Giovanni van Bronckhorst has seen his fair share of great Dutch teams over the years. The 35-year-old captain was a member of the brilliant 1998 World Cup squad that reached the semifinal in France, the best result of the "Elftal" since losing in back-to-back finals in 1974 and 1978. Van Bronckhorst made it to two more European Championship semi-finals in 2000 and 2004, and two years ago in Switzerland, the Feyenoord Rotterdam left back saw his side play the best soccer of the tournament in thrilling wins over France, Italy and Romania -- only to fall by the wayside in the quarterfinals against Russia.
Even a campaigner as experienced as "Gio", however, is hard pressed to remember a Dutch side with so much devastating attacking potential. ""Are our options upfront frightening? Yes, I believe they are," Van Bronckhorst told SI.com after the Netherlands destroyed Ghana 4-1 in a recent pre-World Cup friendly in Rotterdam. The Dutch effectively toyed with their opposition and could have easily scored more goals, despite the absence of Bayern Munich winger Arjen Robben, who was rested because of a hip problem. Dirk Kuyt (Liverpool), second-half substitute Rafael van der Vaart (Real Madrid), the outstanding Wesley Sneijder (Internazionale) and Robin van Persie (Arsenal) scored for the impressive home side; Asamoah Gyan's strike for the visitors gave the scoreline at least a touch of respectability. "You see who started for us and who we had on the bench", said van Bronckhorst, "when you have players like Rafael (van der Vaart), Ryan Babel or Eljero Elia coming on, you know you can do well".
In terms of sheer firepower, the Dutch have indeed enough impact subs to win games twice over. In the first half, Milovan Rajevac's Black Stars just about managed to keep the "Oranjes" at bay but after the break, the West Africans were simply overrun: the Dutch scored three times in the last 17 minutes. "They defended well before the break, so we needed to be patient and let the ball do the work", explained van Bronckhorst. Their system, a 4-4-3 - or 4-2-3-1 depending on Sneijder's exact position on the pitch -- has ostensibly remained unchanged for many years. Sneijder's ascent to genuine world-class level has, however, provided a new flexibility: the Dutch are no longer over-dependent on their wide players and consequently much harder to shut out.
But questions about their own durability remain. A bad mistake by Hamburg center back Joris Mathijsen before Gyan's goal served as a timely reminder that Holland are vulnerable. Van Bronckhorst, however, believes that the case against the defense can be overstated: "Our big players from the big teams all play in midfield and attack, so it's normal (for people to have doubts about the defenders). But just look at our record. We haven't lost for 18 matches now." The last team to beat the Netherlands were the Australians, in September 2008 friendly.
"We defend well as team because our positional play is very good", said van Bronckhorst. "It's easier for us at the back because of the great protection we get from the two holding midfielders, Mark (van Bommel) and Nigel (de Jong)." A mean streak could indeed be detected in the middle of the park on Tuesday night, when the Dutch looked comfortable with the physical approach of their opponents.
Much of the credit for their new-found stability must go to manager Bert van Marwijk, a no nonsense operator from the more conservative end of the tactical spectrum, at least by Dutch standards. Lofty ideals of beautiful football that have often proved a burden for the Netherlands in the past are pretty much anathema to the 57-year-old. His son-in-law Van Bommel, too, is more interested in winning matches than the hearts of the neutrals. "To do it in style is very nice but not always possible", said the Bayern Munich captain, "first you need to get the result. Fortunately for us, we have players from big clubs in our team who have the right mentality to win things".
Van Bommel's pragmatism was also in evidence after the Ghana game, when the 33-year-old midfielder was remarkably reluctant to talk up his team's chances in South Africa. "I don't know how we will do. We're not favorites, we are outsiders", he insisted. "Can we win the World Cup? I don't really want to answer that. Let's just say that our chances are pretty good." Van Bronckhorst was a little less hesitant. "We have tremendous confidence in our ability and the spirit in the team is very good", he said. "If we keep working hard, concentrating and playing our football, we can beat any team in the world". On the evidence of Tuesday night, it's tough to argue with that assessment.