The Brilliant Oranje tag had faded considerably when Bert van Marwijk, 58, took over the Holland job in 2008. Twice World Cup finalists, the Dutch national team had failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup and could not go beyond the last 16 in Germany four years later. The tactic of appointing big-name managers like Frank Rijkaard, Louis van Gaal and Marco van Basten had yielded two semi-final appearances in the European championships, but the 16 million Dutch were not convinced.
A stuttering Holland won just once as they progressed to the semi-finals of the 2004 European championships in Portugal. This was not what was expected of a team laden with world-class forwards, a team renowned for attacking football. Scepticism greeted Van Marwijk's appointment and critics suggested that the low profile former Feyenoord manager - who won one Dutch cap as a midfielder in 1975 - was not a big enough name to deal with the global stars in his charge. A draw against Russia in Van Marwijk's opening game, followed by an embarrassing defeat to Australia in Eindhoven seemed to confirm those suspicions.
The new man had a significant task after veterans with more than 100 caps like Edwin van der Sar, the goalkeeper, and Clarence Seedorf, the midfielder, retired that summer. Ruud van Nistelrooy, the striker who had scored as many goals in orange as Johan Cruyff, also called it a day. But Van Marwijk had a plan. "When I took over this job, my first goal was to teach the team to defend better," he said.
Holland duly conceded just two goals in eight qualifying games for South Africa, with 17 goals scored. They won all eight games and their group by an astonishing 14 points. At one point they went 10 months without the opposition scoring, laying the foundations which have helped them excel in South Africa. Holland have not been as prolific themselves in the tournament, but Van Marwijk doesn't see this as a negative.
"Because we haven't scored that many goals so far in this World Cup, people see it differently as they only associate attractive football with lots of goals," he said. "But we still play attractive football." They do. And they spread the goals around, as in qualifying where no Dutch player scored more than three times. Holland's progress to today's semi-final against Uruguay in Cape Town has come after winning all their games in a group containing Japan, Cameroon and Denmark before eliminating Slovakia and then Brazil, the joint favourites, in the knockout stages.
"Uruguay are a team of fighters," Van Marwijk said. "They battle and survive. That is why they have reached the semi-finals. We must certainly not underestimate them, otherwise things will go wrong for us." The Dutch are favourites, more so after Robin van Persie was declared fit and Uruguay's Luis Suarez was suspended following the handball that led to Ghana's elimination in the quarter-finals. And while Van Marwijk takes pride in the defending, it is the sublime skills of attackers like Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder which have been so effective. The biggest names in world football have already departed from South Africa disappointed by their own contributions.
Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Kaka are frequently lauded as being the best on the planet. Whereas Robben and Sneijder - both rejected by Real Madrid a year ago - have been far more direct and more effective. Unlike the malcontent Dutch players of yore, they are happy with their coach. Van Marwijk's brilliant Oranje are starting to justify their name again. firstname.lastname@example.org