DRIVEN BY Youth power

If the Netherlands do well in Germany, they may well have their young stars to thank, writes Nicholas Rigillo.

Holland's all-time greatest, Johan Cruyff, believes they can make "anything happen". Veteran striker Ruud van Nistelrooy says they help create a "fantastic atmosphere" and make training more fun.

If the Netherlands do well in Germany, they may well have their young stars to thank. When coach Marco van Basten took over the national squad in 2004, he was instructed to work on a young team that could secure Dutch glory for years to come.

"There are 16-year-old talents out there who play intelligently and experienced players who just run blindly around the pitch," the former Ajax youth team trainer once said when asked to explain why he had dropped the likes of Clarence Seedorf, Jaap Stam and Edgar Davids from his squad.

The results of Van Basten's "youth policy" are evident enough in Germany.

Of the Dutch's starting line-up at this World Cup so far, four are just 22 years old. These are Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie, Johnny Heitinga and Arjen Robben.

Robben was named man of the match in Leipzig after producing a scintillating performance and scoring the game's only goal in the Oranje's 1-0 victory over Serbia and Montenegro.

In fact, a total of 11 players from Van Basten's 23-strong squad are 25 years old or less, and the Dutch also have one of the youngest players in the tournament — Ryan Babel, who is 19.

Tall and blessed with genuine pace, Babel became the country's youngest goal scorer in 68 years by netting the Dutch's second goal in their 2-0 World Cup qualifier win against Romania last March. That goal was scored on his international debut and prompted many to liken him to Patrick Kluivert.

Like Babel, midfielder Sneijder and defender Heitinga — considered Holland's "new Jaap Stam" — Hedwiges Maduro is also a product of the famous Ajax school.

In 2004, the playmaker was voted the biggest emerging talent at the Amsterdam side and went on to captain Holland's Under-20 team at the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship, which also featured Babel and which reached the quarterfinals of the tournament before being beaten by Nigeria.

And while van Persie is now Van Basten's undisputed first choice on the right flank, Sneijder and another young talent, Rafael van der Vaart, 23, guarantee plenty of substance and creativity at midfield.

"This is the first World Cup for players like Van der Vaart, Sneijder, Robben and van Persie. It's a big experience that I am sure will help us do better in the future," Van Basten said.

That a country of just 16.4 million inhabitants should regularly produce such an impressive crop of young talent is something that will never cease to amaze pundits. But it certainly is not the result of chance.

As Royal Netherlands Football Association (KNVB) president Mathieu `Jeu' Sprengers recently said, it is largely the result of a well-thought "master plan".

"We have a master plan that we introduced three years ago to promote youth tournaments," Sprengers said. "The number of members of our association is increasing rapidly, by 30,000 to 40,000 a year.

"In the last five years the number has climbed from 1 million to 1.1 million. Football is by far the most popular sport and we want to stay ahead."

Sprengers was speaking just hours after Holland's Under-21 team went on to win their first UEFA European Championship in Portugal, where they beat Ukraine 3-0 in the final.

Whatever may happen in Germany, Dutch football certainly looks set for a bright future for years to come.

DPA