By Ken Pendleton
USSoccerPlayers (June 22, 2006) -- Why, so often, does it appear that the Dutch are on the verge of coming apart at the seams?
This time, it took all of one match against Serbia & Montenegro for tensions between teammates to rise to the surface. No one disputes that Arjen Robben played a vital part in Holland's 1-0 victory, but Robin van Persie, the man who adroitly released him to score the winner, felt that Robben was, well, a ball hog.
"[Robben] needs to take his teammates into account," said the Dutch winger to the media after the match. "Sometimes he makes choices that are good for himself but not the team. We all need to realize that we are doing this together. We had several chances against Serbia & Montenegro but against the really big countries you maybe get one chance, and precisely in this situation you have to make the right choice. He cannot do it on his own."
For his part, Robben tried to downplay the potential rift by saying, "There was no malice in what he said. This is not an issue. They turned a molehill into a mountain. It was taken out of context."
Robben did not elaborate about the context (players and coaches rarely do), but manager Marco van Basten clearly felt that van Persie's comments merited mediation: "Arjen Robben was right and Robin van Persie was right. But what is important is that we stay together and work together and get better."
Perhaps van Basten's diplomatic efforts will bare harmonious fruit, but the history of Dutch soccer is replete with examples of teams that failed to fulfill their potential because the players and coaches were not on the same page.
In 1976, on the verge of playing Czechoslovakia in the semifinals of the European Championships, the country's best goalkeeper, Jan van Beveren (who, by the way, later starred for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers) and PSV Eindhoven teammate Willy van der Kuylen left the squad because they felt that Johan Cruyff wielded too much influence. And, on the eve of the match, members of the Dutch federation (the KNVB) enthusiastically leaked the fact that manager George Knobel would resign after the tournament. Some of the players did not exactly rally around Knobel -- Wim van Hanegem told him, "You're not a straight guy" -- and Knobel did not select Arie Haan, allegedly because he had masterminded his ouster at Ajax.
In 1978, Holland made it all the way to the World Cup final despite the fact that several key players, including Cruyff, declined to participate. Van Hanegem, who later regretted his decision, left the team the night before they departed for Argentina because Ruud Krol and Haan refused to pool the income generated from advertisement like they had in the '74 World Cup. "Everyone from one to twenty-two is important. Everyone should get the same, including the man who cleans the boots because if he's not there, I must clean my boots."
Holland went through a fallow period but reemerged to win EURO '88, but the unity that characterized that squad had come completely asunder by Italia '90. First, Thijs Libregts was fired after the players refused to even go to the World Cup with him as manager. And eight months before the tournament, the players met and voted for Johan Cruyff to manage them, but the KNVB chose Leo Beenhakker, who later admitted that there was no chance that he could unify the team. "I had no chance, I knew it before the tournament. . . . The only thing you can hope for then is that is that it will work out because there is a very talented group. . . . With such great players, the coach is not so important and I hope that they take the responsibility, especially the big stars to say hey come on, we are all in the same boat, just let's go for it."
In 1994, Ruud Guillit followed van Hanegem's example and left the team on the eve of the World Cup, allegedly because he thought that manager Dick Advocaat's attacking tactical approach would wither in the hot and humid conditions in Florida.
Finally, during EURO '96 the squad divided because of racial tensions. According to David Winner, the author of Brilliant Orange: the Neurotic Genius of Dutch football, "The Black players complained, with some justification, that (manager Guus) Hiddink did not listen to them, that they were not served Surinamese food in camp, and that Ajax paid them less than white players." Tensions reached a low point after Edgar Davids stormed out of the training camp after telling Guus Hiddink to "get his head out of the white players' asses" and Clarence Seedorf appeared to be hesitant to pass the ball to Ronald de Boer.
Even though Davids and Seedorf both made peace with Hiddink, and presumably their white teammates, and performed well in France '98, there is still linger tension, which probably explain why van Basten did not choose Seedorf, his most creative and in-form midfielder, for the current squad. Van Basten has made it abundantly clear that he wants a unified squad. "For me it is very important that every player plays for the team first and not for himself," he said. "That is the only way a country like Holland can go far in a World Cup. We are simply not as good as Brazil and Argentina. We have to rely on our collectiveness."
At the same time, van Basten has refused to impose a gag order on the players. "They can do and say whatever they like. Just, I hope, they will be wise in saying things. They are big enough and experienced enough."
Perhaps van Basten will not enforce what the Italians refer to as a "silenzio stampa" because he realizes that Dutch players fully expect to have their say.
"If someone in Germany is told to do something, he will say, 'OK' and do it. But us Dutch are not like that. Here, if someone says something it is always followed by someone else standing up and saying, "Yes, but ?" That is how we work and how we have been brought up. It is a different way of being.
"On the one hand this is good because if you have an opinion and say something about it, it means that you are thinking about things and will have a good discussion about it. But the key is to have respect for others. If you don't listen to what someone else has to say then you won't come together as a team and you will create a rift. We are trying to pick players who fit into our way of thinking."