Dutch out but not down
With the Netherlands having bid farewell following a defeat that did their talents scant justice, it might be considered that a new cast of Dutch players have merely succeeded in reciting the same, tired old lines.
Yet it would be unfair to depict Marco van Basten's team's efforts at Germany 2006 as a familiar tale of Oranje underachievement.
There was disappointment, of course, and rightly so, because the Netherlands could, and perhaps should, have beaten Portugal, with or without an extra man. As it was, for the first time in the tournament, their lack of experience appeared to tell as twice they squandered a numerical advantage through their own ill-discipline.
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Key chances went begging against the Portuguese, with Phillip Cocu slamming a shot against the crossbar and Dirk Kuyt shooting against the legs of Ricardo when clean through. Van Basten must have rued that lack of composure and some Dutch fans may well have wondered at the wisdom of dispensing with the predatory talents of Ruud van Nistelrooij in favour of Kuyt.
Edwin van der Sar, who became the country's most capped player in the 1-0 defeat, said afterwards that his principal frustration was that "this team is capable of doing far better than we have", while the reaction of a tearful Robin van Persie summed up the blind belief that had built up among Van Basten's younger generation. "I just never had the feeling we would go out in this phase," he said, almost incredulously.
But they did on a night where Portugal's greater experience arguably proved decisive. "I am 35 now and I have been in the game for a long time, but I have never seen anything like that" was Van der Sar's melodramatic reaction to the tactics employed by Luiz Felipe Scolari's side.
Van Basten, to his credit, proved a little more measured in his response. "They (Portugal) were just a little bit more experienced with all these tricks and time-wasting," he said. "That was a pity."
The reaction in the Netherlands itself, where half of the country's 16 million citizens tuned in to watch the match, was one of sadness and disappointment, but not anger. The daily newspaper De Volkskrant described it as a "bitter defeat", its competitor Algemeen Dagblad as a "sad retreat", but it was the Telegraaf which succeeded in calling the Dutch performance just right by reflecting: "The fighting spirit was awesome, but the execution little thought out."
Ahead of schedule
Prior to the tournament, Van Basten had offerered a frank assessment of his team's chances when he confided in FIFAworldcup.com that "everything would need to go according to plan" for his young and largely Dutch-based squad to be able to compete with the tournament big guns.
As it was, of course, that plan went flying out of the window at an early stage against Portugal and, as a consequence, the Netherlands' two-year, 15-game unbeaten run in competitive matches came to an abrupt end.
Nevertheless, Van Basten will not return home as downcast as many of his eliminated counterparts. The 41-year-old had, after all, stated upon taking the job that his intention was to build a young side with UEFA EURO 2008, rather than Germany 2006, in mind, and he will doubtless consider qualifying from a group boasting Argentina, Côte d'Ivoire and Serbia and Montenegro as a sign that his work is progressing ahead of schedule.
There have been plenty of positives for Van Basten to glean from his side's FIFA World Cup adventure, notably considerable evidence of a new-found defensive solidity and confirmation that, in Arjen Robben , he possesses a match-winner who may yet live up to the coach's own proud prediction that the winger "has all the attributes to be the best player in the world".
Robben's fellow youngsters Van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and John Heitinga have also blossomed, while the long-term nature of their coach's thinking means that, of the 23 that travelled to Germany, only Phillip Cocu, and perhaps Van Der Sar, are likely to retire in the tournament's wake.
For Van Basten, the sight of undeniable progress will have been encouragement enough. "We're getting better and better every week and that's what's important," he had said ahead of the competition. "How far that brings us, I don't know."
The Dutch coach, a superb player in his time, is certainly aiming high, with Heitinga telling FIFAworldcup.com earlier in the tournament: "The coach has an idea, a vision, of how he wants us to play, and we still haven't achieved that yet." Yet, of all the positives to have emerged from the Netherlands' 2006 FIFA World Cup campaign, arguably the most significant is that they leave the tournament united, with a carefully-cultivated team spirit firmly intact.
Even Van Nistelrooij, whom we might have expected to find complaining about his omission and its consequences for the Dutch attack, was at pains to stress that disappointment had not affected the esteem in which he holds Van Basten.
"I had a lively discussion with him and we spoke man-to-man," the Manchester United striker said after the Portugal match. "That gave me a good feeling, and though I did not agree with him on certain points, I respected and accepted his decision."
If Van Basten can drop his star striker, watch his side crash out and still avoid in-fighting, the last thing we should do is count out the Dutch as potential challengers at South Africa 2010.