Youth power

CHELSEA WINGER ARJEN ROBBEN will be star of the Dutch national team for many years.-AP

The Oranje fans will be looking forward to seeing the likes of defender Johnny Heitinga, midfielders Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart, and forwards Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben flourishing on the world stage for the FIRST TIME in Germany, writes RORY SQUIRES.

Under the guidance of coach Rinus Michels, Holland celebrated their greatest ever achievement in West Germany in 1988. The Oranje's 2-0 victory against the Soviet Union in the final of the European Championships in Munich clinched Holland's only major trophy. Nearly two decades later, it will be impossible for the current squad to escape the significance of returning to Germany in an attempt to claim the big one — the World Cup — which has so far eluded one of the most football-crazy countries on the planet. Comparisons with the Holland team of 18 years ago will be inevitable, especially because Michels, the hugely respected pioneer of `Total Football', passed away in March 2005 while '88 striker Marco van Basten is now the national coach. The World Cup campaign will undoubtedly be an examination of the squad's mental toughness, as well as a test of the team's ability. But this is nothing new to the Oranje.

Michels transformed Holland into arguably the most attractive outfit in Europe during his two spells in the hot-seat, in the 1970s and then in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But he was never quite able to steer the team to glory at the World Cup. They came close in West Germany in 1974, 1-0 up after just one minute in the final against the hosts before losing 2-1.

Four years later, Rob Rensenbrink hit the post in stoppage time of the World Cup final in Buenos Aires — with the score level at 1-1 against hosts Argentina. Extra-time saw the Mario Kempes-inspired Argentina win 3-1. In 1990, a lack of discipline cost Holland against old sparring partners West Germany. Having beaten them in Euro '88, the Dutch lost 2-1 in the second round as key midfielder Frank Rijkaard was sent off. Even more recently in 1998, Holland had a superb chance to reach the final but slumped in a semifinal penalty shoot-out against Brazil.

Although Holland breezed through a tough qualifying group with unbelievable ease to book their place in Germany, that is no guarantee they will be able to keep their heads at the crunch moments during the World Cup 2006. They will have more defensive discipline than in recent tournaments, if their record in qualifying is anything to go by. By the end of Holland's qualifying campaign, Van Basten's team had gone more than 14-and-a-half hours without conceding a goal. In a group which contained Romania, Finland and Czech Republic, as well as outsiders FYR Macedonia, Armenia and Andorra, it was some achievement by Van Basten — in his maiden qualifying campaign — to steer the team to 10 wins and two draws in 12 games, scoring 27 goals and conceding only three.

But the final draw for the tournament did not do any favours for Holland — group rivals Serbia & Montenegro, Ivory Coast and especially Argentina will undoubtedly test the relatively weak Dutch defence more than their preliminary qualifying round opponents did. "I don't like the phrase `group of death'," said Van Basten. "We don't fear anyone, let us say it is a difficult group with interesting teams. At the end of the day those are all teams who like to play football, and there will be good moments."

In 2002, an ageing Holland team failed to even qualify for the final tournament in South Korea and Japan. However, a comfortable qualifying group gave Van Basten — who gained coaching experience with a spell in charge of the Ajax youth team — the opportunity to introduce some of the younger players into his selection. The Oranje fans will be looking forward to seeing the likes of defender Johnny Heitinga, midfielders Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart, and forwards Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben flourish on the world stage for the first time in Germany. Even though Van der Vaart sustained a new ankle injury in a recent preparatory friendly against Cameroon, Van Basten is hopeful the left-sided midfielder would recover to play a major role during the later stages of the tournament.

The Dutch selection is about a lot more than youthful talent, though. The Dutch have a veteran of many battles as captain, Manchester United goalkeeper Edvin van der Sar. Van der Sar's club teammate, striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, has tons of experience in the Champions League, though it is the first time he will take the field in the World Cup. It is also likely to be the only World Cup of Van Nistelrooy because he will be 33 when the 2010 tournament kicks off in South Africa.

If 2010 is too late for Nistelrooy, by then Holland are unlikely to be short of striking quality. The likes of Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, 27, who was signed by PSV Eindhoven to replace Van Nistelrooy, and 25-year-old Dirk Kuyt at Feyenoord have both been prolific in the Dutch league over the past couple of years. Robben and Van Persie, who play like classic inside-forwards behind the goal-getters, will be stars of the national team for many years. Robben can also play as a wide attacker, his position for club Chelsea.

As long as the young blood in the Dutch team can avoid being suffocated by the weight of history, Van Basten knows he has a team capable of finally exorcising the World Cup ghost of 1974.

THE TEAM

Goalkeepers: Edwin van der Sar (Manchester United), Maarten Stekelenburg (Ajax) and Henk Timmer (AZ Alkmaar).

Defenders: Khalid Boulahrouz (SV Hamburg), Giovanni van Bronckhorst (Barcelona), Tim de Cler (AZ Alkmaar), Kew Jaliens (AZ Alkmaar), Jan Kromkamp (Liverpool), Joris Mathijsen (AZ Alkmaar), Andr� Ooijer (PSV Eindhoven), Johnny Heitinga (Ajax).

Midfielders: Mark van Bommel (Barcelona), Phillip Cocu (PSV Eindhoven), Denny Landzaat (AZ Alkmaar), Hedwiges Maduro (Ajax), Wesley Sneijder (Ajax) and Rafael van der Vaart (SV Hamburg).

Forwards: Ryan Babel (Ajax), Dirk Kuijt (Feyenoord), Ruud van Nistelrooy (Manchester United), Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Arjen Robben (Chelsea) and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink (PSV Eindhoven).

Coach: Marco van Basten.

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