While Abba plays in the background, Dick Advocaat is enjoying a smorgasbord of questions at the press conference. All the country’s mathematicians and statisticians joined in to calculate Oranje’s chances and the different scenarios, but the 70 year old still doesn’t seem to realise it’s about goals. “I don’t get that fuss about scoring. As if we can simply decide how much we’ll score. The criticism after the Bulgaria game also went over my head! A 3-1 win is a good result. You can’t expect to score x times. I also don’t believe Sweden will score a lot versus Luxembourg. Nonsense. We will focus on winning our games. And during the game, we’ll find out what is possible in terms of number of goals.”
The nation is baffled. Surely, Dick will understand he simply needs to instruct his players to go out and get as much as possible? We won’t settle for 3-0 vs Belarus with – say – 25 minutes to go? And surely, Dick will field a team with goals in them? Janssen. Dost. Robben. Memphis. Klaassen. Wijnaldum. Propper. Van Dijk. Or…?
The main punters out there are not too positive. Willem van Hanegem is adamant. “We won’t get to Russia. I’m sorry. I do hope I’m wrong, but we simply aren’t good enough. Let’s rebuild after this World Cup.”
Most of the players tend to excel in wishful thinking. They all come to the camp with bravado and bold statements. Except for Arjen Robben. He happens to be experienced, world-class and the skipper of the team. “It will be very very hard. I will not say “never” but it will be a tough job. The odds aren’t great. But, we are in it still, so we will need to do what we can. But winning three games in a row has proven to be hard for us, so I don’t share all that optimism.”
Robben made his debut for Oranje in 2003 (with Sneijder) and has had mainly good times in the orange jersey. Should Oranje not qualify in the coming two matches, it’s highly likely that Robben will retire from the NT. “This is not a topic for now. I want to focus fully on the matches.”
Robben did have a certain “oh geez” moment. “I’ve been coming here for 14 years. And I thoroughly enjoyed it and still do. Man, I get goosebumps when the national anthem plays. But it’s strange. I made my debut with Wesley and we sort of went on this journey together all this time. The high points and in retrospect, we didn’t have that many lows… But now Sneijder isn’t here. And that hit me. Because if we can’t qualify for Russia… is my career in Oranje over? His as well? That sort of hit me. And I’ve seen the downturn, and felt it. We used to win all our qualification games. Like routine. Now, we struggle… Things have changed.”
The first training session was a bit of a jolly event. Dick Advocaat let his two assistants (Fred Grim and the physio) deal with the group, jostling with tennis balls, a game of handball and a silly mini match with the small goals facing the wrong way. Some light entertainment, while Ruud Gullit was in deep conversation with Karik Rekik and Dick Advocaat spent time with skipper Robben.
Virgil van Dijk was called up as a late replacement for Stefan de Vrij. “I’m so happy to be back. Seriously, I needed this. It was a tough six months but I’m 100% fit and motivated. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy playing for Southampton, but like any athlete: if you can better yourself and play at world top level, you want to make that step. I don’t regret my actions and I also don’t blame Southampton for their stance. My aim is to be important for the club again and for Oranje and my next chances will surely come. I’m ready to play, although I’m not sure what the coach wants to do. I may lack rhythm but I’m top fit.”
Stefan de Vrij’s absence was frowned upon. The central defender played an hour for Lazio vs Sassuolo and scored even. “But it’s not good. I can’t play without pain. The groin is not good. I left the pitch after an hour and the groin stiffened up and it’s now impossible to play. I probably need a week of rest and treatment and then after the international break, I might be able to train with the ball. Every pass I gave hurt. It’s not good.”
People in Holland now doubt whether you’re motivated to play for Oranje?
“Nonsense! People who know me know better. It’s quite simple. I got the call from the KNVB re: my fitness, last week. I told them I wasn’t 100% but that my coach was keen to use me in the Sassuolo game. If that would go well, I would be ready for Oranje. But I was subbed due to the injury and I don’t think I would be able to train until Friday. So the coach decided not to use me and I can totally understand. You don’t want a player who can’t practice all week for these key games.”
You didn’t even want to talk about the whole thing?
“Because it shouldn’t be about me or my injury. It should be about the players who are fit and available and it should be about the Belarus and Sweden matches. That’s why I avoided the questions, but it became such a thing that I simply had to come out and explain it all.”
Kevin Strootman will join the group on Wednesday, if all goes well. Strootman got injured too after a collision and is in Rome for observation. He might have a concussion or other ailments which might stop him from joining Oranje.
A player who is fit and in form and eager to play is Ryan Babel. He hasn’t been with Oranje since 2011. Introduced to the world stage in 2006 by Marco van Basten and a benchwarmer in 2010 under Van Marwijk, Ryan Babel is now in the autumn of his career. “Boy, I still knew the way to Noordwijk (where Oranje usually has its trainings camp, but I had to introduce myself to most of the players! I know some lads, the Ajax lads like Cillesen and Blind of course and I replaced Arjen Robben in my debut, but the other players I only know from television. But I’m proud and humbled to be back. In all honesty, I came home to play for Ajax partly to get back on the radar with then coach Van Gaal. He gave Eredivisie players a chance and I felt it would do my career good. I did have a good season and won the title with Ajax, but I never made it back in Oranje.”
Babel had a spell in Spain before moving back to Turkey, where he’s been a key man for more than a season, even scoring in the Champions League. “I’m in form, yes and fit. I’m not saying I will save Oranje and all that, but I can play my part. I’m also now one of the older players, so maybe I can even help some of the younger lads. It’s an honour to be back.”
Babel played in the Middle East (sand pit) for a while but devised a plan with his dad to return to the European (sub) top. “That move to the Middle East was really purely for the money. I’ll be honest. That paycheck, I couldn’t resist. But when Spain came a-calling, I did want to move back into a serious competition. And now back in Turkey. I’m loving it.”
Babel credits Advocaat for his judgement of the Turkish league. “I think I’m lucky with the fact that Advocaat worked at Fener. He knows that the Turkish league is tough. And he’s seen me play a lot. Any other coach might have overlooked me.”
The players who are fit and available all have some sort of baggage to deal with. Jesper Cillesen is definitely one of the best Dutch goalies, but warms the bench in the Camp Nou. Surely, he will have improved just by practicing with Messi, Neymar, Iniesta and Suarez and a goalie doesn’t need the rhythm of match play like an outfield player. I hope.
Kenny Tete does will with Lyon but doesn’t play every match. The same applies to Janmaat. Yes, he has experience in Oranje and lungs and legs of a horse, but he hasn’t played more than – say – Frenkie de Jong at Ajax.
Welsey Hoedt and Virgil van Dijk both lack rhythm and might be rivals for the same spot at Southampton.
Daley Blind does play his regular matches and always reaches a high level at Man United but he will never be beyond criticism.
Gini Wijnaldum is a favorite of Jurgen Klopp but Liverpool only won 1 match in 8 games in all comps and the criticism is coming. Wijnaldum’s effectiveness will be judged seriously.
Kevin Strootman is not without criticism either and we all have witnessed his lack of form in Oranje recently.
Davy Propper went from a dominating team, playing possession football on the front foot (PSV) to a weak team that doesn’t have the ball often and when they do, play the long ball over Propper’s head. The gifted technician is a holding midfielder at Brighton and has yet to make his mark.
Davey Klaassen is seen as a huge mistake in England. The agile midfielder hasn’t made any impact for Everton yet and wasn’t even among the used subs in the last match in the EPL (which Everton couldn’t win).
The good news is: Vince Janssen is playing and scoring for Fener, Babel is on fire (for a while already) and Memphis Depay shows his class when he plays. The latter also made an impact in Oranje’s first training on Tuesday.
Bas Dost, lastly, is still a goal scoring machine in Portugal but his coach doesn’t use him in big games. Dost has never impressed wearing the orange, although he did score a 100% legal goal versus Sweden, which was disallowed.
There might be one player key for Oranje in the coming matches. And he won’t be wearing orange, by the way. Gerson Rodrigues, he plays for Telstar in the Jupiler League in Holland and he’s a forward of Luxembourg. The quick attacker is keen to help Oranje qualify for the World Cup and he is eager to prove his worth by intending to hurt Sweden. Against France, he was close scoring a late winner, but his attempt hit the post. “I’ll try and get a least a point for Holland. And I’ll return here to join in with the festivities!”
In the coming days, we’ll learn more about the shenanigans of Oranje on their mission to qualify.
Until then, we finish with a nice news flash re: Louis van Gaal. The former NT coach’ name is mentioned as one of the candidates to replace Carlo Ancelotti at Bayern Munich. Yep, you read it properly: the arrogant Dutchman who was axed at Bayern by his nemesis Uli Hoeness might be asked to come back to the club.