The Netherlands have bid farewell to UEFA EURO 2012 with their heads bowed low. Drawn in the toughest of the four groups alongside Germany, Portugal and Denmark, the runners-up at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ slumped to three straight defeats and scored just two goals in the process, a miserable return for a side that was tipped among the favourites to win the competition.
Speaking exclusively to FIFA.com in the wake of Sunday’s 2-1 defeat to the Portuguese, a result that confirmed the Netherlands’ exit from the competition, Oranje keeper Maarten Stekelenburg and right-back Gregory van der Wiel tried to explain what went wrong.
Though one of the few players to come away from the Dutch debacle with his reputation intact, Stekelenburg, successor to the legendary Edwin van der Saar, took little solace from his individual performances. “The fact is I don’t care if I played well or not,” he said. “What really mattered was winning, and we didn’t win so I’m very disappointed with what happened in this tournament.”
There was no balance. We had too many men in front of the ball and we were very exposed in defence. You can’t win games like that.
Both he and Van der Wiel agreed that the side had played well in patches, only to fall apart at key times. “Every time we played well and created chances in the first half hour, and then we just disappeared completely. It’s very annoying,” commented the full-back.
“Against Portugal we scored after 12 minutes, which was just the situation we needed to get ourselves in. And then things went the way they had in the other two games” concurred Stekelenburg. “I just don’t understand it.”
The big keeper was not alone in his inability to pinpoint the reasons behind his side’s calamitous campaign, one that has had both the pundits and players scratching their heads in bemusement. “It’s hard to say what the problem was,” he continued. “It’s the same generation of players that we had in South Africa two years ago, and we got to the Final there. And this time nothing’s worked. There’s just no way I can fathom it.”
Attempting to get his head round the problem and look towards a brighter future, Van der Wiel identified a lack of tactical balance as one of the team’s major weaknesses. “We were very attack-minded, maybe too much, and there was no balance,” he lamented. “We had too many men in front of the ball and we were very exposed in defence. You can’t win games like that.
“One of the problems against Portugal was that we didn’t play as a team. There was a big gap between our lines and we left an awful lot of space, while they had players like Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo, who are very good on the counter. It wasn’t hard to work out what would happen. But obviously it didn’t just happen in this game.”
The Roma keeper agreed, though he stopped short of pinning that down as the main reason for their early departure from the competition: “Obviously we couldn’t score and we let in goals very easily. But with hindsight it’s very easy to say that we should have done things differently, after we’ve lost. The thing is we didn’t do anything radically different to what we’ve done in the past, and this is a team that’s gone months and months without losing. That’s why it’s so hard to take.”
The Dutch have plenty of time now to conduct their inquest into what went wrong and come up with explanations. One thing they do know, however, is that as a nation with their proud record, they cannot allow another calamity of this magnitude to happen again.
“Something’s got to change. I don’t know what it is but something has to,” concluded Stekelenburg, still trying to come to terms with it all. Meanwhile, for his 24-year-old team-mate, there remains the hope of clearer skies ahead: “We are a young generation and we have some great players. We’ll recover from this, one way or another.”