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Oranje wants to win the Cup

Three decades after Holland went to Germany and gave the world "Total Football," they are heading back. This time, the want the Trophy, too.

india Updated: May 05, 2006 11:39 IST

Three decades after the Netherlands went to Germany and gave the world free-flowing "Total Football," they are heading back.

This time, though, they want to return with something more than fame. This time, they want the World Cup trophy, too.

In 1974, Johan Cruyff led a dazzlingly talented team which stunned everyone in the world except West Germany and Franz Beckenbauer. Instead of winning their first title, the Dutch let a final they dominated slip from their grasp against the tenacious hosts 2-1.

The setback on July 7, 1974, has marked Dutch soccer to this day. Ever since, the orange-clad squad is branded as the best team never to win the big one — its players as being overconfident on the verge of self-destructive.

In seemingly every tournament, the Netherlands have produced some of the most sparkling soccer, and all too often they do so with many players barely out of the youth ranks.

In Germany next month, even the coach is a virtual rookie. Former striker Marco van Basten was a world class player during the late 1980s and 1990s, but had little experience before he took the helm of the national team two years ago.

He led the Dutch through one of the most successful qualifying campaigns, twice beating the second-ranked Czech Republic along the way. Unbeaten, and with only two draws and 10 victories to add to the 27-3 goal difference, it makes impressive reading. Who would not dream of at least a repeat of 1974?

The Dutch, third in the FIFA rankings, will know quickly enough how Oranje weighs up once the tournament kicks off on June 9. They are locked in the toughest World Cup group with Argentina, Serbia-Montenegro and Ivory Coast.

The closing Group C match against Argentina on June 21 is seen at perhaps the toughest of the entire first round.

"If you start out with a tough group, you immediately know what you are worth," Van Basten said. "We know it is going to be no easy job."

It will make reliance on a few veterans all the more important. In goal, Edwin Van der Sar is uncontested — to the extent that injury to the trusty Manchester United 'keeper would expose the yawning gap in Dutch goalkeeping.

In front of him — defense or midfield — Phillip Cocu is the player everyone is counting on to bring calm and poise when the team is under pressure.

At 35, he was instrumental in giving star-depleted PSV Eindhoven the national title this season.

Up front, Ruud van Nistelrooy will likely be the target man. "Van the Man" had a seesaw season with Manchester United, to the extent that he was even benched for a prolonged period. It should make him, almost 30, all the more eager to make an impression in Germany.

One veteran who most likely won't be there is Clarence Seedorf. Still an essential midfielder for Champions League semifinalist AC Milan this season, the spirited voice never found a hearing with Van Basten.

The coach prides himself in having crafted a rare sense of team spirit, and would rather sacrifice a talented but mercurial star than risk the mental balance of his team. It was a bold move to leave Seedorf off the initial list of 33 players last month and shows Van Basten cares little about convention.

Dutch players have always prided themselves on their independence and it has sometimes cost them dearly. Van Basten knows from firsthand experience.

Two years after he led the Dutch to the 1988 European Championship title, Oranje's chances to take the World Cup in Italy were even better with stars like Ruud Gullit, Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard in their prime. But the team disintegrated because of bad vibes and was eliminated in the second round.

As vexing as this underachieving can be, Oranje can just as likely thrill, sometimes even outdoing Brazil.

In 1974, the team produced bedazzling play with defenders moving upfield, forwards taking up different positions and combined it with close personal skills to produce that revolutionary concoction called "Total Football."

If the ingredients sound commonplace now, it was groundbreaking then, as Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Ruud Krol outwitted Argentina and Brazil to reach the final. Once there, overconfidence drove them to defeat. Ever since, beautiful play is no longer a birthright for the Dutch, it has become a duty.

And Van Basten, the most elegant striker in his days, knows it all too well.

"Nothing is easier to close up the defense and count on the counterattack. You owe it to at least try and play beautiful attacking soccer," Van Basten told VI magazine. "It is the only way that we, as the Netherlands, can make a mark."