Dutch players strive to live up to a glorious tradition

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There is something about the Dutch and tournaments in Germany. The ragbag orange team that face England in Wednesday’s Euro 2024 semi-final in Dortmund, 60 miles from the Netherlands border, stands in a glorious tradition, albeit one it cannot live up to.

Fifty years and a week ago in the same stadium, Johan Cruyff’s immortal Dutch side hammered Brazil (often literally, in a violent game) to reach the World Cup final, which they lost to West Germany. Another brilliant Oranje lifted the country’s only ever footballing prize at Euro 1988, beating the Soviet Union in Munich.

Two stars of 1988 were Ronald Koeman and his brother Erwin, the current coach and assistant respectively. In 2020 Ronald came through a heart attack, and Erwin an open-heart operation. The Koemans must wryly compare the Oranje they now lead with the Oranje they played for. Yet the side possesses the country’s inherited football intelligence, scores goals (and concedes them) freely and faces a desperately uncreative England

Only two of today’s Dutchmen can be considered elite footballers in their prime. One is left-back Nathan Aké of Manchester City, who has played his entire club career in England. The other is Liverpool winger Cody Gakpo, who jointly heads the tournament’s scoring charts with three goals, and helps lead Oranje’s Christian contingent in prematch prayer. The Dutch public broadcaster NOS calculates that 15 of the 26 squad members are openly religious, including many evangelical Christians.  

No other Dutchman is currently top-class. Bart Verbruggen of Brighton, 21, is the national side’s youngest goalkeeper since 1967. Almost faultless in Germany except during a dreadful 3-2 loss to Austria, he was rewarded with a bag of sweets by his watching mother after the quarter-final comeback against Turkey. 

Right-back Denzel Dumfries is known in the Netherlands for his “heavy feet”, but though his touch isn’t Messi-esque he can time his runs to pop up alone near goal and deliver precise low crosses. 

In central defence, captain Virgil van Dijk of Liverpool is a former world-beater but at 32 is slowing. Van Dijk has triumphed over early expectations. Aged 18 he was a substitute at Tilburg club Willem II, and might have turned a part-time dishwashing gig into a career had the Koemans’ late father Martin not scouted him for the family’s ancestral club, FC Groningen. Van Dijk now leads the Dutch players’ painfully self-critical tactical postmortems.

His fellow central defender is Stefan de Vrij, also 32, a life-long learner who years ago hired a private tactical coach with whom he watched endless videos of himself, agonising over the tiniest missed opportunity to scan the field, or step a yard to close down a forward. De Vrij’s game is not to break up attacks but to position himself so they don’t happen. The Dutch central duo’s slowness is a match for England striker Harry Kane.

The Netherlands are playing the tournament without their entire first-choice midfield, most notably their injured motor Frenkie de Jong. The deputies have been hit and miss. Notional playmaker Xavi Simons, 21, is a wandering wunderkind of European club football currently with Paris Saint-Germain, but for Oranje he has scored just once in 19 matches and sometimes looks like a half-grown child on the brink of tears. 

The Dutch players celebrate against Turkey in the quarter final
The Dutch players celebrate against Turkey in the quarterfinal © Severin Aichbauer/SEPA Media/Getty Images

Up front, right-winger Steven Bergwijn this season captained Ajax’s worst team in 60 years, while centre-forward Memphis Depay has a shocking back-story. He wears his first name on his shirt, because he was three when his Ghanaian father Depay abandoned his Dutch mother. Later the mother started a relationship with a neighbour. The man’s many children gave Memphis constant beatings. Memphis became a distrustful boy who could not talk about his pain and clashed with teachers and football coaches. He recalls a phase at school when he would sit crying under his desk, terrified at the prospect of going home.

By the time Memphis and his mother escaped, he was damaged. His autobiography Heart of a Lion recounts how he began drinking aged 12, hung out with cocaine dealers, and tried to make other people hurt like he did.

In club football he has fallen short of excellence: he generally warmed the bench at Manchester United, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid, almost as if there was a pattern there. But most international football is played at a more forgiving level, and Memphis has scored 46 times for Oranje (including five against Gibraltar and four against Montenegro). He celebrates goals by closing his ears and pointing upwards, indicating his deafness to everything but Jesus’s words.

Most Dutch fans wish the Koemans would start supersub Wout Weghorst instead. The striker is a Covid-19 vaccine sceptic and, more unusually, heir to his family’s chain of petrol stations. Hurtling about on massive feet, Weghorst introduces a welcome element of chaos into Dutch attacks. His hyperactive pressing and heading ability can create chances out of nothing. This variant of 1980s-style lower-division English long-ball football is very much not in the Dutch tradition. Koeman, who divides players into “starters” and “finishers”, will probably start Memphis and bring on Weghorst.

Where England are controlled and boring, the Dutch are variable and opportunistic. They are not a great team. But a second-rate side can win a one-month tournament.

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