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Dutch Orange men get the blues

The Dutch reached the semifinals at France 98 but lost on penalties to Brazil.  

CNN's Simon Hooper

AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands (CNN) -- With a squad packed with superstars, the Netherlands should be flying to the finals as one of the favourites to win the World Cup.

But the only flights players like Manchester United's Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Edgar Davids of Juventus and Barcelona's Patrick Kluivert will be boarding this summer are bound for holiday destinations.

The Dutch World Cup dream ended last September with a 1-0 defeat against 10-man Ireland in Dublin. It meant third place in their qualifying group behind Portugal and the Irish.

For the hordes of Orange supporters, it was a crushing moment. Dutch supporters are used to World Cup heartache but normally at the later stages of a tournament.

Beaten finalists in 1974 and 1978, the "Oranje" only missed out on a place in the final at France 1998 on penalties after a thrilling semifinal against Brazil.

Victory at the 2000 European Championships, played on home soil, would have been some consolation but the Dutch froze again in a semifinal shootout defeat to Italy.

"It's the players' fault," Chelsea's Dutch striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink told CNN. "If you can't win your home games and some away games then you don't deserve to go to the World Cup."

Football writer Simon Kuper adds: "People are enormously disappointed because if there's one country that really expected to be going and has a high opinion of its own qualities, it's Holland."

'Eat the pitch'

Kuper believes the Dutch players have been damaged by past failures.

"Football fans tend to think that everyone dreams about the World Cup and I think you do until you've played one," he told CNN.

"But it's hard for a footballer. You've had a long season and you're in a camp for four or five weeks. You get on each other's nerves, you should be on holiday and your wife's not there.

Davids: Tremendous talent, sublime skills, but a summer off
Davids: Tremendous talent, sublime skills, but a summer off  

"And then you get knocked out on penalties and it's an enormous anti-climax. It happens every time and I think subconsciously they didn't want to do it again. They realised France was their best shot. It wasn't going to get any better, and the hunger had gone.

"It's partly due to the overload on modern players," adds Kuper. "All the Dutch are playing in the European Champions League or in top European leagues. So it's last week Barcelona, this week Dublin, next week Milan. It's just not that exciting."

Football writer Rutger Slagter also says the Dutch may have lacked desire. "In the game against Ireland, the Irish -- to use a Dutch expression -- looked like they wanted to eat the pitch," he said.

"The Dutch don't have a winning mentality. They were leading 2-0 against Portugal with 10 minutes to play. Any other team would have kicked it out of the stadium but they tried to score a third goal and gave it away. That wasn't very clever.

"But in qualifying the Netherlands has always left it late and they thought it would work out. They'd forgotten it was possible to fail."

Surrogate support

But what of the fans? While the finals will be without some of football's most colourful and enthusiastic supporters, the Dutch absence will also be felt at home.

"Dutch people tend to be down to earth except when the national team are playing, in any sport. Then everything is orange," says Slagter.

"Shops, bars and restaurants are going to notice when the tournament starts. It's going to be a quiet summer. There's not the same feeling in the build-up. The excitement and anticipation is missing."

But Kuper believes Dutch fans will still follow the action.

"I remember World Cups in 1982 and 1986 when we weren't there and we'd support Belgium or Denmark," he says. "They had some players who played in Holland and they were a bit like the Dutch.

"If you're a little older you can remember that Holland being at the World Cup can't be taken for granted. We were there in 1974 and 1978 and then not again until 1990. And before 1974 there was nothing.

"Maybe it's just too small a country to support constantly good generations of players. The annoying thing is that we do have a good generation at the moment.

"But missing the World Cup has helped because now you're more fired up to make the next one."

Slagter also picks Belgium and Denmark as the likeliest recipients of surrogate Dutch support.

"There are a few Danish and Belgian players in Holland and it's good for Dutch football if they do well. In the south of the country people will support Belgium as there are close ties, but -- speaking for myself -- it won't be the Belgians. They've rubbed it in already."

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