Netherlands 2-3 Czech Republic. Oranje’s Euro 2016 dream is over before is begins. Image from here.

Much like the Dutch national football team, Amsterdam is under significant re-construction. Tram lines are being updated, bike paths are being widened, new metro stations built and a number of buildings are still recovering from the reverberations of tunnelling the new metro line. In the case of Amsterdamse canal houses – picturesque, quintessentially Dutch and five hundred-years-old – preservation is paramount. 

Most structures still rest on old wooden foundations which are sinking into the sandy earth beneath them and leaning on each other for support. In order to preserve the general aesthetic and quality of the city, many construction firms are using various forms of façadism. While it might sound like some kind of entry level devil worship, it actually refers to the painstaking preservation of a building’s facade, while the rest of the structure is knocked down and completely re-built.

Sound familiar? For followers of the Dutch national team, it might.
The facade of Dutch football is delicately made up of big names from previous generations; Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie remain – just – on the pitch, while Marco van Basten, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Danny Blind can currently be found on the coaching staff. These players, and perhaps more significantly, personalities, serve as guardians of the fragile transition taking place behind them. Lurking in their shadows is something raw and somewhat lacking in refinement and cohesion. 

Immediate challenges facing the Netherlands appear to be three-old and most certainly time consuming to fix.

Firstly, there is the simple case of both established players and younger players lacking the ability we’ve become used to from a Dutch football team. The Netherlands has a long and, considering the size of the country, frankly unbelievable knack of producing quality footballers. Golden generation after golden generation. It could be argued the current generation have crumbled somewhat prematurely. After reaching the World Cup Final, and their peak, in 2010, their record is bleak. Euro 2012 saw a group stage exit, and while the World Cup campaign of 2014 looks good on paper, the reality is that a mixture of deft tactical papering-over of cracks, good fortune and poor opposition displays paved the way to their semi-final appearance. Most recently, of course, the Netherlands have failed to qualify for Euro 2016.

The careers of Robben, Sneijder and van Persie are quite obviously in decline. Robben, who despite managing to look like a veteran for most of his career, is still just thirty-one, as is Wesley Sneijder. Robin van Persie is just a year older. While all the three sit comfortably in the top ten list of national team appearances, van Persie and Sneijder are currently plying their trade in Turkey, and Robben’s injury concerns have been well documented. Though Robben’s goalscoring form has improved at club level, he has never completed more than thirty domestic games in any season and has only one international cap for the current calendar year. These don’t appear like players who are willing or able to shoulder the responsibility of putting an arm around the younger players and bringing them up to the next level.

Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, and Wesley Sneijder. Image from here.

The same couldn’t be said a decade earlier. In April 2003, both Robben and Sneijder made their full Oranje debuts aged nineteen. The Dutch team included; van der Sar, de Boer, Overmars, Davids, Cocu, Kluivert, Makaay and Zenden. The full debut of van Persie came two years later. In June 2005, van Persie could call upon; van der Sar, van Nistelrooy, van Bronckhorst, van Bommel, Kuyt, van der Vaart and de Jong, as teammates and company.

At the time of winning their last international caps, Edgar Davids (aged 32 in 2005) was giving it all in an energetic swan song for Tottenham Hotspur, Philip Cocu (aged 36 in 2006) had recently departed Barcelona and was in the midst of captaining PSV to four consecutive Eredivisie titles, Frank de Boer (aged 34 in 2004) was lending guts for glory with Rangers in the Scottish Premier League, and Patrick Kluivert (aged 28, in 2004) and Marc Overmars (aged 31 in 2004) were still part of Barcelona’s dream team. These players, upon retiring at international level, were mostly at the top of their game. Did they call time too soon? Perhaps. But were they in a better place to lend their experience to the younger players? Almost definitely.

Furthermore, there have been too many players on the periphery of the current generation. An unfortunate mixture of injury and poor fortune has stopped Klaas-Jan Huntelaar reaching full potential. While forty-two goals from seventy-six caps is genuinely impressive, his ability and finishing should have made him one of the worlds most elite strikers. Rafael van der Vaart tells a similar, if a more fleeting and inconsistent story. Ibrahim Afellay and Khalid Boulahrouz suffered the same fate, and while players like Nigel de Jong and Dirk Kuyt exude the work rate and commitment of a whole team, they need quality and creativity around them.

While it can be easy to point a finger of blame at the rapidly vanishing latest golden generation, it should also be noted the players coming through aren’t quite of match-winning calibre, at least not yet. The first-choice defensive partnership of Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat, though still young enough to improve, do not inspire a consistent confidence. Following his debut in 2013, Memphis Depay has amassed twenty caps, just three goals, and continues to stall on his ability and potential. Remove Huntelaar, Robben and Sneijder from the most recent squad, and there are precisely eleven international goals between the remaining twenty-three players. Only one of those players, Marko Vejinovic, is yet to win his first cap.

Secondly, there is a bridge between the generational gap and the wider issues. The Dutch national players can appear lost and bewildered in the face of football’s changing international landscape. It’s become a cliche to say there’s no such thing as an easy international game nowadays, but with the exception of a small handful of minor teams, it’s true. As touched upon previously, the Netherlands is a small nation. The fact that the Dutch consistently enter major tournaments as outside favourites is a minor miracle. It’s also a fact that as globalisation has led to great facilities, opportunities and players, coming from all over the world, the field is being levelled. This is inevitable. Right now, though, the usually innovative and proactive Dutch seem to be behind the game in realising this.

Finally, and perhaps most problematic, these issues point to much wider and more severe challenges within Dutch football as a whole. In the entire history of Dutch football, only six league championships have been won by clubs outside ‘the big three’, and only three of them have occurred in the past four decades. Despite this dominance, Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV have long been considered selling clubs. Currently though, their sales are down, and their capabilities of mixing it with Europe’s elite are diminishing. As this continues and time passes, the harder it is for the current youth teams of the national team and Eredivisie academies to feel a sense of belonging to this. There is a danger it feels completely impossible to repeat, and that mentality for success and hard work slowly disintegrates.

The last time a Dutch club won the Champions League was 1994/95, when the last truly great Ajax team dazzled. PSV reached the semi-finals in 2004/05, but no Dutch team has made it to the latter stages since.

Ajax celebrate their Champions League final win in 1995. Image from here.

The problem is, much like façadism, and Amsterdam’s other major construction – the Nord-Zuid metro line – completion of a delicate process often feels impossible.