Consolation is hard to come by for any side that misses out on a place in the Final of the FIFA World Cup™ on penalties. That was the fate suffered by the Netherlands on Wednesday evening, as their hopes of returning to the tournament’s showpiece match four years on from their last appearance were dashed.
Yet for the likes of Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Dirk Kuyt and Nigel de Jong, the very fact that they worked themselves into such a situation once more is cause enough for satisfaction, even if their first reactions to losing to Argentina after a goalless 120 minutes should, understandably so, be dejection and disappointment.
Those five veterans form part of a select group of players who have finished among the top four on the planet at two consecutive world finals, an achievement that not even the Spanish artists who beat the Dutch to lift the Trophy in South Africa can lay claim to, having been knocked out in the first round with the considerable assistance of the men in orange.
“It’s a very good generation. A defining one, even,” Patrick Kluivert, an assistant of Louis van Gaal’s and a member of another distinguished Oranje side in the late 1990s and early 2000s, told FIFA.com. “I just hope that the Netherlands can nurture more like them in the future. That’s the most important thing: to continue developing talented youngsters so that we can carry on competing at the highest level.”
That is where the Dutch can take heart, with Van Gaal’s squad featuring nine players born in the 1990s and boasting an average age of 26.5, the eighth-youngest at Brazil 2014. It is a crop that has gained a taste of elite competition in South America, while bedding down with some fabled players, an experience that will only stand it in good stead.
Examples to look up to
Among those household names is Van Persie, who last year overtook Kluivert as the Netherlands’ leading goalscorer of all time, cementing his place in Dutch footballing history as one of the country’s greats.
Contemplating the fact that the Manchester United striker and his fellow veterans may well have played their last World Cup, Kluivert said: “Obviously it’s a massive disappointment for them. It’s very hard to imagine them playing in the world finals again. With this probably being their last, you can understand their dejection at getting so close to another Final.
“Losing on penalties makes it even tougher, as I know from experience,” added the former striker, who was a member of the Netherlands side that lost consecutive semi-final shoot-outs at France 1998 and UEFA EURO 2000.
Despite their achievements, there is a case for arguing that the Netherlands’ old stagers have failed to gain the respect they are due. They arrived in Brazil without receiving the popular support that Van Gaal had hoped for back home, prompting Sneijder to pose this rhetorical question during an interview with FIFA: “Why shouldn't the Netherlands do it?”
The most critical of Dutch fans will now say that the team have come up short again, though the reality is that few expected them to go so far this time. “I don’t know what to say about all that,” added Kluivert. “All I can say is that they did a great job. Nobody thought they could achieve all this.”
Only the start
For the younger members of the squad, such as Jordy Clasie, the run to the semi-finals is a feat they can be proud of. The 23-year-old midfielder made his World Cup debut on Wednesday, coming on for De Jong and becoming the 22nd member of Van Gaal’s squad to see some action at Brazil 2014, with the only unused player being goalkeeper Michel Vorm.
By the time Clasie returned to the dressing room after Wednesday’s shoot-out, he had received a flood of calls and messages from family and friends, providing him with an indication of the enormity of the occasion. “A lot of them sent me messages about me making my debut, but I don’t think the fact that I’ve played a World Cup match has really sunk in yet,” he said, in conversation with FIFA.
Team-mate Bruno Martins Indi has seen significantly more action in the last month, 368 minutes in fact. Taking stock of his tournament, the 22-year-old defender told FIFA: “We’re very proud of our campaign, of being in a tournament of this importance and proving our talent. Naturally we’re sad at such a painful defeat but we played some great games. This is a team in which players from different generations managed to gel.”
While it remains to be seen if Van Persie, Sneijder and Co will grace the world finals stage again, the new breed of Dutch internationals have at least had the honour of playing and learning alongside them, an experience that could well see them take over as the standard bearers of future Dutch sides attempting to conquer the world.