Under De Boer, Holland aim to heal seven-year itch
- When Holland go into the competition, Frank de Boer will be in the dugout – because Barcelona made an offer Koeman couldn’t refuse – with Georginio Wijnaldum wearing the armband instead of Van Dijk, who hasn’t recovered from a knee injury since October.
Had the Euros happened on time, Ronald Koeman would have been their coach and Virgil van Dijk captain. When Holland go into the competition, Frank de Boer will be in the dugout – because Barcelona made an offer Koeman couldn’t refuse – with Georginio Wijnaldum wearing the armband instead of Van Dijk, who hasn’t recovered from a knee injury since October.
There is a certain amount of randomness in how summer tournaments unfurl: North Korea in the 1966 World Cup, Senegal in the 2002 edition, Iceland in the 2016 Euros and a group of Danes coming off their holidays to conquer a continent in 1992. But typifying the unpredictable nature of international football competitions – where teams need to keep it together for seven games in a month – is Holland. They didn’t make the World Cup finals from 1938 to 1970 and then were runners-up twice. They couldn’t qualify for the next two World Cups and won the European championship in 1988; Marco van Basten’s audacious volley being the insurance goal in a 2-0 win against Russia in the final. Van Basten’s strike, along with the Paul Gascoigne lob against Scotland in 1996 and Antonin Panenka’s penalty in 1976, remains one of the defining goals of the competition.
It also remains Holland’s only major trophy. In 2010, when De Boer was part of the coaching staff, Holland lost another World Cup final. The journey from almost sublime to the ridiculous took two years and Holland lost all group games in the 2012 Euros. But in 2014, Holland almost edged out Argentina in a World Cup semi-final before besting hosts Brazil 3-0 to finish third. True to form, Holland then failed to qualify for the 2016 Euros and the 2018 World Cup.
“It is unbelievable that we have not played at a World Cup or European Championship with the Netherlands for seven years… Missing one tournament, that can happen. But two?” Wijnaldum has said. He would be on vacation then but those vacations, Wijnaldum said, felt wrong.
Wijnaldum will be working this summer as part of a squad with an equal mix of youth and experience. Holland have seven players who are 23 or younger and that includes Matthijs de Ligt, assuming of course that his groin injury isn’t serious enough for them to make another late replacement after goalie Jasper Cillessen was dropped due to Covid-19. Nineteen-year-old midfielder Ryan Gravenberch has been called “the next Patrick Vieira” by De Boer. Gravenberch scored against Georgia and comes off the famed youth system at Ajax; as does defender Jurriën Timber. Forward Donyell Malen is 22 and has been trained by Dennis Bergkamp at Ajax and Thierry Henry at Arsenal.
Among those in the roster between 24-29, said to be a player’s peak years, is free-scoring striker Memphis Depay – he would have been out with injury if the edition was not delayed but has scored 20 goals in 37 games for Lyon last term – whose six goals and five assists were crucial to Holland qualifying. Depay also scored the equaliser in a patchy 1-1 draw against Scotland and again in the 3-0 win against Georgia. Also in that list are midfield master Frenkie de Jong (who is coming off a good season at Barcelona), Manchester City’s Nathan Ake and the six-foot-six Wout Weghorst, who has had two seasons of over 20 goals for Wolfsburg in Germany and got a goal on Sunday. De Ligt’s possible central defensive partner in Stefan de Vrij, who plays for Serie A winners Inter Milan, is 29.
On the list of experienced players would be Wijnaldum, 30, who is among nine players who were part of the 2014 World Cup. Allowed freedom to go forward in the national team, the Liverpool midfielder will be hoping a good tournament should help him switch to a club where he gets more game time. The buzz is PSG will get him before Barcelona. With eight goals, Wijnaldum is also Holland’s top scorer in the Euro qualifiers. Also in the 26 are Daley Blind, who can provide cover in central defence and play in midfield, goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg, an international since 2004 and the first choice in the 2010 World Cup, and Sevilla striker Luuk de Jong.
A serial winner of the Dutch league as Ajax player and coach – he is also Holland’s third-most capped player – De Boer has also had blink-and-miss stints at Inter Milan and Crystal Palace. The one with USA’s Atlanta United lasted longer but yielded little.
De Boer’s teams are known to play pragmatic rather than pleasing football, but Van Basten has a different take. “When I see Frank de Boer, I see someone who has a natural understanding of being a trainer,” he said.
“I think we are somewhere in the top eight sides,” De Boer claimed. Placed with Austria, who haven’t won a major tournament game since 1990, debutants North Macedonia and Ukraine, and playing group games at Amsterdam’s Johan Cruyff Arena, anything less than a quarter-final berth could seem like inadequate healing of a seven-year itch.
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