Dutch have magic touch

MORRIS DALLA COSTA

, Last Updated: 11:57 AM ET

SALZBURG, Austria -- If soccer were played only the way the Netherlands has played it so far at Euro 2008, there never would be a complaint about the sport.

My Lord, what a start!

Soccer is known for its fanaticism and fan loyalty but even the most ardent fans of other teams must enjoy watching the Oranje play. Heaven knows, most everyone at this tournament does.

They have been a pleasure to watch.

Quick, organized and deadly around the net, the Netherlands came into this tournament with key injuries, players refusing to play for the team, and those who weren't selected were complaining about the coach.

Marco Van Basten already had announced before the tournament that he would retire from coaching the national team when the tournament was over.

Not many gave the Netherlands a chance of coming out of Group C. Instead, it already has won the group with one game left.

It won Group C by slapping around the teams ranked third and seventh in the world, Italy and France, winning both those games by three goals.

Where did the Dutch come from?

Nowhere, really. They always have been on the verge of a big breakthrough. They always have had quality players, talent and the ability to win. For whatever reasons, they haven't done it with great consistency when it counted.

Unless you are inside the Oranje Crush, it's difficult to assess why the change occurred.

But one only need look at striker Rudd van Nistelrooy to understand that the changes have been significant.

Van Nistelrooy had not played for the Dutch since he and Van Basten argued at the World Cup in 2006.

Van Nistelrooy is now a new player. He looks amazingly fit, his work rate is high and he's doing things he normally doesn't do, like hold the ball, dribble and distribute it.

He's playing happy,

Before the tournament began, Van Basten dealt with an unhappy Clarence Seedorf. The long-time midfielder, a fixture with the Dutch, was upset that van Basten hadn't called him to the lineup for some national fixtures. Seedorf suddenly announced just before the tournament, he wasn't going to play.

Van Basten was polite but told Seedorf not to slam the door on his way out.

Van Basten played successfully for many years. He understands how poisonous unhappy players are in the dressing room.

You will lose with unhappy players anyway. You might as well do what you can without them.

During this tournament, Van Basten was asked how he managed to keep a roomful of egos in check.

"Because I'm a very nice man," he said at a press conference.

He's a very effective man.

And so far in this European championship, Van Basten has had the magic touch.

With all the talk about Spain, Portugal, even Italian offensive stars, the Dutch players got buried under the mountain of press clippings.

But the Dutch don't have to take a back seat to anyone in terms of players who can crank it.

Van Nistelrooy, Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder, who may be the best of the lot, make up an impressive list.

It's amazing what happens when a coach allows talent to play.

They attack and run, attack and run. Watching them break from the back when they get the ball is a thing of beauty.

It brings to mind the total football of the '70s when the Dutch were among the best in the world and the most attractive team to watch.

The home country is reveling in this surprising performance. Newspaper front pages in the Netherlands are enraptured with their team's performance, heralding the team "that rules Euro."

It would be an enormous surprise if the Dutch were able to play at this level for the entire tournament.

But there are two teams who hope they carry it through at least one more game.

France and Italy need the Netherlands to prevent Romania from winning on Tuesday in the final set of games in Group C. A win by Romania and both Italy and France go home.

The Dutch, though, will rest many of their starters and both Italy and France already have begun howling about it.

Would Italy or France do any differently if they were in the Netherlands' situation?

Of course not.

That's the Dutch treat for playing the best soccer of the tournament.


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