When Group B gets underway on Friday, with the eagerly anticipated tie between Spain and the Netherlands in a rematch of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ Final, the stakes may not be as high as the last time the sides met at the tournament. However, for former Oranje striker Pierre van Hooijdonk, the occasion still offers his compatriots more than just a chance for revenge.
“If you look at the match schedule and look ahead to the next round than it’s clear that we need to win the group,” the 44-year-old told FIFA.com. “That would mean we’d be likely to avoid playing Brazil and it’d be difficult to face the hosts. The important thing is not to lose the first game so that you don’t put yourself under pressure straight away for the second match.”
The fact that Spain are the Netherlands' first opponents certainly adds extra spice to the encounter, and memories of the Dutch defeat in Johannesburg are still fresh for Van Hooijdonk. “It was a huge disappointment and then with the next World Cup on the horizon, the same two teams were pitted against each other again,” the 46-time international said of the moment the group-stage draw was made.
It’s clear that we need to win the group. That would mean we’d be likely to avoid playing Brazil and it’d be difficult to face the hosts.
Van Hooijdonk, who scored 14 times for his country, knows from first-hand experience the pain of falling just short of glory, having been part of the Netherlands team that was eliminated in a semi-final penalty shoot-out by Brazil at France 1998. Furthermore, defeats in the deciding matches at Germany 1974, Argentina 1978 and South Africa 2010 have long since been ingrained on the national psyche.
“We were just a bit unlucky against Brazil in 1998,” said Van Hooijdonk. “In 2010 we went so close - I still remember [Arjen] Robben’s one-on-one with [Iker] Casillas. It could have been our World Cup, but in football you need to make the most of the chances you get and we didn’t do that. Unfortunately now we’re top of the charts when it comes to finishing as runners-up.”
However, Van Hooijdonk believes the foundations for victory this year have already been laid: “Our national team has changed dramatically in terms of personnel. The coach [Louis van Gaal] has made some changes and they’re playing with a new system, which is good because now it’s much harder for teams to beat us.”
Moreover, Van Hooijdonk is optimistic that the traditional characteristics of Dutch sides, primarily their enthusiasm and zest, will carry the team forward: “I hope that’s the case as it will be the key to success. We’re in Brazil, the home of football, and everyone here lives and breathes for the game. It’s amazing to be here and be part of the World Cup.”
One suspects his enjoyment of the tournament would increase further still if his compatriots get off to a good start on Friday.