The Bundesliga is on a roll at present, boasting the solitary undefeated side in Europe’s top leagues, a neck-and-neck three-way battle for top spot, and consistently entertaining action in packed stadiums week after week. The good times are back in the German top flight, and there’s a persuasive explanation for the boom too: an influx of big-name stars from the Netherlands.
When Ruud van Nistelrooij joined Hamburg in the January transfer period, he became the tenth Dutch player to opt for the Bundesliga, taking the orange contingent up to third in the ‘imported-from’ list, after the Brazilian (26) and Swiss (11) delegations. The former Manchester United and Real Madrid hitman has roared off the blocks, striking a brace just a few minutes after coming on for his second substitute appearance and earning Hamburg a 3-1 win away to Stuttgart. "Coming on and doing that is fantastic. I’m a little surprised myself," the striker declared.
"We’re even less predictable with him up front,” fellow-countryman and new team-mate Joris Mathijsen exclusively told FIFA.com, before casting a glance into the future. "I’d be delighted if he came with us [Dutch national team] to South Africa, but it’s not my decision. I’m excited to see what happens in the next few weeks."
The Dutch faction in Hamburg now numbers four, with Van the Man, Mathijsen, Eljero Elia, and Romeo Castelen all contenders for a seat on the plane to Africa this summer. "I’ve not yet spoken to national team coach Bert van Marwijk. But that’s the point – first of all, I have to deliver for HSV,” the world-class goal-getter insisted. Mathijsen voiced agreement: "Obviously, the World Cup’s in the back of your mind somewhere, but all that counts until May is HSV. You’re only up to the job in South Africa if you’re performing for your club. None of us can afford to sit back and take it easy at club level. That’s simply not on."
The orange furore sweeping the north of the country also has the south in its grip. Bayern Munich, the nation’s most successful club, have won their last nine league games, a drive towards the top of the table spearheaded by Mark van Bommel and Arjen Robben, who has chipped in eight goals and six assists. Van Bommel is the first non-German captain in Bayern’s famous red jersey, and Robben’s electrifying pace and control has brought crowds to their feet up and down the land.
"Our country is five times smaller than Germany. We don’t have the same depth of choice. So if we want to beat Germany, we have to be tactically and technically better. We think a lot more about our football. Right from when we start out as kids, we’re taught to analyse every situation until we’ve understood what would be the best solution. If the thought’s already in your head, you can put it into practice much quicker. That’s why our players are already more advanced than their German counterparts at a young age,” Van Bommel recently theorised for sports weekly Sport Bild.
In fact, importing from next door has a long history in the Bundesliga. Van Nistelrooij is the 75th Dutch ace to feature in the German top flight, fully 47 years after Jacobus Prins, who started the ball rolling back in 1963. The all-time top scorer is Willi Ente Lippens with 92 goals, followed by Roy Makaay (78) and Erik Meijer (38).
"We [the Netherlands national team] definitely boast a first-class squad with some fantastic players, some of them playing here in the Bundesliga. We should always be there or thereabouts, but a lot of factors come into play at a tournament. We’re certainly not in an easy group, but if we start well, anything’s possible,” Mathijsen told FIFA.com when asked about South Africa in the summer.
HSV boys hoping
But will he be going there together with his HSV team-mates Van Nistelrooij, Castelen and Elia? "It would be terrific, and it could be a benefit that we’ll already know how the others play and where they like to run,” Elia explained. In FIFA World Cup™ qualifying, the wide player’s first appearance of the competition was to come on as a substitute and promptly score the only goal of the game to beat Scotland. "It was a great feeling. I hope I’ll be going to South Africa, that’s my dream. But there’s a fierce battle for places. We’ll wait and see. All I can do is play as well as I can for Hamburg, and hope the national coach takes me along."
"Let’s not forget that the crucial games at the finals are generally decided by the smallest things. We have to get into a position where these things fall our way. If so, we’re in with a chance of winning the World Cup. We definitely have the quality,” said Mathijsen, setting his sights on the ultimate prize. "We want to go as far as we can, obviously as far as the Final if possible. You have to play well, perform consistently, and obviously benefit from a little bit of luck too."
As it happens, a meeting between Germany and the Netherlands, and a face-off between Robben, Mathijsen and Co on the one hand, and Schweinsteiger, Trochowski et al on the other, cannot take place before the semi-finals in South Africa at the earliest. Following meetings in the 1974 Final and the Round of 16 in 1990, it is a teasing prospect in advance, and would surely remain firmly rooted in the memory for a long time afterwards...