|Robin Van Persie: The Netherlands' world-class scorer ...|
our biggest World Cup hope (photo from www.sbnation.com)
It could happen in the next month. Not likely to, but when the Oranje plays, you never know. We've been so close before ... three times.
The 2014 World Cup begins Thursday in Brazil, Friday for my team. And it will be a heckuva opening challenge: A rematch with mighty Spain, a rematch of the 2010 championship game that Spain -- deservedly but also luckily -- won 1-0 in overtime, with the goal in the 114th of 120 minutes of play.
Another heartbreak for the Dutch. We've been there before.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a passionate fan of the Yankees, LSU, Louisiana Tech, the Cowboys (when I can stand it), but above all, The Netherlands' national soccer team.
That's my first love, that's the team I've rooted for since I was 5 years old in my native Amsterdam. That's my home country team.
I love the traditional uniform -- bright orange shirts, white shorts, orange socks. I love the fight song, Hup Holland Hup; I've known the words since I first heard them, repeatedly, listening to games on the radio; I know the national anthem, Wilhelmus.
I know that my dad loved all this, too. He learned to love American sports, but like me, soccer is what he knew first and knew best.
If you know anything about soccer -- or care -- you know that The Netherlands, despite being one of the smallest countries geographically and population-wise in the soccer world, has been one of the great powers for 40 years. The Dutch teams are always respected.
Don't mistake this: I certainly will be pulling for the United States team in this World Cup because I am proud American citizen. But in soccer, in voetbal, Holland has a much greater chance to succeed than the U.S. History tells us that.
The Americans, to be frank, will be challenged to win one game in the "group of death." The Netherlands' draw, aside from Spain, appears easier.
But this Dutch team doesn't appear to be nearly as strong as four years ago. The 2010 team was a bit of a surprise, but it kept improving and kept fighting, and kept thrilling the millions of fans back home.
And thrilling one Fort Worth resident who could not have been prouder. I am still as big a fan of Dutch teams and athletes as I was 60 years ago.
I figure that if our soccer team can perform as well as the Dutch speed skaters did in this year's Winter Olympics, we will be world champions.
Those who saw my Facebook posts -- those who cared -- on the Olympics early this year saw the repeated photos and celebratory notes. Holland dominated long-track speed skating -- it won 23 of the 36 total medals, eight of the 12 gold medals.
It meant something to me because my first sports hero was a Dutch speed skater, Kees Broekman, winner of two silver medals in the 1952 Winter Olympics.
As proud as we were of those speed skaters, as I told several friends during the Winter Olympics, I'd still rather see Holland win the world championship of soccer.
The rise of the Dutch soccer empire is remarkable, really, considering how weak the country's status in the sport was when I was a little boy there. Until 1954, there were no professional clubs there; the top clubs were semipro at best.
But the evolution of the pro clubs there, the amount of money spent on player development and eventually the money paid to players, paid off with the kids born in my generation, the baby boomers.
By the early 1970s they made up the famed "Clockwork Orange" teams, known for their "total football" approach, players who could attack and defend and play with discipline all over the field, known for their precision short-passing game, a quick-striking offense and rugged defensive style.
(Soccer, many American friends have told me, is boring. It can be. It also can be ugly with shoddy officiating, too much complaining, too many intentional fouls, and no sports' players are better at "flopping," faking spills or exaggerating the extent of injuries. That's a disgusting part of the game. Holland's teams and games, though, aren't often boring.)
In 1974 and 1978, the Dutch -- never before a factor in World Cup play -- reached the championship games, only to lose to the host country -- West Germany (2-1) and then Argentina (3-1 in overtime).
Look, I'm not into alibis. But we had the best team in 1974 -- no one will convince me otherwise -- and we dominated most of the final game, but the West Germans held tough. The Dutch effort in the final at Argentina, before a totally crazy partisan crowd, was just as great. There are times when it's not meant to be.
Like the Yankees' World Series champions of 1977-78, those Dutch players were my guys, all about my age, Johan Cruyff, considered the greatest Dutch soccer player ever (although Abe Lenstra was the hero of my boyhood and is a legend), was born 1 1/2 months before I was in Amsterdam.
Holland's greatest soccer success was the 1988 European Championship -- a wonderful team led by the exciting Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten, Ronald Koeman, Frank Rijkaard and goalie Hans van Breukelen.
That team should have fared better in the 1990 World Cup, but lost to the eventual champion West Germans; the 1994 team lost to eventual champion Brazil in a thrilling game in Dallas -- Dad and I got to see two group-stage games in Orlando, with Dad thrilled to have a seat right behind the Dutch bench for one game. The 1998 team, led by the brilliant Dennis Bergkamp, reached the semifinals and lost a penalty-kick shootout to Brazil.
So close so many times, so many difficult losses.
The Dutch teams, good as they have been at times, always have had a reputation for in-fighting, dissension, difficulty with coaches and management, and at times, rough play.
But the 2010 team was a wonderfully tight-knit team that made big plays, scored big goals game after game. The 2-1 quarterfinal victory over old nemesis Brazil, a comeback from a 1-0 halftime deficit, was one of the greatest Dutch victories.
Yes, the final against a skilled, superb Spanish team was a brutal, at times violent, outing. It was hard to watch our players resort to that, but they figured that was the only way it could stay in the game.
|The Dutch fans are known for their passion, and|
their zaniness (photo from worldblog.nbcnews.com)
Robben is one of only six players from that squad on this year's Netherlands team. Louis Van Gaal, in his two years, as the team's coach -- he's headed to the world's most famous team, Manchester United, after this tournament -- has upended the roster and has a young, internationally inexperienced nucleus.
Two other returning stars are Robin Van Persie, a world-class scorer and our biggest hope, and Wesley Sneijder, a little midfielder who was a giant in 2010. But both of them, I read, are dealing with leg issues. (We're without three would-be starters who are injured.)
A memorable aspect of the 2010 journey was the aftermath. The Dutch team flew home from South Africa to heroes' welcome -- a meeting and photo op with the queen, a boat parade through the canals of Amsterdam and then a joyous celebration at the city's museum plaza with hundreds of thousands of fans, almost all wearing orange.
The team was welcomed like champions, and deservedly so.
And the fans ... Holland's fans, for most any sport, are known for their passion, their orange, and their fun-loving, zany ways. Frankly, collectively, they're nuts. I think LSU fans have the same type reputation. Throw in arrogance, and you have the Yankees' fans.
As the Dutch players, and the fans, sang and danced in 2010, an announcer asked Robben -- the would-be hero -- how he felt.
"This is unbelievable," he told the crowd. "... Spain might be the world champions, but we have the best fans in the whole world."
I agree, and I am one of them, and proud of it.