Famed around the world for the quality of their youth development at club level, the Netherlands have nonetheless struggled to translate that sterling work into success on the international stage. Results have often been disappointing, but the Jong Oranje have a chance to halt that trend when the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009 starts later this month.
Runners-up in the UEFA U-17 European Championship back in May, the Dutch do not seem too far away from being the finished article, and that is certainly the opinion of their coach, Albert Stuivenberg. "We proved we could be competitive when we finished second at the EURO," he told FIFA.com. "Nothing's ever guaranteed, especially when you don't really know your opponents, but we'll head over there with confidence. We believe in our qualities."
Those qualities were abundantly clear at the continental showcase in Germany, where the Netherlands reached the final, only to be beaten by the hosts in extra time. "The strengths of this squad are its solidarity and ability to make sacrifices," added Stuivenberg, who took over the U-17s in July 2006. "Everyone works for everybody else and they're constantly making a collective effort. We don't always play well, but the boys never give up. They always believe."
Conscious that his squad still has room to improve, Stuivenberg is nonetheless wary of letting the Netherlands' rivals in on any secrets. "If we only had strong points, we'd be European champions," he said. "Therefore it's logical that we have areas we still need to work on, but I'm not going to reveal them to our opponents."
Fellow Group C hopefuls Colombia, Gambia and Iran would surely be grateful for any information which might help them overcome the team billed as section favourites, a status Stuivenberg is not fully comfortable with. The 39-year-old is particularly concerned about the threat posed by his team's opening opponents. "Colombia put in some great performances in South America, such as their 2-0 win over Brazil," he said. "It'll be a huge challenge to get started with, especially as the climate won't be a problem for them. The same goes for Iran and Gambia, even if I don't know them anywhere near as well."
To make up for any gaps in knowledge, Stuivenberg's charges can expect a training programme characterised by meticulous preparations. "We'll be in Nigeria from 19 October. That will leave us time to acclimatise and prepare really well for the first match, as our ability to cope with the climate and humidity will be decisive," explained the trainer, who remains fully conscious that his squad is made up of adolescents as well as gifted footballers. "As for the distance the players will be from their families, we've already prepared them. We'll make sure they have enough time to stay in contact and communicate."
The pressure of vying for the global title is likely to play a role as well. "Even if they've contested a EURO, the World Cup is another dimension and it's a huge challenge for the players and myself personally," added Stuivenberg. "It's a superb adventure that will help them in their careers." Indeed, the erstwhile striker knows only too well how important it will be to make the most of this experience, having been denied the same privilege in his own career. A promising young talent in the Feyenoord youth set-up, Stuivenberg suffered a knee injury at the age of 16 which shattered his dreams of becoming a professional footballer.
Any resentment at his fate, the Rotterdam native dealt with by turning to coaching, and it gave him great pride to help book his team a ticket to Nigeria. "If the Netherlands have players at the biggest clubs in Europe, that's not a question of luck or simple chance," he said in conclusion. "We're a small country, but our infrastructure is of the highest quality. We take a long-term view of development and don't content ourselves with performing well in just one competition."
Stuivenberg and his charges are taking a long term view then, but that will surely not stop them from feeling hugely satisfied should they return home from Nigeria with the global title.