Monday, 6 February 2012
The Ten Year Itch
It only seems like yesterday, Pierre van Hooijdonk scoring the most important free-kick of his career, the second goal and most memorable in the 2002 UEFA Cup final. Feyenoord, playing at their home ground, overcame Borussia Dortmund 3-2 in what was simply an enthralling contest. This May, eighth to be precise, will be the tenth anniversary of what is Bert van Marwijk's greatest achievement. Yes, Oranje (unexpectedly) reaching the 2010 World Cup final pushes it close.
What should be a moment to reflect on a rare success, won't feel like one, instead the Rotterdammers feat acts as sombre timely reminder of how far Dutch football has fallen. The date will mark a decade of dearth, in that time no silverware, not even a runners-up medal. Historically this is now the longest period Dutch football has gone without one of its clubs tasting glory on the continent.
Between Feyenoord's European Cup in 1970 under Ernst Happel – the first club to win a major honour recognised by UEFA – and their UEFA Cup success 32-years later Dutch teams have amassed eleven titles: six European Cups, four UEFA Cups and a solitary Cup Winners' Cup. The longest drought in that time was a nine year gap between Kees Rijvers guiding PSV to UEFA Cup success in 1978 and Johan Cruijff's Ajax picking up the Cup Winners' Cup in 1987.
Which is only two more than the years between Feyenoord winning their second UEFA Cup title and Louis van Gaal leading Ajax to their fourth European Cup. It remains the last by a Dutch club and as much as it pains me to say, will remain that way for another generation or two, and that's being overly optimistic.
Many factors, notably squads routinely weakened as a result of the globalising game aftertaste of the Bosman ruling, been attributed to why this is. The one anomaly being PSV agonisingly moments away from contesting the 2005 Champions League final, a side containing a wealth of experience with Guus Hiddink at the helm, were denied in the cruelest manner.
That aside there really hasn't been much to shout about in the last ten years. Once a dominant nation – six major honours in the 1970s including four consecutive European Cups three of which courtesy of Rinus Michels and Ștefan Kovács not forgetting Wiel Coerver's UEFA Cup success shortly after in 1974 – the brave new world they find themselves part of has been a difficult one to swallow.
Even in the 1980s and the decade that followed clubs, particularly the ones under the auspices of Hiddink and Van Gaal, have been at least competitive which isn’t the case now. In fact there even used to be a saying a Dutch side would win the European Cup around the time of a new James Bond debuting.
However, there's a real chance to put things right, not exactly redemption but to write a new chapter. A simple case of evolution, Darwin said it best: adapt to survive. The clubs from the Netherlands cannot compete on a financial footing – participation in the Champions League for example leads to more revenue than playing in the Eredivisie – with expensive squads.
But with the right methods of coaching and long-term development – Cruijff's 'organised chaos theory' which includes the 'Michels model' seems to be in vogue again especially at Ajax – from the grass roots up, not forgetting the occasional luck, attempting to reach the summit can no longer be seen as a pipe dream or daunting prospect.
A starting point included a fact-finding mission last month by a delegation of sporting directors visiting the big three in Portugal to see what they are doing right. The Champions League at this moment in time is put on the back burner with the objective being to conquer the Europa League.
It won't be easy. Then again Feyenoord had to do things the hard way, a decade ago, after being dumped out of the Champions League. Glasgow Rangers, PSV and Internazionale were eliminated on the route to their final. A day after that anniversary, in Bucharest, the Europa League final takes place and with four teams left in the tournament the odds are in favour of at least one being there.
Or so it seems, on paper at least, when the round of 32 draw was made in early December no nation had more representatives. This was before the draw. Ajax would of course tell you there should have only been three. As their participation was the result of falling victim to a series of unfortunate events.
A defeat to Real Madrid in Amsterdam, on the final match night of the Champions League group phase, would still have seen De Godenzonen make the last 16 for the first time since 2006. They lost, which was no shame, but the manner left a bad taste in the mouth. Two errors from the linesman denied Ajax taking the lead in the first half. Regardless, the defeat could have been soothed with news from Zagreb, but what came was another knife to the back.
Lyon, who needed a seven goal swing in their favour to progress, achieved the – what was deemed – unthinkable. In part helped by Real Madrid's 3-0 victory, but more so with their 7-1 rout. Long before the dust settled, conspiracy theories were circulating, memories of Spain's infamous win over Malta which denied Oranje a place at Euro 1984 was constantly mentioned, bringing back painful memories, this being a previous example of where the impossible did become possible.
The accusations that followed the game 27-years-ago as well as the more recent one centered around this notion of underhanded behaviour involved, which is understandable given the context and rarity of score line, but I must stress nothing illegal occurred in these games. Dynamo Zagreb and Malta were plain and simple poor on their respective days, poor enough to conceded seven or more, yes.
As the saying goes 'stuff happens' or to use a more sophisticated one Así es la vida. The two disallowed goals plus Lyon's remarkable turnaround was hard to stomach for Ajax supporters and Dutch football in general. A team in the next round of Europe's elite competition would have been a feather in the cap for the Eredivisie, it's now five years and waiting.
Hans van Breukelen, who featured in that campaign, dubbed FIFA and UEFA for being 'pre-historic' in their refusal to adopt video technology, which if already in place, may have kept Ajax in the Champions League and pocketing a reported €25M for progression to the knockout phase. De Boer recognised human error in the part of the referee but was strong in the condemnation of his linesman. "I can't blame the referee (Manuel De Sousa) for his decisions as he follows his linesman, who should retire in my opinion."
Instead Ajax dropped down to the Europa League, accepting their fate with renewed vigour to take what they're left with seriously, the same goes for AZ, PSV and FC Twente. So far combined out of 24 games the four Dutch clubs played they've won 12 with three defeats two of them inflicted by Real Madrid. The season prior it was 15 from 46 played.
The Dutch co-efficient at one stage ranked third only behind England and Spain. As the first half of the European club season closed it fell to seventh. Much of this success should be credited to PSV who collected five wins in the Europa League.
Fred Rutten's side is a complete contrast to the team that were brutally exposed by Benfica last season. A more dynamic outfit with a midfield no longer containing two holding players, just the one in Kevin Strootman, has in turn culminated with the signings of Dries Mertens, Tim Matavž and Georginio Wijnaldum plus the emergence of Zakaria Labyad in the creation of the most prolific attack, out of the four sides in Europe, which saw them qualify with a few to spare.
The only disappoint was the 3-3 draw at home to Hapoel Tel Aviv. Their most impressive result however took place at where the final this year would be held beating Rapid Bucureşti 3-1 at the majestic Stadionul Național. This new verve as well as retained industry should stand them in good stead if they're to go deeper into the tournament.
FC Twente, just behind with four wins, have also fared well – despite dismissing Co Adriaanse – their defeat on the final day shouldn't take anything away from their more stand-out performances including at home to Fulham where afterwards Adriaanse called the last minute win as 'great for Dutch football'.
In fact this attitude is shared by the other side's which has been refreshing. This collective spirit can only be good for football in the country. Also, what should please national team coach Van Marwijk, is each of the four sides include emerging players playing key roles, such as Strootman, Adam Maher, Luuk de Jong and Derk Boerrigter. A similar trait found in past successful sides which can only be encouraged.
The latter aged 25 is the oldest of the four (by a margin), but in his first season in the Dutch top flight, has produced plenty of stellar performances on the wing – reminiscent of Marc Overmars in his relentless aggression – which earned him his first call-up.
As things stand, the Eredivisie can earn a third Champions League place for the start of the 2015/16 season if not the campaign after. One side that wants to be dining at the highest level is AZ, their domestic performances – which in truth has taken plenty by surprise – has tentatively been translated in Europe. They unlike PSV and Twente left it late to confirm their place in the knockout round, with only a single win it's the weakest performance of the four sides. However like PSV they remain unbeaten.
That will be put to the test, as from here on now things become serious for all four. Ajax's reward for parachuting into the Europa League is a date with Manchester United. AZ will have a short journey across the border to face Anderlecht. FC Twente will once again cross paths with Steaua Bucureșt and PSV take a trip into the unknown against Trabzonspor.
De Boer called the clash with Manchester United as "Champions League worthy" and more than anything is looking forward to testing himself against Sir Alex Ferguson. This will only be the second meeting between the sides. The first in 1976 saw Manchester United win 2-1 on aggregate. Ruud Krol, De Boer's idol on the score sheet for the Amsterdammers.
The Dutch side will evidently go in as underdogs – entire squad costs less than what FC Barcelona paid for Cesc Fàbregas - their recent indifferent domestic form not helped by senior players out through injury makes the task even more improbable.
Stranger things have happened before, they of course have been on the receiving end of the unthinkable, this time De Boer will hope Lady Luck will be smiling down on him. They will no doubt go into the game with a 'nothing to lose' mindset plus seeing FC Basel cause the Red Devils problems, they can believe.
There's no time for sentiments with Verbeek, who decided to adopt one of Ferguson's favourite pastimes, mind games, as well as playing up to the 'underdog tag' when learning of AZ's opponents. "They are the favourites," he said. "I say that based on the fact Anderlecht has a bigger budget than AZ and are capable of playing and attracting expensive non-EU players."
A calculated gambit doesn't hide the fact, Verbeek, an overly confident coach, will fancy his team – which includes players that have come on leaps and bounds this season notably playmaker Maher – to give Anderlecht a game. But progression still depends on them being at their optimum best.
If Verbeek was feigning caution then Rutten was more blunt when discovering PSV's fate. "I'm happy with the draw," he began. "We are seen once again as the favourite to come through." His skipper Ola Toivonen added "It could have been a lot tougher." Alluding to Ajax's draw. The danger of course is to underestimate an opponent that beat Internazionale at the San Siro and denied French champions Lille European football after the winter.
As for Twente, Steve McClaren wasn't in charge when the draw was conducted, but on the day of his appointment made it clear he’ll wants a run in the competition and being the only coach out of the four to have made a final – then as the UEFA Cup – he has the pedigree as well as the squad including inform striker Luuk de Jong as well as assist maker Ola John.
A year ago three Dutch sides made it to the last 16 of Europe's second tier competition, not since the mid 1990s has that occurred. Feyenoord's win is starting to become a distant memory even if it still feels fresh, the onus (as a collective) is to better last season's performance and for one of the sides to possibly go all the way. Maybe this could be the season the long and arduous wait finally comes to an end.