Down and nearly out: Dutch soccer in decline
AMSTERDAM (AP) Last year, their team absent from the European Championship, Dutch soccer fans sat drinking beer overlooking Marseille's Old Port under an orange banner which read: ''We only do World Cups.''
That seems like wishful thinking now.
Halfway through its qualifying campaign for the 2018 tournament, the Netherlands -- a finalist and semifinalist at the last two World Cups -- is hunting for a new coach and facing an uphill battle to qualify for Russia. The previous coach, Danny Blind, was fired Sunday, the day after his team lost to Bulgaria 2-0 in Sofia.
With five matches to play in Group A, the Netherlands is in fourth place, six points behind leader France and three points adrift of second-place Sweden. Only the group winner is guaranteed a World Cup place.
The attacking ''total football'' that propelled the Netherlands to two World Cup finals in the 1970s and Ajax to three straight European Cup titles from 1971 is a distant memory.
After a 2-1 friendly loss to Italy on Tuesday, striker Memphis Depay took off his shirt to reveal a tattoo on his back of a lion, symbol of the KNVB, the national soccer association.
Depay, once seen as the next big thing in Dutch soccer, showed flashes of skill against Italy, but did not score. The Lyon striker has only five goals in 28 international appearances.
His tattooed back and recent failures to find the net are emblematic for the state of the national sport in the Netherlands.
''The lion of the KNVB has turned into a tired old circus lion sitting in the corner,'' Willem Vissers wrote in the national daily De Volkskrant.
Dutch clubs and their training academies used to mass produce stylish, skillful stars like Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Kluivert and export them to top clubs around the world. But the supply has largely dried up in recent years.
On Tuesday, Arjen Robben watched from the sidelines and Wesley Sneijder was brought on late for his 128th international appearance. Those two players and Robin van Persie have partially papered over the cracks in Dutch soccer at big tournaments - Sneijder was one of the top scorers as the Netherlands reached the World Cup final in South Africa in 2010 and Robben's speed and skill were the driving force behind the team's progression to the semifinals four years later in Brazil.
The trademark ''clockwork orange'' style of incisive passing and movement put on the map by Cruyff is gone now. The Dutch still have a passing game, it just doesn't take them toward the goal often enough.
On Saturday in Sofia, Dutch players completed 633 passes to Bulgaria's 130 and enjoyed 70 percent of possession, but only managed three shots on target.
Opinions are divided about the underlying cause of the malaise. Too many artificial fields in the Netherlands? Too much PlayStation? Is this just a cyclical downturn?
Over the coming two seasons, the KNVB will introduce smaller fields and smaller teams for players between the ages 7 and 12 at clubs across the country, following the example of countries including England, Germany and Spain.
''This is all about giving children more enjoyment and improving their football,'' said Jan Dirk van der Zee, the KNVB's director of amateur football.
But before attempts to improve soccer at the grass-roots level bear fruit, Dutch authorities have a more pressing problem: Finding a new coach for the national team.
With the team likely to struggle to qualify, the job appears a thankless task in the short term and two possible candidates, Everton manager Ronald Koeman and former Ajax and Inter Milan coach Frank de Boer both reportedly do not want it.
One man who has worked wonders for the team in the recent past watched Tuesday's match from the Amsterdam Arena stands - Louis van Gaal. It was his tactical vision that helped the Dutch team reach the semifinals of the World Cup in Brazil. But Dutch media report that Van Gaal is more interested in a leading role at the KNVB than a return to the dugout.