James Lawton: Holland can take inspiration from its past heroes
Twenty-eight years ago Rudi Krol, former captain of the Netherlands and the most capped player of a superb generation, sat at a café table in a hill town above Barcelona and spoke of his despair that the great years and the great possibilities had come and gone.
Now, as he attends here the daily training sessions of another group of Dutch players who threaten to lift the biggest prize in football on Sunday night, he admits it seems like a thousand years ago.
"We have players who can do what we didn't do, players who can take their opportunity," he says.
Back in the Catalan hills, he had just watched the Brazilians of Socrates and Zico and Roberto Falcao, who were threatening to engulf that World Cup, put on a dazzling training session and he said, "The Brazilians just keep marching on, but where are we now after two straight World Cup finals? We haven't even qualified."
Krol was playing out his career in Naples, a performer of such typical Dutch versatility he had comfortably adjusted to the role of sweeper, but when he looked into the future of his beloved Oranje he saw only the bleakest of pictures.
Four times they had failed to qualify for the World Cup before sweeping to the finals of 1974 and '78 on the wave of Total Football, and after the second one in Buenos Aires it would be another 12 years before they re-appeared in the tournament.
Krol felt in his bones that the dream was over – at least in his own lifetime. It is maybe why, at 61, he is so keen to embrace the ambitions of men like Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben to step beyond a fabled set of players who could do everything except the one thing that their talent ultimately demanded, proof that they were indeed the best in the world.
A tendency towards civil warfare, a sense that there would always be factions and distractions, has been the historic flaw in Dutch football and there have been times recently when such divisions seemed to include the men of Krol's time – and not least the increasingly waspish Johan Cruyff, the greatest of Dutch players and a fixture in any top five of the world.
But if Cruyff has included his compatriots in some scathing criticism of much of the football in the early games of this World Cup, coach Bert van Marwijk yesterday made it clear that the heroes of the past have been closely involved in the current campaign.
Van Marwijk didn't hesitate for a moment when he was asked if the legacy of men like Cruyff and Krol was an inspiration or a burden. "They are an inspiration," he said, "because this is the third time we have reached the final. Now we live in another time but I was thinking about the '74 and '78 teams during and at the end of the semi-final with Uruguay. I have talked many times about the teams of the Seventies."
He then revealed that the old legends have these few last weeks also been valuable consultants.
"In the past five weeks," said the coach, "I have talked with Ruud Gullit [a hero of Holland's one major tournament success, the 1988 European Championship] and I have talked a lot with Johan Cruyff. And from the first training here, Rudi Krol has attended every session, sitting on the bench.
"We have talked about everything, the past, the way we have been training, so I've had a lot of contact with the guys."
He may also have been influenced, at least subliminally, by Cruyff's characteristically trenchant statements about the superiority of the Spanish approach, the latest coming in a column for a Spanish newspaper. Cruyff wrote, "I am Dutch but I will always defend the football of Spain. If you play attacking football like them you have many chances of winning. And if you play on the counter against a team who really wants the ball, you deserve to suffer. The fact is that if you try to outplay Spain they will kill you and Holland knows that they are facing the best team in the world.
"When Spain lost their opening game against Switzerland I still saw enough in the DNA of their performance to believe that they could win the World Cup."
You couldn't be sure if Cruyff had had any influence but some of Van Marwijk's comments yesterday suggested that he might, at least to some degree, be considering taking his players off the leash.
He said, "Yeah, maybe Spain is influenced by Barcelona and Barcelona are influenced by Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels [the coach credited with creating the Total Football of the Seventies] and that's a big compliment to Dutch football.
"Maybe that's a bit ironic before we play each other in a World Cup final but I don't really think that way. We respect Spain but we want to do it our own way.
"At the moment, I think Spain play a little bit more attractively than we do and I would like to play as attractively as them. Spain are playing very well with the ball but without it they are reacting very quickly so it could be a very interesting game for teams trying to play football."
Translation: Expect the Dutch to fight the inferno of Spanish pressure with some initiatives of their own from their key men Sneijder, Robben and the reawakening Robin van Persie.
Gullit is maybe the most buoyant of the old guard, saying, "I think we were optimistic before Sneijder and Robben reached the Champions League final, but now we have seen their form and their appetite in the big games we are even more hopeful. But we do have to recognise that Spain are a great team and that beating them will take a lot."
As the great men of Dutch football voice their hopes, and a few their time-encrusted fears, you are bound to remember the glory of their lost years.
You recall Bill Shankly raging in the Amsterdam mist after Ajax had put five past his iron-clad Liverpool. "The most defensive team we've ever played," he growled. But that was what the Dutch did to you when Cruyff flitted like a ghost and players like Johnny Rep and Krol could turn the ball into something that might have come out of the mouth of the cannon.
You remember the devotion Cruyff inspired in the great following of Barcelona, who christened him the Golden Dutchman, and the time when, shortly before retiring from international football in 1977, he went to Wembley for a friendly and destroyed England while scarcely crossing the halfway line. A few days before that, he was sent off at the Nou Camp during a match against Malaga. The crowd invaded the pitch, led by a huge man on a crutch who fell to the ground when he threw a punch at the referee because he couldn't deliver a right hand and hold his crutch at the same time. Later the fans set fire to television vans.
Van Marwijk, when you thought about it, was probably as emphatic as he needed to be. Were the old teams inspirational? Well, somewhat.