It's been a long year for the Dutch U-20 side - that's not to say that they weren't hoping to extend it by another week. But after their quarter-final exit against Nigeria at the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005 in a marathon penalty shootout, the general mood could almost be described as philosophical, as evidenced by father figure head coach Foppe de Haan's comments after the game.
"Winning or losing is important, but in football you don't always have control over that," he said. "What matters is going out there and doing your stinking best. My players did just that."
New faces now household names
It is safe to say that at the start of the 2004-2005 season, the only player in the Dutch U-20 squad who was at all known to the average football fan in the Holland was Liberian-born forward Collins John. In two seasons from 2002 to 2004 he appeared in 35 games for FC Twente of Enschede, playing well enough to earn a transfer to English Premier League outfit Fulham.
Others, such as Ryan Babel of Ajax, Rick Kruys of FC Utrecht, Ibrahim Afellay of PSV Eindhoven, and Frank van der Struijk of Willem II had built up a record of substitute appearances for their clubs in the single digits. For Babel, the counter stood at one. Afellay had twice as many and, though their names might have rung a bell with the more dedicated aficionados, they were hardly well known.
And if anybody in the Netherlands was familiar with names like Hedwiges Maduro, Quincy Owusu Abeyie, Ron Vlaar or Kenneth Vermeer back in August of 2004, then it's safe to assume he or she was a serious football nerd.
Fast-forward to June 2005, and these are all household names.
Part of the explanation, of course, lies in the fact that Holland was the host country. As a result, the tournament received loads of media attention. But for some of the stars in the Oranje roadshow, 2005 was a breakthrough year well before the finals got underway.
Evolution for some
For some players, it was not so much a breakthrough as a natural development. Frank van der Struijk and Rick Kruys, for instance, went from here-and-there appearances to over 20, and seem close to claiming a regular starting spot. Fullbacks Jeroen Drost of Heerenveen and Dwight Tiendalli of FC Utrecht debuted early in the season, and were regularly called upon. Urby Emanuelson of Ajax and Tim Vincken of Feyenoord debuted late in the season, and are still at the very start of their professional careers.
For many of the key players in the squad, there was more to the season. Ryan Babel not only became a regular at Ajax, but also made his debut in the senior team of Marco van Basten in March, picking up two caps and a goal before the season was out. Collins John was also capped for the first time (and the second).
Ron Vlaar's rise was nothing short of meteoric. He made his debut in AZ's top team in their UEFA Cup semi-final against Sporting Lisbon, and got a phone call from Van Basten after just three more games.
Hedwiges Maduro, the lynchpin of the youth side, fittingly made the biggest splash on the club and national scene. He first appeared for Ajax in February of this year, and had started in all of two games before he too got the call-up. Babel, Vlaar and Maduro all featured in the squad for Holland's FIFA World Cup qualifier away to Finland, although only Maduro played, to rave reviews from teammates and media alike.
Kruys makes his mark
In the meantime Rick Kruys made headlines in a different way, during a club game near the end of the regular season. His team, FC Utrecht, were having a difficult time against low-ranked De Graafschap, who were coached by his father Gert, himself a former player at Utrecht. On comes young Ricky, and scores the winning goal to deny his father's side a point, which ended up contributing to De Graafschap's eventual relegation.
And all of this is why Foppe de Haan's comments in the final press conference about the players being at the end of their ropes rang true. When a journalist suggested in the post-match press conference that several players, including Maduro, failed to play up to their abilities, the coach took issue.
"I strongly disagree with that," he barked. "All the players worked very hard, and we gave a great performance as a team. So don't tell me they didn't achieve their usual level."
In fact, what De Haan was really protesting was the implied criticism he sensed in the assertion. With their spirited, high-flying performance, the Dutch team set the country alight at these finals, and they bow out with pride intact and a great future on the horizon.