In 2010, the Netherlands shocked the world by making it all the way to the World Cup final in South Africa. This year, many believe this team diminished. The oldest of their squad have since moved on, and injuries to stars like midfielder Kevin Strootman and keeper Maarten Stekelenburg have further depleted their ranks. But if their remaining stars are on the same page, the Dutch could surprise everyone one more time.
The Netherlands qualified for the 2014 World Cup by dominating Group D of UEFA qualifying, finishing 11 points better than runner-up Romania. The Dutch had an astonishing +29 goal differential, allowing only five goals in the 10 games. The goals came in volume from star striker Robin van Persie, who notched 11 goals during the qualifying campaign, best in all of Europe. Their reward: being drawn into Group B along with defending champions Spain, and South American power Chile. Back to work, then.
Many believed that the Netherlands, famous for chronically underachieving in international competitions, finally got the monkey off their backs with their unexpected run to the finals in South Africa. But a pathetically uninspired performance in the 2012 European Championships—three straight losses and rumors of squad infighting—may have brought back reminders of their disappointing past. Even their romp through qualifying did little to allay fears, with their odds set at only 25-1 to win the tournament.
Adding to the potential for distraction is the situation of manager Louis van Gaal, who just signed on to be the new manager of Manchester United. Now I'm not saying van Gaal will be distracted, but you don't buy a brand new sports car and let it sit in your driveway until the lease on your Prius is up in a month.
Goalkeepers: Michel Vorm (Swansea City), Tim Krul (Newcastle United), Jasper Cillessen (AFC Ajax)
Defenders: Ron Vlaar (Aston Villa), Daryl Janmaat (Feyenoord), Bruno Martins Indi (Feyenoord), Stefan de Vrij (Feyenoord), Daley Blind (Ajax), Paul Verhaegh (FC Augsburg), Joel Veltman (AFC Ajax), Terence Kongolo (Feyenoord)
Midfielders: Wesley Sneijder (Galatasaray), Nigel de Jong (AC Milan), Jonathan de Guzman (Swansea City), Georginio Wijnaldum (PSV), Leroy Fer (Norwich City), Jordy Clasie (Feyenoord)
Forwards: Robin van Persie (Manchester United), Arjen Robben (FC Bayern), Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (Schalke 04), Dirk Kuyt (Fenerbahce), Jeremain Lens (Dinamo Kiev), Memphis Depay (PSV)
FIFA World Ranking
Louis Van Gaal
Players to Watch
Robin van Persie, Forward
When healthy, and that's an exceptionally important qualifier, van Persie is one of the top five forwards in the world. Just check out this goal from last April:
Van Persie starts sprinting diagonally, away from the goal and the defenders. He sees the ball coming, measures up his steps, and without even thinking about settling it, launches a perfect volley in the upper corner. You can count on one hand the number of people in the world who would even think to do that.
But van Persie is often injured. He only made 21 league appearances for Manchester United this past season, though he did chip in 12 goals. His fragility extends to his temperament, as well. As far back as 2008, he's carried an ongoing feud with fellow national-teamer Wesley Sneijder. According to reports, the initial dispute started over who would take a free kick in a Euro 2008 game, before resurfacing at the 2010 World Cup when van Persie allegedly thought Sneijder should be substituted instead of himself.
But if van Persie can stay healthy, and if he makes peace with Sneijder – two enormously gigantic ifs – the Netherlands will have a legitimate shot to get to the semifinals or beyond.
Wesley Sneijder, Midfielder
Back in 2010, Sneijder was on top of his game, having just led Inter Milan to an unprecedented three trophies in the 2009-2010 season. Not normally known as a scoring midfielder, Sneijder struck five times for his country at the 2010 World Cup, tied for most of any player in the whole tournament.
Since then, Sneijder has languished a bit in both Italy and Turkey, where he moved in 2013. Still, when he's motivated and on his game, there are few more proven creative midfielders in international soccer. In van Gaal's preferred 4-2-3-1, Sneijder operates as the middle of the 3 and behind the striker, as the side's trequartista. When he's at the top of his game, Sneijder is on a level with Croatia's Luka Modric, Brazil's Oscar, and Spain's Andres Iniesta. There's just no way to know if he'll play to that level in what is probably his final chance at the World Cup.
Van Gaal usually lines up the Dutch in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Van Persie alone up top. The formation, especially with two holding midfielders, appears defensive at first. But the squad's strength is decisively in attack. Van Persie, when not on the trainer's table, is as lethal as any forward in the world, and his backup Klaas-Jan Huntelaar would start on almost any other team at this Cup.
When you add right-winger Arjen Robben to the mix, you have a polished, ego-driven attacking force. Robben is the rare player who you, and everyone in the stadium, know exactly what he's going to do on the ball: he's cutting onto his left foot. You know it's coming, the defender knows it's coming, and still somehow Robben again and again beats his man to the inside, unleashing a rocket with his left foot that finds the back of the net.
Seriously, he does it 10 times in a row in that compilation. It's awesome and damn infuriating to watch.
But even if the Netherlands can score with any team in the tournament, the pressing question is if they could stop a beer-league team from netting a couple goals. The majority of the team's defenders play in the Netherlands' Eredivisie, a league so defensively porous that Jozy Altidore scored 23 goals in the 2012-2013 season. (Just kidding, Jozy. We love you. Please score.) Moreover, if you take out mediocre veteran Ron Vlaar from the called-up defenders, the average age of the backline is just 23 years old. That lack of experience is incredibly dangerous at any World Cup.
Playing youth in major tournaments is nothing new for the Netherlands, however; the country has a distinguished reputation for being one of the best developers of young talent in the world. But what's troubling about this current crop of youngsters is how little they've accomplished outside of the Eredivise. Whereas van Persie was snatched up by Arsenal when he was just 21, and Robben by Chelsea when he was 20, none of the young Dutch stars in this generation have demonstrated enough potential and consistency to catch the attention of the biggest European clubs. If the Netherlands is going to have any success in Brazil, it will need some of these young players to demonstrate the talent that you would expect from the Dutch youth system.
Group B Fixtures
All times Eastern
June 13, 3 p.m.: Spain vs. Netherlands at Arena Fonte Nova
June 18, 12:00 p.m.: Australia vs. Netherlands at Estadio Beira-Rio
June 23, 12:00 p.m.: Netherlands vs. Chile at Arena de Sao Paulo
Complete Group B Previews
Top image by Jim Cooke; photos via Getty.