Tuesday 4 June 2019 5:02 pm

How Holland bounced back from World Cup and Euro qualification misery with the aid of their football talent factory

Every so often a Dutch player capable of setting the world alight announces themselves on the international stage. And even more rarely a crop of them come through the ranks at the same time.

Think Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Ruud Krol; Frank Rijkyard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten; Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf and Marc Overmars.

There are plenty more to mention, including the country’s current manager Ronald Koeman, who has restored some pride to the national team this season following a catastrophic four years.

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On Thursday they face England in the Nations League semi-final, and having already seen off France and Germany in the competition it is a new beginning for the Dutch, with yet another fresh group of talented players coming through.

It is a feat that deserves recognition, given the small size of the country and stature of its league, and yet perhaps the biggest surprise is that it is a nation that has never won a World Cup despite the bundles of talent it has produced.

They have come close on numerous occasions, with three semi-final appearances in five World Cups between 1998 and 2014 including a runners-up finish in 2010, their third in all.

While Holland were on the cusp of glory in both 2010 and 2014, the Oranje machine ground to a shuddering halt soon after, failing to qualify for Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup as that generation’s stars passed the peak of their powers.

Holland's mixture of youth and experience helped them to top Nations League group involving Germany and France
Holland’s mixture of youth and experience helped them to top Nations League group involving Germany and France

But every sunset brings a new dawn and, under former Everton and Southampton manager Koeman, Holland have again found their place among Europe’s elite.

And with an Ajax team powered by youngsters Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and Donny van de Beek reaching the Champions League semi-finals, it has been a season of resurgence in Dutch football.

The Nations League was belittled by some upon its unveiling but, like England, the Dutch have seen the inaugural finals as an opportunity to claim an international honour.


Beating Germany 3-0 and world champions France 2-0 at home ensured they would finish top of their group and join England, Switzerland and Portugal – the latter two meet tomorrow – in the final four.

Those games saw the introduction of De Jong – set to join Barcelona for £67.5m – and Van de Beek, both 22, while 19-year-old Ajax captain De Ligt has also cemented his place in the side having made his debut at 17 – the youngest player since 1931 to do so.

De Ligt struggled on that initial appearance but has since developed into one of the world’s in-demand defenders, forming a formidable partnership with the experienced Virgil van Dijk – two of the best and, if De Ligt is sold this summer, most expensive centre-backs in the world.

Liverpool’s Van Dijk was made captain by Koeman and has been integral to the revival – not only because of his defensive work, as the 27-year-old has also contributed four goals, including two important efforts against Germany in their Nations League clashes.

Holland have another new Champions League winner in Georginio Wijnaldum, which means their recent rejuvenation is not entirely down to youth. How involved those two will be against England days after playing in a European final remains to be seen.

Virgil van Dijk has captained the side since Koeman took charge and led them to Nations League final four
Virgil van Dijk has captained the side since Koeman took charge and led them to Nations League final four

It is not only Ajax nurturing Holland’s young players: PSV Eindhoven’s Steven Bergwijn, 21, and Denzel Dumfries, 23, have also been entrusted by Koeman to start for Holland since he replaced Dick Advocaat last year.

Much like Ajax this season, Koeman has blended youth and experience, with the average age of the current squad 26.3 years.

He has continued to call upon the likes of Daley Blind, Jasper Cillessen, Ryan Babel and Memphis Depay, who is still only 25 but has 46 caps, to give the side stability and leadership, but it is the core contingent of players under 25 that generate excitement for what could be to come.

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Any thoughts that this Dutch side had left all their problems behind were tempered by a 3-2 defeat at home to Germany in March’s Euro 2020 qualifiers, but the overall upward trajectory after recent shortcomings means there is room for error and occasional defeats, as to be expected with any young, maturing side.

They will come up against an England team that has taken a similar approach in giving opportunities to talented youngsters, but the Three Lions are slightly further ahead in their journey, having reached last summer’s World Cup semi-finals.

Thursday’s match presents an opportunity for both sides to move a step closer to claiming just their second major honour and, perhaps more importantly, a platform for their young sides to continue to build upon.

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