For years, the Dutch national team was synonymous with class. The passing of Sneijder, the dribbles of Robben, the trickery of Van der Vaart and the wonderful goals of Van Persie… In a somewhat more distant past: the guile of Van Basten, the touch of Bergkamp, the elegance of Rijkaard… Or maybe the magic of Cruyff, the intelligence of Van Hanegem and the unfathomable solos of Rob Rensenbrink…
And sure, we had grit. And fight. In midfield or defence, there was always a Johan Neeskens, Edgar Davids, Jaap Stam or a Nigel de Jong. But these players would be in service of the protected prodigal sons.
Jaap Gladiator Stam
We still develop great talents, but all nations around us have developed their technical and tactical skills while keeping hold of their specific national “traits”. Defensive strength of the Italians, the mental strength of the Germans, the physical strength of the English and of course the all round athleticism of the French… Playing shrewd can also be seen as a quality aspect, as the Portuguese have taught us many times over.
Holland needs to add some character, some intent to their game and at times we have been able to. Van Marwijk used 6 players in service of the Big Four, with Van Bommel and De Jong offering grit. Van Gaal did it with his tactics and bravado.
Under Danny Blind, a new chapter seems to be in production, trying to incorporate the best of all worlds… Technical skills (Promes, Sneijder, Wijnaldum, Blind), tactical smarts (Blind, Strootman, Sneijder), guile (Janssen, Karsdorp, Van Dijk) and…character…
Rick Karsdorp, Vincent Janssen, Kevin Strootman… They had to acknowledge that beating France at this stage was basically a bridge too far, but with courage and character thrown into the mix, we can go a long way. Again.
Johan El Torro Neeskens
Let me take you back: it was an icecold wintery Monday evening in March 2015 when a livid Karsdorp pressed his forehead against the face of referee Stieler. The German ref gave Young France a third penalty for a foul on super talent Benzia. Young Oranje is being taken to the cleaners and Karsdorp loses it. He would tell the Dutch media days later “never to have been played off the pitch in his young career as on that day, by the frickin’ French (4-1)”.
We’re 1,5 years down the track. The impatient Benzia decided to play for Algeria, as the French coaches overlooked the youngster for the senior team (hello Hakim Ziyech). And Rick Karsdorp? He was one of Holland’s best players in the senior game vs France in Amsterdam.
Karsdorp’s story is one of falling and getting back up again. Showing character when things turn bad. Biting your lip, instead of giving in. In that Young Oranje match, there was another youngster who doesn’t know the words “giving up”. Vincent Janssen, striker of Almere City, was a sub on that night in North France. He was looking to stake his claim after Feyenoord told him he didn’t have what it took to make it at Feyenoord.
And Janssen was also impressive, against the French at the highest level. Every time, people would say he was too light for the top. Karsdorp and Janssen are currently the role models for technical director Hans van Breukelen, who keeps on emphasizing the fact that Dutch football “might have the best technical skills, but is lacking the winning mentality”.
After Karsdorp’s clash with Laurent Koscielny, the medical staff of Oranje urged the Feyenoord back to come off. Joel Veltman was warming up already. But Karsdorp wouldn’t think about it. “I couldn’t even lift my arm up, but leaving the pitch? Never! I really wanted to finish the game.”
“Of course I know Dimitri Payet. I saw him play for France at the Euros and when he was subbed, I felt even stronger. Against Belarus, I felt my legs cramping up, 20 minutes before the end. But now, I could have played three more matches. Despite my shoulder.”
This month, it’s actually two years ago when Karsdorp was in tears in the Feyenoord dressing room. His first sub turn at Feyenoord and his mistake led to Rijeka’s goal in Croatia in the Europa League. It seemed his career for Feyenoord was over before it began. Fred Rutten, then coach of Feyenoord, was responsible for taking Karsdorp from Feyenoord 2 – the playmaker! – and putting him on right back in Feyenoord 1. Not only that, Rutten predicted that Rick would be the next right back for Oranje! A day after the match, Rutten talked with Karsdorp: “It is up to you. If you now succumb, yes… you career is over. But if you stand up and straighten your back, you will have a big future ahead of you.”
Karsdorp grows when others run for the exit. “After two years since that situation, I know what I have in me”.
Janssen doesn’t take shit from nobody
Vincent Janssen will be able to empathise: “I can find the positive in everything. Like this match. Yes we lost. That is a disappointment but we are a team again. All noses point in the right direction. We can build on this!”.
In recent months, apart from the likes of Janssen, Karsdorp and Berghuis, Quincy Promes emerged. Developed at Ajax, sent away by Ajax, back in the lime-light at FC Twente and after one year transferred to Spartak Moscow. Where he is a star. Since last week, he now also is a man to reckoned with in the orange jersey.
He had the misfortune of flipping his ankle early in the France game, but Promes lives up to his promise, finally (apologies for the pun).
When talking to Promes (24) you know there won’t be a silence in the conversation. The Spartak forward talks as fast as he takes on Russian defenders. He renewed his deal this summer and will be with Spartak until 2021. “It was a conscious decision. I’m not ready for a step up. I’m developing well in Moscow and there is more to come. Making the right move is not going to be easy. In terms of price tag, I’m expensive now. The mid-tier clubs in the bigger leagues won’t just buy me like that. Should I go to a big club, I run the risk of coming for the bench. I rather make more of a name here at Spartak.”
Promes vs France earlier on
This career path is remarkable for a lad who left Holland after one season at Twente. For an adventure in Russia? “I never wanted to leave Twente. But they were in financial dire straits. They called me in and said there was a massive deal on the table for me. They needed to sell me. I was pushed out.”
Scoring 18 goals in his first season, he did have to take a hurdle before scoring in Oranje. “I’m simply not the key man in Oranje. I play in the number 10 role for Spartak, protected, and the ball comes to me a lot. In Oranje, I’m more a winger. But listen, I know I can score. I wasn’t in doubt. The key thing is not me scoring, though. It’s Holland winning. Who ever scores. It’s not about me, it’s about Oranje making it to the World Cup.”
And the fact that the World Cup is in Russia is special for Promes. “Sure, it is. I’m happy to be on the team sheet always in Moscow. That makes it easy for the coach to select me. And I’m super proud to play for Oranje. Whenever I pull on my jersey, I get goosebumps. And I want to go to the World Cup.”
You are a very proud lad. And there is always that line in interviews or articles saying “sent away at Ajax”…
“I was a very difficult lad when I was young. I won’t lie about that. Super selfish. I played in Ajax youth and the arrogance comes with that. You think you are da man. But in all honesty, you’re not. You only sniff at the opportunity. At Ajax, at some stage, they had enough. And I could leave. I am grateful to them though. It changed my life. It opened my eyes. I should not be praised, I should always be pushed to fight. Then, I’m able to give my best.”
So what happened after Ajax? “I went to Haarlem but they went bankrupt almost immediately. FC Twente came and Patrick Kluivert was my coach in Twente 2. That man did something to me. They loaned me to Go Ahead Eagles and (current FC Utrecht coach) Erik ten Hag was there. He gave me the key to success. He was super strict. I didn’t get that at all. Until I suddenly realised he did it to help me. He turned me from a piece of coal into a diamond. I started to score goals at the Eagles and I was off. Next season, it all happened at Twente and now I’m with Spartak.”
So Kluivert and Ten Hag made you what you are now? “And Alfred Schreuder at Twente. I also became a dad at Go Ahead. Seeing that little one changed me tremendously. For the first time I realised I had responsibilities. I stopped living just for myself, I now work and live for my wife, my daughter. Well, daughters, we have two now.”
Quincy at Go Ahead Eagles with mentor Erik ten Hag
How is life in Moscow? “I don’t live in an apartment anymore. Moscow is really a cool city, just very cold in winter. I will never get used to that. But Russians are typical people. They’re not very open or social, but once you break through that veneer, they will do everything for you. It’s not like in Amsterdam, where you can just borrow a cup of sugar from the neighbours. In Moscow, they won’t open the door even.
Would Spartak Moscow win the title in the Eredivisie? “Hmm, don’t know. PSV and Ajax are strong teams. But I don’t think Spartak would finish lower than 3rd or 4th. We are no Utrecht or PEC Zwolle, with all due respect.”
Speaking about Ajax, it was always your dream club. How is that now? “I’m from Amsterdam. Which means you want to play for Ajax. But, I’m not sure whether that’s ever possible. Probably not. But…you never know.”
And to finalise our portrait of winners… Kevin Strootman is renowned for his mentality. And in typical Strootman form, he was very angry at the player who made the mistake against Sweden, allowing them to score. This player was Strootman himself.
“The will to win is strong in me. Very deep. Fighting for the team. I have always done that. Friendlies, practice games… I find it hard to deal with mistakes that cost us points. And when I’m the one making the mistake, well….”
Strootman came in front of the cameras after the Sweden game and was super critical on himself. He came to the Oranje camp for Belarus and France with a thigh injury but played a decent game vs Belarus. In the France game, he was again partly at fault for the goal conceded.
Did the Sweden mistake play around in your head? “Well, yes, for a couple of days. Sure. But once you’re at the club, there is that rollercoaster ride of games and you can put it aside. But when I came back to the Oranje camp, it immediately popped up again. We looked back at the Sweden game of course and that blunder was on the big screen again. I looked away. This simply cannot happen.”
This self criticism is part of your personality. Did you have this in the Sparta youth as well? “For sure. But listen, you have a job. If you make a crucial mistake in your job, you’d take it home with you. I think every player has this, but maybe not all players show it.”
Really? I doubt it. “No, I am telling you. This was an obvious howler. A pro player who’d try to talk his way out of this would be ridiculed for days. I made a decision against France. The Pogba goal. It was the wrong decision in hindsight. But it was calculated. I didn’t think that was a blunder. We were out of position. If I bite, and Pogba goes past me, he’s in on goal. I rather have him take a shot from 30 meters than from 15 meters. I forced him to go to Maarten’s right, which is his strong side. Sadly for all of us, the ball was too good. In hindsight, yes, I might have done better to close him down, but that’s all irrelevant now. You make a quick decision and sometimes you’re wrong. With the Sweden mistake, I could live with that better if Bas Dost’s goal would have been allowed. Making a mistake but winning is not that dramatic.”
Strootman is skipper in the absence of Sneijder and Robben. He was positive about Oranje’s development. “We controlled the game versus Sweden and Belarus, bar 20 minutes. The France game, we knew it would be tough to control them. But overal, it’s more stable than – say – 5 months ago. We seem to be able to execute all the tasks the coach puts on us. We don’t give a lot away, we coach each other and work hard. The way we defend dead balls is also much better. Everyone is focused. These are key moments in top football. You got to “stand right” as they say. I remember the Iceland away game. Two moments of loss of focus and we’re 2-0 down.”
The only way is up. “We can play much better even. I think the vibe in the group is excellent. We are a team, we fight for each other. I am sure the rewards will come. And you know what, I think it’s a good thing that we can’t be certain to beat Sweden or Belarus, like we did in the past. We now know we have to give everything against so-called smaller nations. Holland used to qualify with ease. That is behind us. I actually think it’s a good thing. Sneijder said recently, “There was a time when we got out of the bus and said to each other: let’s win this 3-0. That time is over.””
Louis van Gaal allowed Strootman his debut four years ago, against Andorra. He got the skippers band at 22 years old. And everyone thought: Strootman will have 50 or 60 caps when he’s 26 years old and will have played three or four big tournaments. The 2018 World Cup will be his first big tournament, should Oranje get there.
Edgar Pitbull Davids
“Well, I was at the EC2012, but I didn’t play a single minute. The World Cup 2014, I watched on TV as a result of my injury. And we missed the last Euros. I really want to experience a World Cup now and play. It’s a huge motivation. I’m 28 years in two years time. It’s about time I start to present myself on that stage.”
Strootman’s massive injury problems started with a game vs France. Did this play in his head? “Well, I did get a slight knee injury in that game and was subbed. But the real injury happened in a game vs Napoli a week later. So, no. It didn’t cross my mind. I now was troubled with a muscle injury, but the knee will always demand attention, for the rest of my career. I need to work through a schedule constantly, but when I do I am free in my head to play the match. And the more I play, the stronger the knee will get. Your whole body, basically. And the more confidence you build.”
Do you experience the game differently now, post injury? Do you look differently at your career? “With regards to the game, no. And it’s not so that I am less serious about my game, or less frustrated from mistakes. I don’t think I’ll look at my career until it’s over. No time to do that now, hahaha. And football life in Italy doesn’t allow it. You need a top mentality in Italy. In Holland, when you’re injured or a sub, you still get guidance and attention from the coach and the club. In Italy, if you don’t play, you need to make sure you stay fit and that the coach keeps seeing you. It’s tough.”
Is Kevin Strootman the leader of this new Oranje? He shuffles on his seat uncomfortably. “I am one of the players. I’m not bigger or better or more important. I’m a player in service of the artists. I won’t dribble past 5 players to hit the ball in the top corner. Sadly. My qualities are to keep the balance. Fill the gaps. I will lead by example, not with words. I will fight and battle and go into challenges with all I have. I want to win. That is deeply engrained in me.”
But, there is a chance that in a year or so you are the first captain of Oranje? That surely is an honour?
“But do you know what that means? That Arjen is still not fit. That Wesley isn’t available. That is not something that would make me happy at all! It wouldn’t be good for Oranje, nor for me. No no, please let me be the third skipper for a while, behind these two. All good!”