After defeat to Czech Republic ended their Euro 2016 campaign, the Dutch have gone from tournament semi-finalists to qualification also-rans in the space of two years. But we’ve been here before…
“I had the ambition of becoming world champion,” said Louis van Gaal, ashen faced. “But we didn’t even make it to the tournament.”
It’s September 2001 – until this week, the last time Holland failed to qualify for a major tournament, and the first time their then-manager had experienced failure.
Van Gaal was the obvious choice to replace Frank Rijkaard, who fell on his sword after the Netherlands’ heartbreaking defeat to Italy on home soil in the semi-finals of Euro 2000. Indeed, he’d long coveted the job. “I have a particular vision of how a [Netherlands manager] is supposed to function,” said Van Gaal five years earlier. “Even if it were to prove my way is right, I would like to give it a try.”
Dreams of World Cup glory didn’t seem far-fetched
After three moderately successful seasons with Barcelona, Van Gaal would also be reunited with many of the Ajax team he led to Champions League glory in 1995, most of whom were now established internationals and in their playing primes. Throw in Ruud van Nistelrooy, who had missed Euro 2000 with a serious knee injury, and dreams of World Cup glory didn’t seem far-fetched.
No wonder Van Gaal and his players were “broken” after the 1-0 defeat to Republic of Ireland at Lansdowne Road sealed their fate.
In truth, the die was cast almost a year to the day earlier, when Mick McCarthy’s men visited Amsterdam for the teams’ opening Group 2 encounter. After trailing 2-0 and being outplayed, the Dutch were lucky to escape with a draw.
McAteer's winner: really very good
Only a win in Dublin would give Van Gaal’s side a realistic chance of finishing as runners-up
A 2-0 defeat to fellow Euro 2000 semi-finalists Portugal in their third game and a 2-2 draw in Porto in their fifth – after the Dutch had led 2-0 with seven minutes remaining – meant that only a win in Dublin would give Van Gaal’s side a realistic chance of finishing as runners-up and a play-off against a team from Asia.
Not everything was tulip-y in the build-up to the game, with two of Van Gaal’s former Ajax charges, Frank de Boer and Edgar Davids, ruled out after initially testing positive for nandrolone (they were later cleared). The manager even complained about not being able to contact the latter. “I was surprised because Davids has two phones,” he quipped, perhaps alluding to the star status the feisty midfielder had acquired.
Still, Van Gaal was confident enough of victory to publicly pile the pressure on his opposite number, inadvertently providing the Republic of Ireland manager with his team talk. “He has been quoted on my employment prospects if Ireland lose,” said McCarthy in his World Cup diary. “That disappoints me. Hopefully we can wipe the smile off his face.”
That looked unlikely just before the hour mark, when what had been a fairly even contest until that point swung dramatically in Holland’s favour after Gary Kelly was sent off. But nine minutes later, the Dutch defence went AWOL, leaving Jason McAteer to sweep home from Steve Finnan’s cross.
But instead of trying to take advantage of his team’s one-man advantage by stretching the play and going round, or creating gaps in the Irish defence, Van Gaal suffered what can only be described as a tactical meltdown.
By the end of the game, Total Football has descended into a total chaos, with the wingless Dutch lumping the ball in the general direction of the four centre-forwards – four – they had on the pitch; albeit good ones in Van Nistelrooy, Patrick Kluivert, Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink and Pierre van Hooijdonk. “It was exactly what we wanted,” said Niall Quinn, who was a second-half substitute. “What we didn’t want was those fast Dutch forwards running at our defenders down the channels.”
While McCarthy, predictably, was “f***ing delighted”, Van Gaal was left to face the music – a situation not helped by his post-match claims that the noise at Lansdowne Road had made communication difficult, while the pitch had hindered his team’s passing game. “Bull***t,” screamed Brabants Dagblad newspaper. “Communicating how you play 11 against 10 you do before the game, during one of those many little cosy hours at a training camp or during one of those special, secretive meetings. Van Gaal should be ashamed.”
Dutch footballing royalty also waded into the row. “Van Gaal has never played for the national team himself,” said Marco van Basten, “so maybe that was the problem.”
Not that 42 caps as a player seemed to help Danny Blind during the current campaign. But whereas all the signs are that he will continue as manager, Van Gaal would have to wait 11 years for a second bite of the cherry.
After meaningless wins against Estonia and Andorra concluded Holland’s qualifying campaign, his reign ended during a now-infamous hour-long press conference. But he was typically bullish. “I resigned because some players refused to accept my methods,” he said. “I am who I am and I have my own ways. I’m not going to change and I have no desire to.”
See what we mean about history repeating itself?