After falling short at the final hurdle in 2005 and 2009, the Netherlands finally claimed their maiden UEFA European U-17 Championship title in Serbia this month. For triumphant coach Albert Stuivenberg, that continental crown represented just reward for a gifted group of individuals conscious of the need to work together.
“The players realise that if they’re going to get a result, they won’t be able to do it without the help of their team-mates,” the Jong Oranje tactician told FIFA.com. “It sounds straightforward, but it’s an important point. This European title belongs to the whole squad as they coped with the pressure perfectly.”
Their capacity to rise to an occasion was especially evident in the final against Germany on 15 May, when the Netherlands twice fell behind only to engineer a 5-2 success thanks to a superlative second-half display. Not only were Stuivenberg’s charges able to rally and clinch their nation’s first major trophy at this level, they fired more goals in the showpiece than any other team in the history of the competition.
"We’re progressing,” said Stuivenberg. “We’ve been more solid from start to finish this year. We came very close to the title in the last two European Championships and this time we went all the way. We tried to develop our play, improve and get stronger. We prepared for that all season and it’s gratifying when it brings you a title at the end. The players gave the best of themselves at the right time, coping perfectly with the pressure which a tournament like that can bring.”
Knocked out in the group stage at the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Nigeria, the new European champions will now have a reputation to defend at this summer’s tournament in Mexico, where they will arrive eight days before their opening match against Congo. “We need that to acclimatise and get used to the time difference,” explained Stuivenberg, who hoped for even longer to prepare. “A week is too short, but quite a few players have school exams before that.”
That was the big question mark for us at that moment. When you play in a tournament, you play to win it, but you can never be sure.
At the U-17 helm since 2006, the former Feyenoord youth coach has a fair bit of homework of his own to do before that initial test on 18 June, admitting that his side’s Group A rivals remain a mystery. “We know nothing about our opponents,” he said. “We’re trying to concentrate on the first match against Congo, which will be the most important one. We’ll try to get some videos of them, because right now I know nothing about this team.”
The Jong Oranje will not be journeying into the unknown, however, as lessons learned in Serbia ought to serve them well in their third FIFA U-17 World Cup. "Playing against Germany in our opening game of the European Championship allowed us to get a feel for our level and see where we were,” said Stuivenberg. “That was the big question mark for us at that moment. When you play in a tournament, you play to win it, but you can never be sure. There’s lots of unknown factors. Everything depends on the form of the other sides and how the tournament unfolds.
“I was a bit surprised that our team finished top of such a difficult group [ahead of Germany, Czech Republic and Romania],” he added. “Of course, we have lots of confidence in our players, but there are plenty of factors that enter into the equation and which you can’t control.”
Stuivenberg and the rest of his coaching staff will now focus their efforts on “talking a lot to reduce the stress and pressure on the players. We prepare them so that they feel as little of that as possible. We get them involved in our pre-match strategy, which is to give them confidence.”
It is an approach that has evidently worked wonders so far, as the likes of Memphis Depay, Kyle Ebecilio and Co would no doubt attest. Indeed, speaking with one voice is something Stuivenberg’s Netherlands squad seems to do often. “They’re a group of friends, players who are very close to each other,” noted the coach. “There’s neither a weakest link nor a strongest one.”