began building himself up. But when Feyenoord found out he'd been doing secret training, the club was irate. It stripped him of his captain's armband. Now he's probably about to start the World Cup, and he's still weedy.
Given the weakness of the defense, Holland's coach Louis van Gaal -- who will join Manchester United after the tournament -- has decided to play five defenders in Brazil. The team's formation will be 5-3-2. "It's a difficult system to play against," he says. The system might be, but the players in it aren't particularly: four of Van Gaal's starting defenders could come from Feyenoord, runner-up in the feeble Dutch league last season. Ruud Gullit, Holland's captain when the country won its only prize, the 1988 European championship, told me that the current generation of home-based players "isn't ready. And of course that has to do with our Dutch league. We have to learn to defend better."
Holland has only three stars left: the injury-prone 30-year-old forwards Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, and playmaker Wesley Sneijder, who turned 30 on Monday. Still, he'll probably play, with two defensive midfielders behind him to do the running. Up front, Robben and Van Persie will have to sort things out themselves without much help. For the second World Cup running, Holland won't play the "Dutch school" soccer of constant possession and flowing combinations.
Johan Cruyff, the father of Dutch football, told the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper: "There is quality. But the players are still too young. ... It's going to be fantastically difficult."
Most Dutch fans now place what hope they have in Van Gaal, a master tactician who generally prefers playing with young players, whom he can steer almost like robots. This hope is shared by Van Gaal himself. "For every match you have a team tactic," he told the Algemeen Dagblad. "You have to make that trainable. So that you as a team with less individual quality can beat an opponent that is individually better. If you don't execute the tactics well you'll be slaughtered, because then individual quality is decisive. But that generally doesn't happen with the teams I train."
It would be better for Holland, Van Gaal added, if he were stay on after the World Cup instead of joining Manchester United. "But Dutch soccer doesn't have the highest priority. I myself have the highest priority. Most people don't dare say that, but I do." He's probably leaving a sinking ship. This country of just 17 million people used to have only one advantage in soccer: know-how. As Cruyff once said, "Soccer is a game that you play with your head." Brains took the Dutch to three out of the past 10 World Cup finals. No other small country in recent decades has a comparable record.
But since about 2000, the Dutch have exported their soccer know-how. Lots of countries now play Dutch soccer, though not the Dutch themselves. Take the three teams Holland will face in its group in Brazil: Spain began importing Dutch intelligence in the early 1970s when Cruyff and his coach Rinus Michels moved from Ajax to Barcelona. In 1988 Cruyff became Barcelona's coach, and made the "Dutch school" the club's house style. From 2008 his protégé Pep Guardiola updated that as "tiki-taka."In Johannesburg in the World Cup final of 2010, Spain beat Holland playing the 21-century version of the Dutch game.
Chile, also in Holland's group in Brazil, learned its Dutch style through the intermediary of Marcelo Bielsa, the Argentine manager enchanted by Van Gaal. And even the outsider in Holland's group, Australia, had its best run in history at the World Cup of 2006 under the tutelage of the Dutch coach Guus Hiddink. Meanwhile, the Dutch themselves have stopped thinking hard.
In Brazil, Holland will be playing against versions of itself -- in the case of Spain and probably Chile, better versions. Expect the Spaniards and Chileans to play Dutch-style against Holland, pressing deep on the weak Dutch defense, rather than sitting back and letting Van Persie and Robben attack. The know-how that made Dutch soccer unique is now the property of the world. That may prove fatal. This month could be a mere foretaste of dry times ahead.