Netherlands can still beat themselves

JAMES LAWTON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:17 PM ET

CAPE TOWN -- Though they made their date with history, and a place in Sunday's World Cup final, the Dutch team, one win away from stepping beyond the legend of Johan Cruyff, has run into another wall of doubt.

They may have made a nation exultant back home, and Johannesburg was quickly turning orange yesterday in anticipation of the big game that could finally banish the ache that has nagged at their football psyche since defeats in the finals of 1974 and 1978, but many believe they are still too fragile to leave here world champions.

The charge is that they were close to losing their way against Uruguay in Tuesday's semi-final in Cape Town and that an historic fault line has yet to be removed.

The Dutch, it is being said, still have a fatal capacity to beat themselves.

Maybe, maybe not, but in the circumstances they will no doubt welcome the re-assurance that came yesterday from perhaps the leading authority on how it is to play to your limits while also required to exorcise a whole legion of ghosts.

It was supplied by Brazil which appeared to have taken a stranglehold on the tournament right up to the moment the Dutch nagged them into quarter-final defeat.

Lucio, the big central defender who seemed so impregnable before he was undermined by the second-half goals of his Internazionale teammate Wesley Sneijder, said he always expected the Dutch to suffer an ordeal of survival against a Uruguayan team who had already exceed all of their hopes, and thus had nothing to lose.

"You have to realize how ugly a semifinal can be," said the big man. "You have gone so far, played so hard, and yet all of it can come crashing down at any moment. In my opinion, the Dutch did very well indeed. Yes, there were times when they seemed weighed down by all the hopes on their shoulders but they never stopped playing and in the end they could have won easily. The important thing was that they did win, they found a way to do it and so much of that was to do with the leaders in the team.

"Before we played them, we knew they were very dangerous, and then when they won, we said, 'They can win the World Cup now.' You have to remember an important thing about semifinals. If you're going to have doubts, they will come when you are so near to the prize."

For Lucio and Brazilian striker Luis Fabiano, Sneijder is the man most likely to unlock door in the final. "He never rests in a game," says Lucio. "When we won the Champions League, he was the one most sure that we could beat Barcelona - and then he did it." Fabiano had an instinct in the quarterfinal that the winners would probably go home world champions. "They are a clever team and they also have a lot of confidence," he said. "You cannot dominate them for too long. Sneijder and Robben can hurt you at any time."

There is also the prodigious running of Dirk Kuyt. "He's a horse," one Brazilian said, shaking his head in some awe. Robin van Persie remained a marginal figure against Uruguay in the role of lone striker that he dislikes so acutely, but there were moments, notably when his clever feint preceded Sneijder's goal, when the Arsenal man suggested he might be on the point of reminding the world that he can strike with a sudden venom to match any rival.

At least the coach, 58-year-old, resolute, charisma-free Bert van Marwijk was overjoyed. Compared to such predecessors as Dick Advocaat, Guus Hiddink, Louis van Gaal the great player Marco van Basten and the father of Dutch football, Rinus Michels, Van Marwijk sometimes looks - and sounds - like a hospital orderly who has been sent in to sort out the psychiatric ward. But there is, you suspect, a cool and lurking pragmatism that may in the end carry him beyond all the men of lustre and panache.

After victory over Uruguay, he spoke of a unity purpose that had brought a sometimes fractious team to the point of great achievement. Once it was said that a Dutch player rebellion could be provoked by displeasure with the décor of the team hotel. Here, though, the tensions have been smoothed away.

Coming in, the coach declared: "I'm a realist. We know we can beat every country and when you know that you go to a World Cup to win it, not just to try to win one or two games. The way Barcelona played against Arsenal was the best I ever saw; for me the result was not important because as an outsider I enjoyed watching the game so much. But when you are personally involved only the result matters."

The most significant result of his career was virtually guaranteed when first Sneijder, then Robben imposed themselves on the obdurate, quick Uruguayan defence. But he was not inclined to lose his head. He has, after all, also said: "We are a small but creative country and we have what Johan Cruyff always described as 'a kind of arrogance.' We cannot let that arrogance become negative. It must be positive. When Holland is good we are very, very good "¦. and then you can lose."

It is maybe a case of so much for the cautionary reviews. The best guess has to be that this Dutch team, perhaps uniquely among all those who have gone before, already know that they still have something huge to prove. It is that they have the nerve, as well as the talent, to win the greatest prize.

James Lawton writes for The Independent in the U.K.


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