With its mesmerizing one-touch "total football" quick-fire-passing ballet, massive following of colorful fans and propensity for self-destruction, the Netherlands has long been one of the world's most compelling teams. From the legendary Johan Cruyff to current Arsenal star Robin Van Persie, very few nations have produced as many innovative, technically gifted and exciting players over the past 40 years as the Dutch. Yet despite its abundance of talent, the Netherlands has still not won the World Cup. But in South Africa, the Dutch Masters might finally grasp the title that has eluded them for so long.
The Netherlands was the first European team to qualify for South Africa, winning Group 9 by a country mile, sweeping the board with an 8-0-0 record. The team is stacked with playmakers and offensive weapons, but remains prone to injury. With key members of the team being traded during the 2009 summer transfer window (Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar all left Real Madrid), there will be the usual uncertainty surrounding the Dutch players' state of mind, as well as their bodies, as the finals approach. Lack of playing time in a World Cup year is also a potential issue: Playmaker Rafael Van Der Vaart is by no means guaranteed a spot in the starting XI at Real Madrid, Huntelaar will have to fight for time at AC Milan, and youngster Ryan Babel has asked for a move from Liverpool due to his lack of action at Anfield.
Along with a tradition of producing world-class talent, the Dutch also have a long track record of infighting that seems to flare up at the World Cup. It is often claimed that the Netherlands lost the 1974 World Cup to West Germany because it was distracted by the fallout from a Bild tabloid story headlined "Cruyff, Champagne and Naked Girls," published on the eve of the final. Dutch legend Cruyff dominated the 1974 World Cup, but had his worst game in the final. Some credit Berti Vogts for man-marking him out of the game, while many others claim Cruyff was so upset by the tabloid smear that he wasn't focused in the final. The 1974 team is widely regarded by some to be the best team never to have won the World Cup. (Hungary in 1954 and Brazil in 1982 also bear mention.)
After losing on penalties in the semifinals of the 1998 World Cup to Brazil, Dutch soccer reached its nadir when a talented Dutch squad failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. During a return in 2006, feuds took over again. Star players such as Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Mark Van Bommel fought with coach Marco Van Basten; the Dutch went down in the second round.
At Euro 2008, the Dutch dominated in the group stage, producing a brand of breathtaking soccer reminiscent of the glory days of Cruyff's "total football." But just when the soccer world was rejoicing at the return of the Oranje, Russia upset the Dutch 3-1 in the quarterfinals.
Van Bommel refused to play for Van Basten at Euro 2008, but he is back as the team's midfield general with his father-in-law Bert Van Marwijk now the head coach. And now Van Nistelrooy, after retiring from international soccer and missing the entire qualifying campaign, says he wants to play in South Africa. The talent at Van Marwijk's disposal is impressive: The aforementioned Robben, Van Der Vaart, Sneijder and Huntelaar should all start in South Africa. Dirk Kuyt has been sensational for Liverpool in the EPL, and Arsenal's Van Persie is a supremely gifted striker. Veterans Giovanni Van Bronckhorst and Andre Ooijer control the back line, and youngsters Ibrahim Afellay and Babel have huge potential. With the retirement of Edwin Van Der Sar, there is a question mark in goal. Maarten Stekelenburg has been the automatic choice in qualifying, but he lacks his predecessor's experience and shot-stopping excellence.
Can Van Marwijk mold all this talent into a team? He has been very successful in qualifying, playing a 4-2-3-1 formation with Huntelaar as a loan striker supported by Robben on the left flank, Van Persie on the right and either Van Der Vaart or Sneijder in the attacking playmaker role. The volatile Van Persie fought with Van Marwijk during their days together at Feyenoord, but that seems to be water under the bridge at the moment. Harmony and the Netherlands rarely go together, but that has been the case in the qualifiers. If Van Marwijk can keep the players singing from the same hymn sheet, and notoriously brittle players Robben, Van Der Vaart and Van Persie can stay healthy, the giant contingent of orange-clad Dutch fans getting ready to descend on South Africa next summer might have something to really sing (and celebrate) about.
Mark Young is a World Cup writer and researcher for ESPN.