It’s no secret that a strong club backbone has historically given World Cup-winning teams a considerable boost when it comes to contending for the world title. The Dutch national team saw a hint of what that could have been when the combined backbone of Ajax and Liverpool players from the 2018/19 season led them to assertively top their Nations League group against the two most recent World Champions at the time. Oranje were exciting once again.

However, as Ajax’s talents in Frenkie De Jong, Matthijs De Ligt, and Donny Van de Beek were eventually lured away by larger clubs in Europe, and Gini Wijnaldum left Virgil Van Dijk as the sole Dutchman at Liverpool, none of them have dazzled and impressed in the same way at their new clubs, and Oranje’s backbone has arguably weakened as a result. The same applies to whatever potential PSV has with the likes of Cody Gakpo and Xavi Simons this season, as any success will lead to both being poached with the promise of developing their talent and collecting accolades in grander stages. Going back to the Ajax boys, one might even be able to argue that had they stayed in Amsterdam, they would have developed even further and Ajax might have asserted themselves as a consistent European contender over the last few seasons. Which is odd, because isn’t the point of moving to a bigger club in the first place to develop their talent and achieve greater success in Europe? The worst part about this is that this has been a recurring theme for Dutchmen going abroad for the last decade. 

Fast forward to December 2022, where the Netherlands’ World Cup campaign came to a halt following a penalty shootout loss to Argentina. We must reach the only conclusion that can enable us for the future: we were not good enough to win the World Cup in 2022. It’s not a matter of style of play or formation, nor is it about not having the players to do it; it’s about entrusting the development of those players to foreign leagues. The Eredivisie should not satisfy itself with being a jumpstart league for young talent if the success of the National Team is within the interests of the KNVB, let alone the success of Dutch clubs in Europe.

Given that the Netherlands’ last two World Cup exits were via penalty shootouts and that a debate is currently raging about deciding three-team group stage matches at the 2026 World Cup with penalty shootouts after normal time, it could result that having league matches end in penalty shootouts after 90 minutes in case of draws is opportune and forward-thinking. While it might sound adventurous at first, there should obviously be a distinction between wins through penalty shootouts and flat-out wins on the pitch. Giving both sides a point for drawing and the shootout winner a second point may be a good starting point for the debate, or it may not be, but having the debate would be fruitful.

Ultimately, getting good at penalties will not be enough. The Eredivisie may have to think creatively about how to concentrate talent and improve its overall quality of football. Something that could work is cutting the number of teams in the league in half while maintaining the number of fixtures in the season through an Apertura-Clausura format that ends in a Super Cup with actual meaning to be contested between the winners. This is, of course, only an example, and yes, it’s easier said than done. But it is difficult to argue that the quality of football in the Dutch First Division will not improve as a result. The point is that Dutch football needs to concentrate and develop its own talent to take ownership of its success on the international stage, especially with the planned expansion of the Club World Cup in the near future. As it stands, even with 32 teams Dutch clubs would need miracles to qualify for one.

I’d like to close with an anecdote. The last time I was in Amsterdam was during that magical season of 2018-2019 when Ajax competed with the likes of Bayern Munich and oppressively dominated Real Madrid and Juventus in the Champions League. Yet I was bemused by the fact that so many people I spoke to expressed more interest in the Premier League than Ten Hag’s class of 2019. One late middle-aged man at a noisy pub in Rembrandtplein even went as far as saying that the days of Dutch dominance are long gone because of political reasons (namely the Bosman Ruling) as we watched the Netherlands thump Belarus 4-0 on the television. He sounded defeated, despite Oranje’s convincing win unfolding on our screens. I can only imagine the true excitement he felt by witnessing Van Basten’s ’88 wondergoal that finally gave this wonderful footballing nation a much earned title, or the joy in his heart has Van Gaal’s young Ajax team conquered Europe in ’95. As a young fan of Dutch football who never got to taste the glory days, I’m tired of hearing “This isn’t the same Netherlands team of the past,” and I’m starving for something to celebrate on the big stages. Maybe figuring out how to get people in the Netherlands excited about their own domestic football would be a good start.




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