Bart van Marwijk has been involved in football for far too long not to have heard all the old sayings. Some may be more valid than others, but few can be more enduring than the idea that experience is needed to win trophies, particularly the FIFA World Cup™. It was perhaps with that in mind that he placed his faith in a pair of veterans after following Marco van Basten as Netherlands coach in 2008.
Appointed in the wake of the Oranje’s disappointing UEFA EURO 2008 bid, the former Feyenoord trainer quickly displayed a strong desire to build from the back. The evergreen Giovanni van Bronckhorst was the most regularly used player during the Netherlands’ historic 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa qualification campaign, for example, and, after Joris Mathijsen, fellow stalwart Andre Ooijer was third on the list. It was surely no coincidence that all three pillars of the side operate in defence.
”In this team, the players who can make the difference on their own are all forwards,” explained Ooijer, now 35. “We have enormous talent up front, but our real outstanding quality is that everyone has the same attitude, which is that first of all we mustn’t concede goals. We play as a unit, very compact, and we’ll have to stick with that philosophy in South Africa.”
Does this mean that the Netherlands are ready to sacrifice their commitment to attacking verve in order to focus on result alone? “Our first intention remains to play beautiful football,” said the PSV Eindhoven stopper.
“But we also have to learn how to win without playing well. In a EURO or a World Cup, if you want to go all the way, you need to find other means of winning when the team is performing less well. It doesn’t matter how: sometimes you just need to win. Our ambition has been to instil this way of thinking and so far it’s worked.
“Looking back, some might say we had an easy qualifying group because we won all eight matches,” the former Blackburn Rovers player added. “That’s not how it was at all, though. We just played very well. This team has a fabulous mix between young players and senior ones; it’s perfect. There are a lot of talented players but that’s not always enough.
"Right now, I’m really enthusiastic because we’ve built up a lot of confidence and for the last year the stability in the team and the hierarchy the coach wanted have borne fruit. Our roles are clear and well-defined and if we can keep the same attitude while focusing on the quarter-finals as our first target, I think we can go far.”
Fresh from firing 17 goals and conceding just two in their faultless qualifying campaign, the Netherlands have understandably been installed as favourites in Group E. “We want to live up to that standing,” said Ooijer, now enjoying his second spell at PSV. “That’s going to be difficult as Denmark, Japan and Cameroon aren’t just anyone. We’ll have to be at our best to get out of the group and hit the ground running from the off.”
Preparation is sure to be crucial, therefore, and Ooijer hopes the players can pick up where they left off, having known nothing but victory in their last year and a half of competitive matches. “We need to get back together again and get into old habits,” he said. “Finding the right chemistry between very good players is a really tough job. But even if we lose some friendly matches, it won’t affect our confidence one bit. We know what we’re preparing for.
"The World Cup only really starts from 19 May onwards, as until then everyone is 100 per cent focused on their clubs. That’s normal, but the match against the United States in March will come at the right time. We’re always pleased to meet up again because, honestly, the atmosphere within this team is great.” For the moment, the outlook appears decidedly rosy for the Oranje.