That distinctive, dazzling orange coat on the Dutch vessel had begun to peel by June 2012. The Netherlands were fresh from losing all three of their group games at the UEFA EURO. Bert van Marwijk, the man who had steered them into the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final™ in South Africa, had abandoned ship. Go-to guys Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie were under pressure, with Diego Maradona calling for them to be dropped.
The vacant Dutch bridge was considered a poisoned chalice. Frank de Boer, Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard swiftly excused themselves from the running. Louis van Gaal, unperturbed by failing steer the Netherlands toweards qualification for the World Cup for the first time in 16 years during his first spell in charge, was never going to shy away from a trial. “I’ve been yearning a challenge, and this is certainly a challenge,” he commented.
That was underlined in his first match in charge. The Netherlands, then eighth on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, lost 4-2 in Brussels – a result which extended the Oranje’s winless run against their neighbours to six matches and gave Belgium back-to-back victories over their fierce rivals for the first time since the late 1960s.
Given time to exact his influence, however, Van Gaal duly masterminded a 17-match unbeaten run, during which the Netherlands qualified for the 20their World Cup with the best record from the European Zone.
Suddenly, surprisingly, ‘The Iron Tulip’ ditched his long-trusted 4-3-3 formation – the one with which the Netherlands had cruised to Brazil – for a 5-3-2. If that raised eyebrows, its early results raised questions. The Netherlands, after all, went four matches and six months without a win in the run-up to the tournament. That spell included relinquishing a two-goal lead in a stalemate with Japan, drawing 0-0 with Colombia and 1-1 with Ecuador in Amsterdam, and falling 2-0 to France. It plummeted the Dutch to 15th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking – their lowest position since July 2002.
“I didn’t introduce the formation to win friendlies,” Van Gaal later declared. “I did it because I didn’t think we’d be good enough to win a group with Spain, Chile and Australia using a 4-3-3.”
In a 3-5-2 set-up, they didn’t just win Group B, but they did so in emphatic style, roaring from behind to demolish the defending champions 5-1 en route to going through on maximum points.
Van Gaal demonstrated his tactical nous again in the Round of 16. Trailing to Mexico, whose goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa was in breathtaking form, the 62-year-old former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach switched to a 4-3-3 and, when that didn’t work, a 4-4-2, sending Dirk Kuyt, who began the game at left-back, up front. Consequently, the Netherlands snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
Van Gaal pulled another masterstroke in the quarter-finals. Seconds away from a penalty shoot-out, he replaced goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen with Tim Krul, who vindicated the decision by brilliantly repelling two spot-kicks to eliminate Costa Rica.
Ultimately, Van Gaal’s plot was unravelled by Argentina on penalties, but they did rebound by overcoming hosts Brazil 3-0 in the third-place play-off to become the first Dutch side in history to return from a World Cup unbeaten. And third is where Van Gaal, who has since become Manchester United manager, has left the Netherlands on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking – not bad for a team 12 places south before a competition they entered with minimal hype.
“I think we can look back on a successful tournament,” said Van Gaal. “Maybe this will open everyone's eyes in the Netherlands and make them realise there is not just the 4-3-3 system that can give people happiness. I prefer to use the qualities of the squad, and it worked. We were not champions, but we were very close.”
Very close is what fourth-placed Colombia are behind the Netherlands on the global ladder. Germany and Argentina, by contrast, sit 228 and 110 points above the uncrowned three-time World Cup finalists.
The task of improving the Oranje status on the FIFA Ranking – and qualifying them for EURO 2016 – will now fall on another 60-something former midfielder beginning his second term in his nation’s hot-seat. The fact that Guus Hiddink’s predecessor gave youngsters Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi, Joel Veltman, Terence Kongolo, Jordy Clasie, Georginio Wijnaldum, Memphis Depay major tournament experience in Brazil will surely aid his cause.