Earlier this week, Netherlands should have been getting their Euro 2020 campaign underway in Amsterdam. Michael Bell takes a look back at the last time the Netherlands participated in a European Championships and their disastrous performance at Euro 2012.

After the foot of Iker Casillas prevented the nation’s first-ever World Cup win in 2010, Netherlands picked themselves up and breezed through their Euro qualifying campaign under Bert van Marwijk, winning nine out of 10 games to book their place at a fifth straight major tournament.

The Netherlands had come under deserved scrutiny for their bullish tactics during the 2010 final, but they regained their entertainer’s tag in qualifying by scoring 37 goals, which was more than any other nation. Yes it helped that San Marino was in the qualifying group, and that led to simple 11-0 and 5-0 victories, but there was real optimism and excitement surrounding the Oranje squad, that had also risen to number one in the FIFA rankings during 2011.

The fact that the Netherlands were drawn in the group of death along with Germany, Portugal, and Denmark did little to stop the real confidence surrounding the team and the nation. The Netherlands was even installed as third favourites for the tournament with the bookmakers, behind World Cup winners Spain and serial tournament favourites Germany.

In May before the tournament, Van Marwijk announced his squad and it featured all the star names of the countries latest golden generation, who were all coming into their prime: Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart, and Arjen Robben. Barcelona’s Ibrahim Afellay, Dirk Kuyt, and an in-form Klaas-Jan Huntelaar also made up the exciting attacking options. The defence looked weak, but in front were captain Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, who had shaken off criticism for his karate kick in the 2010 final. Van Marwijk wasn’t missing any key players and had some exciting youngsters too in Jetro Willems, Luuk de Jong, Kevin Strootman, and Luciano Narsingh, who had all starred in the Eredivisie. For many, the squad was in an even better place than heading into the 210 World Cup.

Van Persie was red hot for Arsenal during the season, Afellay was fit and playing for Barcelona, Huntelaar was unstoppable, while Van der Vaart and Kuyt had good years in the Premier League. Sneijder may not have been in 2010 form but he was still at Inter. The only concern’s where around the state of Robben’s mind after he missed a crucial penalty in the Champions League final for Bayern Munich, but many believed it would fire him up for the tournament, especially with many predicting a rematch with Spain.

Everything looked promising and pre-tournament victories over Slovakia (2-0) and Northern Ireland (6-0) seemed to show everything was lining up perfectly for the nation. Many people were not only confident but sure of a second victorious European Championship for Oranje. Sadly they were wrong….very wrong.

First up for the Netherlands was Denmark, who they had met during the World Cup group stages in 2010 and defeated 2-0. A comfortable win was predicted for the Netherlands, but instead, it was a hugely frustrating evening. The Netherlands dominated the start but in the 24th minute, Michael Krohn-Dehli raced past a half-hearted challenge by John Heitinga before slotting through Maarten Stekelenburg’s legs to make it 1-0. From that point, the Netherlands pushed forward but despite 27 efforts on goal, they could not score. Van Persie had a bad day and even when Danish goalkeeper Stephan Anderson presented Robben with the ball, the post denied the Netherlands. Robben was astounded after the loss, “I think it has hardly ever happened that a team gets so many chances and loses the game. It’s hard to grasp.”

After the game, the Dutch press was stunned and some pointed their finger at Van Marwijk for his defensive line-up. Why did he start with Van Bommel and Nigel de Jong together against a weaker team? And why did he wait until after 70 minutes to make changes with many astounded that van der Vaart and Huntelaar were omitted from the start.

“I’m in no mood to get negative,” van Marwijk told the press after the opening defeat, but the Netherlands were on the back-foot straight away and next up was bitter rivals Germany. Van Marwijk stuck to his guns and named the same starting eleven, which again proved to be a big mistake as Germany eased to a 2-0 lead by half-time. The Netherlands were all over the place, and the score could have been worse if not for some fantastic stops by Maarten Stekelenburg. At the break, van der Vaart and Huntelaar were introduced and Oranje pulled one back through Van Persie, but Germany held on comfortably to all but seal Netherlands fate.

Staring down an embarrassing exit from the tournament, the Netherlands needed a win by two goals against Portugal in the final game for any chance of progressing from the group. Huntelaar and van der Vaart were finally handed starts, with the latter scoring a wonderful curled opener from just outside the box. However, hope was short-lived and the Netherlands defence that was horrid throughout the tournament fell apart again with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a double to condemn the Netherlands to a defeat that confirmed their shameful exit.

Three losses out of three led to the Netherlands heading home early and De Volkskrant newspaper led with the headline, “Holland are a joke.”

An inquiry began back in the Netherlands with Van Marwijk slammed for his tactics and decision to continually start with 18-year-old Willems, who looked so far out of his depth at left-back. The coach’s choices in midfield were also criticised, with the Netherlands losing control in the middle of the park in both games against Denmark and Germany due to the space between De Jong, van Bommel, and Sneijder. Van Marwijk just seemed unable to pick a coherent starting eleven from the number of stars he had at his disposal.

Van Marwijk took the brunt of the blame, but was he the only reason behind the failure? The answer is clearly no. There were strange rumours of a mole leaking tactics and unsurprisingly, infighting tearing the squad apart behind the scenes.

Sadly infighting is common within Netherlands squads, with the stars of the Euro 88 winning squad famously falling out with the KNVB just before Italia 90, which led to a poor atmosphere in the dressing room and the likes of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten couldn’t prevent an early exit, despite being among the favourites. Six years later, there were several issues in the Netherlands squad at Euro 96, which was another tournament that Oranje failed to live up to the billing. These issues seemed to have become a distant memory but at Euro 2012 they were back among a different player group and intensified even more by the shame of losing all three games, something no other Netherlands squad has managed at a major tournament.

Reports of issues were rife in the Dutch media during and after the tournament with the dressing room completely split. Afellay and van Persie had reportedly angered their teammates by turning up with massive egos due to their club status. Robben, who was clearly struggling from losing the Champions League final just before the tournament, had isolated himself from the squad, while Gregory van der Wiel was criticised for a lack of focus. The young right-back appeared to be more concerned with his clothing brand and music than actually playing football.

Van der Vaart was also said to be unhappy at being benched for the opening games, along with Dirk Kuyt, who barely got a look-in during the tournament. However, the biggest focus behind the scenes before, during, and after the tournament, was on Huntelaar. The striker was top scorer during qualifying and scored 48 goals in a sensational season for Schalke 04. He felt he deserved to be the starting striker, as did many pundits, but Van Marwijk picked Van Persie on his own up front. Huntelaar and Van Persie were said to have a bitter rivalry off the pitch, with the former feeling betrayed at being benched, especially since he played a big part in getting the Netherlands to the tournament.

“To be honest, I don’t know what I have to do to be the first choice for Holland. Upset is perhaps not the right word. I’m just loaded with questions at the moment,” Huntelaar told De Telegraaf ahead of the clash with Denmark after finding out he wasn’t starting. The camera’s also focused on a frustrated Huntelaar during the game, especially as Van Persie continued to fluff chance after chance.

Huntelaar’s off the pitch behaviour was so distracting there was even talk of the striker being banished, just like Edgar Davids had at Euro 96. That didn’t happen, and Huntelaar would eventually get his chance against Portugal as the Netherlands went gun ho looking for a victory. However, that proved too little too late, and many looked back in hindsight at what could have been if Huntelaar had lined up alongside van Persie against Denmark from the start.

It was clear that the squad unity that led to the Netherlands reaching the 2010 World Cup final was shattered and Van Marwijk couldn’t prevent anarchy. Captain Van Bommel spoke with Spits News after the tournament and confirmed the issues, “During the World Cup in 2010 it was clear what the arrangement would be, there was no discussion. Now the roles have changed. At that time Afellay still played at PSV (rather than Barcelona), Rafael van der Vaart was on the bench at Real Madrid and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s appearances for AC Milan were rare. There are only eleven players on the field, but the rest must have the same goal in mind: all must strive together to become European champions.”

One player that appeared to stay out of the headlines and avoid scrutiny was Sneijder, who painted a happy picture at the time and stayed quiet on most of the issues, until now. Next year, Sneijder will release his biography and he has promised to Radio Veronica that he will reveal all, “I will tell you what the internal problems within the selection were. I will name them, yes. I do everything with respect, honest, and open. The people who were there will know that it was so. I will not destroy people but I do come with facts and that is only good,”

This will be the first major confirmation of the issues, with the players mostly staying quiet on the issues in the camp since, well on the record anyway. Some players were said to be openly leaking the issues and blaming each other for the exit to the press off the record after the tournament.

Despite talk that the KNVB wanted him to stay, Van Marwijk, who had just extended his contract to 2016 before the Euro’s, decided to resign and Louis van Gaal was installed to pick up the pieces and bring some much-needed discipline and focus back ahead of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

With Van Gaal in charge of a fresh new squad, Netherlands would go unbeaten in qualifying and bring optimism back ahead of the finals in Brazil. The Netherlands were this time underdogs for the tournament with many expecting an early exit, but the 5-1 win over Spain in the opener banished many memories of the Euro 2012 disaster and led to a wonderful run to the semi-finals before the familiar agony of penalties prevented a second straight World Cup final.

Van der Vaart would miss the World Cup through injury, but Sneijder, Van Persie and Robben all got their chance to once again shine on the biggest stage, while Kuyt and Huntelaar also had key role’s. The unity was back and it resulted in a third-place finish. Not a major trophy that the generation expected but pride was at least restored.

What followed couldn’t be foreseen with the Netherlands going through a crisis and missing two straight major tournaments, before Ronald Koeman, armed with the new golden quartet of Matthijs de Ligt, Virgil van Dijk Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay brought Oranje back and qualification for Euro 2020 was achieved.

Thankfully, this new Oranje squad appears to be united and a strong unit, without the fractured egos and infighting. Next year they will line up at a European Championships for the first time since that dreadful night in Kharkiv against Portugal and will be among the favourites for the tournament. Hopefully, this time, Netherlands can avoid any off-field drama and just focus on bringing the trophy back to Amsterdam.




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