Golden future for the Oranje

Given the consistency with which the Dutch have produced new crops of talented players over the decades it is impossible to talk of one particular 'golden generation'. The likes of Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Rob Rensenbrink, Willy and Rene van de Kerkhof were replaced by Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Aron Winter and Ronald Koeman. And when they stepped down, players such as Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert and de Boer twins Frank and Ronald were there to take their place at the summit of the European game.

That last generation of players are now into their thirties, and gradually winding down their careers. However, there is little doubt that their legacy is in good hands. Having claimed the UEFA U-21 European Championship title in 2006, when they were inspired by the majestic Klaas Jan Huntelaar, the Jong Oranje retained their crown on home soil in 2007, and in doing so secured the right to represent Netherlands at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008.

Masterminding their success from the touchline was Foppe de Haan. The Dutch coach is delighted with his team's latest triumph, but is also keen to stress what it means for the future. "A team does not win back-to-back titles by chance," claimed the 64-year old after observing his side's 4-1 victory over Serbia in the 2007 final. "This is the result of a long-term strategy. There are a lot of young players coming into the team at the moment, so Dutch football has plenty of good times ahead."

Young and experimental
De Haan's assertion is bolstered by the fact that the head coach of Netherlands' senior national team, Marco van Basten, is keen to place his trust in youth. When he picked his squad for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™, the former AC Milan maestro included midfielder Hedwiges Maduro, then 21, and then 19-year-old forward Ryan Babel in his squad. And the Ajax pair - who have 12 and 14 senior caps respectively - harnessed the experience gained in Germany to step down a category in May and help the Dutch U-21 team retain their continental title.

Maduro has already gained considerable experience at the highest level with his club, and this summer he confirmed his status as the guiding force of the Jong Oranje. The scorer of the only goal in Netherlands' 1-0 win over Israel in the tournament's opening game, the 22-year old was incessantly motivating and marshalling his team-mates. Babel, meanwhile, found the net twice during the tournament, with one of those strikes coming in the final against Serbia. The duo have, not surprisingly, attracted interest from some of Europe's biggest outfits, with Babel today sealing a 17 million euro move to UEFA Champions League finalists Liverpool.

Rigters steals the show
Before the tournament, Babel was dubbed Netherlands' lethal weapon, but it was his less heralded strike partner, Maceo Rigters, who ended up stealing the show. The 23-year old grabbed four goals, which made him the competition's top scorer ahead of England's Leroy Lita. Virtually unknown before the event, a series of eye-catching displays meant that, within the space of a fortnight, Rigters suddenly found himself a target for several top British clubs. In the end, Blackburn Rovers won the race for his signature, seeing off bids from their English Premiership rivals Newcastle United and Scottish champions Celtic.

Rigters is yet another product of the Ajax academy, but he failed to graduate to the professional ranks in Amsterdam. Following stints with SC Herenveen and Dordrecht, he finally established himself at NAC Breda, making 61 appearances for them in two seasons. Used largely on the right side of midfield, he only managed five goals in the Dutch Eredivisie, but when Foppe de Haan redeployed him at centre forward for the Jong Oranje his strike rate was transformed and, in just five games for his country he has now managed almost as many goals as he did in two years for his club.

His conversion from wideman to forward is rather reminiscent of Thierry Henry's reinvention as a striker by Arsene Wenger when he joined Arsenal. And in this case, we all know what happened next.

The comparison game
There is little doubt that Netherlands' triumph was in part down to the fact that they boasted the tournament's best player. Royston Drenthe, 20, was in scintillating form down the left flank. Normally used as a conventional full-back by his club Feyenoord, Drenthe was given the freedom to roam forward, and with devastating effect.

Armed with pace, strength and great technique, he tormented every defence he came up against. Moreover, he is blessed with a terrific left foot, capable of great power and accuracy, as he demonstrated when he scored from a free-kick against Belgium, his only goal of the tournament.

An attacking left-back with an explosive shot who is dangerous from set pieces... As any Real Madrid supporter would tell you, that description fits their former icon Roberto Carlos to a tee. Drenthe has already drawn comparisons with the legendary Brazilian, and he could well be following him to the Bernabeu. With the Brazilian now departed for Fenerbahce, the Spanish champions are said to be seriously considering the Dutch starlet as his replacement for next season.

While Drenthe may be quitting his homeland for Spain, a former Feyenoord left-back, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, is heading in the opposite direction after leaving Barcelona and agreeing a return to the Rotterdam club. Drenthe's Jong Oranje team-mate Daniel de Ridder is also leaving Spain. The attacking midfielder, who joined Celta Vigo in 2005, decided to end his association with the Galician club after their relegation to the second division. Next season, the former Ajax star will be turning out for Birmingham City, endeavouring to keep Steve Bruce's newly promoted side in the English top flight.

Another Dutch youngster who could soon be making a name for himself is imposing centre-back Ryan Donk, whose performances have prompted some flattering comparisons from his coach. "He's the new Jaap Stam, but even better" says Foppe De Haan of the AZ Alkmaar defender.

Having just turned 20, Donk will still be eligible to represent his country at the next U-21 European Championships in Sweden in two years. De Haan has already stated that he fully intends to complete a hat-trick of consecutive titles. It is an entirely realistic objective, as Holland have a good record when it comes to winning back-to-back titles. Before that, though, they will be aiming to add the Olympic title in 2008 and claim the gold medals befitting of a 'golden generation'.