The Netherlands' new pain: this wasn't a golden generation, but it was a golden opportunity


Four Netherlands players are trailing Ollie Watkins as he tussles with Stefan de Vrij. Watkins shoots.

As one, their stride sways. Their chins rise in despair and hands rise to their faces. They are still, faces frozen into gargoyles, as another team cavorts around them.

It has looked fun being Dutch, fun being a pip in a swaying orange mass, fun all day and fun all tournament. It does not look fun now.

England win 2-1. This is a familiar sight in Dutch football. The men’s side have now been eliminated in five of their six European Championship semi-finals.

The fans know to enjoy the journey because they suspect how it will end — with their emotions stripped bare in an unforgiving space. But it is also another reason to enjoy the journey. To enjoy it is to dare that this time is different.

England and the Netherlands are not so different; they both believe they invented modern football, and they both believe their importance has not been rewarded at major tournaments. They each have one trophy to show for it: England’s World Cup of 1966, the Dutch’s triumph at Euro 1988.

Gareth Southgate’s side progress on with the dream of a second but, for the Netherlands, Dortmund 2024 will join the other big chances missed — Munich 1974, Buenos Aires 1978, Gothenburg 1992, Amsterdam 2000, Lisbon 2004, Johannesburg 2010, Sao Paulo 2014.

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The Dutch players after the full-time whistle against England (Etsuo Hara/Getty Images)

Four of their last five major tournament knockout defeats have come either on penalties or with less than five minutes remaining. Even Ajax’s Champions League semi-finalists of 2018-19, broken on the turf of the Johan Cruyff Arena by Tottenham Hotspur’s miraculous comeback, feel part of this lineage.

In some ways, it feels harsh to compare this Netherlands squad to their predecessors, some of which they are only connected to by an orange jersey. In other ways, the pattern feels inescapable.

In the whole, this was a Dutch team which never found their best selves throughout the competition, who do not deserve to be in a final, as if deserving was ever part of tournament football. But there was still cruelty.

Xavi Simons had never quite asserted himself in a Dutch jersey, but after seven minutes he produced a fork of lightning that seared the 21-year-old’s name on its back.

“Life is too short to live on other people’s terms,” he wrote on social media pre-tournament. “Do the s**t you want to do.”

This was the s**t he wanted, a lashed 30-yarder, a bow to the crowd, and the Netherlands back in Berlin.

England’s equaliser, 11 minutes later, was unfortunate at best, unfair at worst. Denzel Dumfries was attempting to clear the ball and caught Harry Kane in his follow-through. It did not seem clear and obvious — but VAR disagreed. Penalty awarded and scored. Post-match, replays emerged that appeared to show Bukayo Saka handling the ball in the build-up.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

The Briefing: Netherlands 1 England 2 – Late substitute Watkins hits winner to set up Euro 2024 final with Spain

The Netherlands were unlucky that Memphis Depay went off before half-time, and, for that matter, that Frenkie de Jong, the star of this team alongside Virgil van Dijk, was missing from the tournament through injury. That they had recovered from his loss, less than a week before their opening game, showed the chemistry of a team that has historically teetered on dysfunction.

Like at every other game this tournament, they improved as they went on. Ronald Koeman’s tweaks worked — forcing England to change shape, creating headed opportunities from substitute Joey Veerman’s set-pieces, and with Jerdy Schouten running the midfield in the second half.

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Schouten holds off Jude Bellingham in Dortmund on Wednesday (Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

Fatigue is a strange beast when teams are desperate, but the fact is also that, with just minutes left, England were also facing their third successive period of extra-time, the Netherlands only their first.

But this is the Netherlands in major tournament football. In every year but one, something has gone wrong. In the end, it was one moment and the coin flip of fortune — the centimetres between Watkins’ shot hitting one of De Vrij’s legs as it passed through them, the millimetres between the ball, Bart Verbruggen’s gloves, and the far post.

For the Dutch players, this has been their work for a month of their lives, and a lifetime of working for this month. Semi-final defeat will gnaw and sting.

For the Dutch public, solace might be found in the size of these fractional margins. It might also be found in the notion that this was not a vintage Netherlands team but a transitional one. This assault on the Euros was unexpected but welcome. Pre-tournament expectations were low.

But when these nights come, that notion has to fly away on the summer air. This is not a golden generation, not even close, but it has been a burnished generation with the glint of grace.

After underperforming to finish third in their group, the draw opened up. There were encouraging performances in the last 16 against Romania and in the quarter-final against Turkey — and Wednesday evening was the chance to reach the final against an out-of-sorts England.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Watkins, Palmer, and an England goal that was worth the wait

Fortune is no stranger to major tournaments. Great teams meet great teams and are knocked out early, average teams meet average teams and can even win the competition. This was not a golden generation, but it was a golden opportunity.

This Netherlands side know these coin flips well, the fortune inherent to life as well as football. Things are uncontrollable.

There is Cody Gakpo, who once admitted to deciding between PSV, Leeds United, and Southampton based on how many goals he scored in a game. There is Nathan Ake, whose parents met when his Ivorian father, migrating to the Netherlands, found himself stranded on a remote roadside alongside his Dutch mother, and they hitchhiked together into a new life. There is Virgil van Dijk, whose life hung in the balance after becoming hospitalised with three acute infections, forced to write a will at 20 years old.

Here, fortune went against them. This is a football nation that does a lot of the right things, and one day their status as nearly-men will turn. There will be an internal review, as is typical post-tournament, with Koeman set to extend his contract and take them into the 2026 World Cup.

“I’m confident about the future,” Koeman said on Wednesday night. “This team can do more, and we have more players to come in. We have worked well, developed a bond, and we were close to the final. I’m proud of this team.”

(Top photo: Koen van Weel/ANP via Getty Images)





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