Bayern Munich captain Mark van Bommel was recently asked what he would do if his team won the treble this season. Would he go on a lengthy holiday, maybe a cruise around the world, inquired a German TV reporter. The 33-year-old midfielder simply smiled and reminded him of a small detail: "There's a World Cup to play first, you know."
The journalist is not the only one who seems to have forgotten about the Dutch. All the pre-tournament talk these days is centered on consensus-favorites Spain and Brazil, on Argentina's unlikely resurgence under coach Diego Maradona, on the traditional resilience of the Germans or on the impact Wayne Rooney and manager Fabio Capello can have on England's chances. A mention of Bert van Marwijk's "Oranjes" induces nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders, however.
In a way, that's not surprising. A quick look at the tournament schedule reveals the Dutch are in the more difficult half of the draw, alongside Brazil, Portugal, the Ivory Coast, Italy and Spain. As one of world football's perennial underachievers, the Dutch never inspire much confidence among the neutrals, and neither does their back line, where a run-of-the mill goalkeeper, Maarten Stekelnburg of Ajax Amsterdam is supported by the likes of Hamburg center back Joris Mathijsen and 35-year-old captain and left back Giovanni van Bronckhorst (Feyenoord Rotterdam).
But that's only part of the story. It's worth remembering that the Spainish were dismissed as eternal bridesmaids before their triumph at the 2008 European Championship in Austria/Switzerland. And defense wasn't exactly the real strength of Luis Aragones' side, either, of course. They mostly defended by keeping the ball so well that the opposition couldn't test their back line's resolve. Under the tutelage of manager Van Marwijk, the Netherlands has adopted a similar strategy. Eight wins in eight qualifying games -- with just two goals conceded -- show that it's working. Very well, in fact.
Going forward, the Dutch boast creative skills that most teams can only dream of. In Robin van Persie of Arsenal, they have a central forward on the very cusp of world class. Then there's Bayern's Arjen Robben, 25, a sensational winger in the form of his life. Rafael van der Vaart (Real Madrid) and Wesley Sneijder (Inter) are outstanding playmakers who can double up as second strikers and young Eljero Elia of Hamburger SV is one of those pacy, tricky wide men the Dutch seem to be able to mass produce. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has endured a difficult season in Milan, but the attacker is still considered good enough to keep veteran goal-machine Ruud van Nistelrooy off the squad.
Van Bommel's return to the fold is another important part of the orange jigsaw. The defensive midfielder was omitted from the "Elftal" by coach Marco van Basten following the 2006 World Cup but was recalled when his father-in-law, the no-nonsense, gruff Van Marwijk, took over in July 2008. Van Bommel, a tough tackler, gives the side much-needed stability in the middle. He provides both defensive cover and a bit of cynical know-how when it comes to disrupting the opposition's fluidity, too.
Two years ago at the Euros, the Dutch survived the "Group of Death" thanks to mesmerizing defeats of France and Italy. One off day against Russia in the quarterfinal in Basle, when van Basten committed a big blunder on the sideline -- he made all three substitutions early on in the second half and couldn't react when Van Nistelrooy got injured in extra time -- saw them come home early but the exit couldn't mask the enormous progress of the team. It didn't even have Robben, Van Bommel and Elia at the time or an experienced manager like Van Marwijk. The 57-year-old won the UEFA Cup with Feyenoord Rotterdam in 2003; no one has been able to secure an international title with a Dutch team since.
And he could repeat the trick. His team does not just benefit from a wonderful array of attacking players and very good tactical organization, there has also been a very important change of its mentality. The Euros saw them finally break free from Johan Cruyff's "Total Football" ideology of yesteryear: the unhealthy national obsession with a glorious (but ultimately unsuccessful) past gave way to tactical flexibility and pragmatism. "Our game is based on defensive structure," holding midfielder Nigel de Jong told this writer at the time. Van der Vaart, meanwhile, stressed the practical lessons he had learned from playing in the Bundesliga with Hamburg. "In Germany, I became a man," he said. "I know now that good football means winning games."
Traditionalists like the Ajax-legend Johan Cruyff abhor this renunciation of the old ideals. But Van Marwijk, a former player at less glamorous clubs like AZ Alkmaar and MVV, is even more bloody-minded than Van Basten in this respect: he wants the Dutch to win first, shine later.
In any case, aesthetically-minded critics tend to conveniently overlook the fact that the wonderful European Champions of 1988 -- Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit -- wouldn't have won the country's one and only trophy if it hadn't been for the less-than-beautiful defensive work of players like Ronald Koeman or Jan Wouters behind them.
Van Marwijk seems to have a similarly healthy balance between skill and sweat on his squad. What's more, he's also been able to curb the Dutch players' unfortunate tendency to speak their minds a little too freely. Over the years, many talented "Oranje" teams were riven with internal conflict and clashing egos. Van Persie and Sneijder don't exactly see eye to eye either these days but Van Marwijks' authoritarian style has so far managed to keep the disagreements in check.
If the team can play anywhere near its potential, it should easily win its group in South Africa; Cameroon, Denmark and Japan won't pose serious problems. The Dutch will then probably face the runners-up of Italy's group, either Paraguay or Slovakia. Their path to the quarterfinals, in other words, is reasonably clear. Afterward, it will get increasingly difficult, but their potential cannot be questioned. Not many seem to have realized it yet, with little more than a month to go, the future could well be Orange.