Written by Ninad Barbadkar
Every sport is influenced by the methods and style of play of a certain country. These countries are usually titans of the sport and influence the game both on and off the pitch. In a larger sense, these countries impact the very philosophy and mindset with which the sport is played. In football, there are few more so than De Oranje themselves, the Netherlands.
Ever since the glory days under the late Rinus Michels, the country has produced some of the finest footballers of generations past and present. The concept and realisation of ‘Total Football’ was quite possibly the biggest contribution made to football by Michels. Totaalvoetbal was an idea that was very simple yet ever so complex to execute. For the players to be able to do this, they had to be comfortable in multiple roles across the pitch.
This concept inspired a whole generation of footballers ahead of Michels’s time. While the late Johan Cruyff carried forward Michels’s tactical legacy, it also gave birth to a generation of multifaceted Dutch talent.
It is true that since the 1980s, icons in Dutch football have come in threes, the most popular being that of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard at AC Milan under Arrigo Sacchi. Gullit was a true disciple of total football in that he would deliver, no matter where he was deployed across the pitch. While van Basten was a born finisher and goalscorer supreme, Rijkaard was a visionary in midfield and reinvented his role on the pitch time and again, throughout his career.
Beyond them, there have been others, chief amongst them the Dutch talents of the 90s, moulded by the decorated Louis van Gaal at Ajax. Edgar Davids, the De Boer brothers, Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars, Dennis Bergkamp, et al went on to achieve glory.
The most recent Dutch icons to capture the imagination of football fans around the globe are Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, and Robin van Persie. This past summer all three announced their retirements from the game. While van Persie has assumed the role of TV pundit, Sneijder and Robben are relaxing and taking their time before they step back into the ring.
21st Century Dutch Icons
To put things into perspective, just how much did this trio influence modern football? That is the question we hope to answer in this piece.
All three all started their careers at different clubs in the Eredivisie – Robben was with Groningen, Sneijder came through the ranks at Ajax, and van Persie made his mark at Feyenoord. From 2001 to 2004, all three players would win the ‘Johan Cruijff Prijs’, awarded to the Dutch Football Talent of the Year, highlighting their immense potential.
Amidst a remarkable wave of Dutch talents coming through at the time, these three looked set to light up the world. After a successful spell at PSV Eindhoven, Robben’s talents were being eyed by Premier League giants Manchester United and Chelsea. Sir Alex Ferguson is said to have met with the winger, however, the move did not materialize due to a significant difference in valuation. This enabled Chelsea’s billionaire owner Roman Abramovich to step in and snap up the winger for a fee of €18million in 2004.
As for Sneijder, he starred for Ajax for five years between 2002-07 as the club’s leading creative talisman. In his early days at the club, Sneijder was surrounded by some exciting talents in the form of the eccentric Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Steven Pienaar, Rafael van der Vaart, and Christian Chivu, to name a few. These talents were heading in the right direction under the guidance and management of Ajax legend and then manager, Ronald Koeman. Sneijder’s penchant for goal-scoring and assisting his teammates convinced Real Madrid to shell out €27million, which then made him the second-most expensive Dutch footballer of all time.
At Real Madrid, Sneijder and Robben’s careers coincided and the duo spent two years at the Bernabeu, initially impressing in their debut campaigns. However, the arrival of Florentino Pérez for the outgoing Ramón Calderón saw the two shipped out to Inter Milan and Bayern Munich respectively.
In contrast, Robin van Persie’s career was a far more stable one when compared to his aforementioned colleagues. His performances at Feyenoord were impressive enough for the then Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, who saw the Dutch talent as a long-term replacement for the departing veteran, Dennis Bergkamp.
Stylistically speaking, you could see why Wenger wanted van Persie. He was not truly an out and out striker until late in his career and the Frenchman believed he could transform van Persie as he did with Gunners legend Thierry Henry. van Persie played alongside Henry until the latter’s departure to Barcelona in 2007, which then made van Persie the main man at Arsenal.
Until so far in each of their careers, injuries had been a problem for the trio, which did not help them complete as many games as they would’ve liked. Nonetheless, when they were on the pitch, their performances were almost always a class apart.
At Arsenal, van Persie was helped with some players of the highest class alongside him. The likes of Cesc Fàbregas, José Antonio Reyes, Andrey Arshavin, all at different points, ensured that the Dutchman was getting the support he needed to flourish.
Meanwhile, Robben’s move to Munich was significant as the Bavarian giants were looking to challenge for glory on the domestic front, for which they saw the Dutchman as pivotal. He was named Footballer of the Year in his first season and helped Bayern secure a league and cup double. Louis van Gaal’s men, however, were unable to secure the Champions League against one of his old disciples, José Mourinho and his Inter Milan side, which coincidentally contained Robben’s old friend, Sneijder.
Sneijder’s three-year spell at Inter Milan was a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows. The Dutchman led the Nerazzurri to a treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia, and the coveted Champions League.
During his spell in the Serie A, Sneijder gained a reputation for his set-pieces and pinpoint passes to fellow team-mates, earning him the nickname ‘The Sniper’ from the Italian media. Mourinho had perfected the team to his methods, of which Sneijder was the centre-piece. In the Portuguese manager’s preferred 4-2-3-1, he would support the lone striker Diego Milito as well as the industrious Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o.
Sneijder was happy to do the defensive work when necessary and his exemplary vision helped him create opportunities from deeper areas on the pitch as well. While Mourinho’s Inter were exclusively a counter-attacking side, it helped to have someone like Sneijder who worked tirelessly in offensive areas to create opportunities or take them when necessary.
As for Robben, he became a mainstay in the Bayern side that continued to dominate German football under various managers. It is a testament to his sheer talents that Robben had become almost irreplaceable for Bayern bosses down the right-hand side. The Dutchman’s technique as a winger was quite unique, and while his classic manoeuvre was to cut inside onto his favoured left foot, the former Madrid man was also blessed with great feet and wonderful crossing ability. Defenders knew what was coming, and yet, very few could actually stop him.
Robben played a key role in Bayern’s Champions League triumph against Borussia Dortmund at Wembley in 2013, which earned him his ‘Mr. Wembley’ moniker. Although his career at the Allianz Arena was halted by the occasional injury, Robben’s goal-scoring record was immense. He left having scored over a century of goals for the Bavarians while winning every honour possible, domestic or continental.
Robben’s style of play has influenced several Dutch wingers of the present day, most notably, Memphis Depay and Quincy Promes, as well as wingers of other nationalities. His style of cutting inside and becoming almost an inverted winger can be observed is most modern-day wingers.
By 2009, van Persie had transformed himself from a shadow striker to a proper out-and-out forward. In the 2010-11 season, van Persie’s goals helped him win the golden boot with 30 goals, his most prolific season in an Arsenal shirt. He gave it his all as the Arsenal captain after Fàbregas’s departure to Barcelona and while the Gunners scored many goals, they were also just as suspect defensively, which ultimately led to them finishing fourth.
In the summer of 2012, van Persie decided against renewing his contract at Arsenal and was up for grabs in the English market. It soon became clear that he would be heading to Manchester, either with United or City.
Eventually opting for the Red Devils, he is considered one of the finest signings made by Sir Alex Ferguson. While most baulked at the massive transfer fee of £22.5million, considering the fact that van Persie was then 29, the move proved to be a masterstroke. He scored 26 goals in the league, to give Sir Alex his 13th Premier League title, the perfect end to a glorious career in management.
In the seasons following Sir Alex’s retirement, van Persie struggled to replicate the same kind of form from his debut season. When van Gaal arrived in 2014, van Persie expected to be made the captain automatically, however, to his dismay, the armband went to club legend, Wayne Rooney.
van Persie’s relationship with van Gaal deteriorated, which led to a move to Fenerbahçe, and an eventual return to Feyenoord in 2018. The now 36-year-old did exceptionally well and gave the Feyenoord fans many a moment to remember, with the most memorable being a brace in Der Klassikier against Ajax. Two classic finishes inside the penalty box turned back the clock to his prime against a young Ajax defense consisting of Mathijs De Ligt and Daley Blind. Feyenoord won 4-2 on the day.
On the international stage, it never seemed to quite work out for the Netherlands. They came close to glory during the 2010 FIFA World Cup under then-manager Bert van Marwijk, only to be beaten by Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain and a memorable strike from Andres Iniesta. That Dutch side had all the components to go all the way and win it with potent attackers, solid defenders and great organization across the pitch. However, on the day of the final, Spain had that extra bit of creativity needed to win.
That said, 2010 was the year of Wesley Sneijder. Though he was one of the finest performers at the World Cup and was expected to win the FIFA Ballon D’or, he could only finish fourth in the voting process, behind winner Lionel Messi and World Champions Xavi and Andrés Iniesta.
In Brazil 2014, Sneijder’s influence was less felt as van Persie and Robben took centre stage as the two primary attackers for the Dutch side. The former’s Superman-like header against the onrushing Iker Casillas of Spain will go down in history as one of the tournament’s finest ever goals.
As for Robben, his conversion from winger to forward brought a lot of goals, but he also provided a moment of huge controversy against Mexico in the Round of 16. With the sides locked at 1-1 and extra-time on the horizon, Mexico captain Rafael Márquez challenged Robben for the ball inside the box, who fell in theatrical fashion. The jeering El Tri were sent into a shocked silence when, much to their dismay, the referee pointed to the spot. The clinical Klaas-Jan Huntelaar made no mistake from the spot, coolly slotting from 12 yards in the 94th minute. The tournament ended for van Gaal’s men when they lost on penalties to eventual finalists Argentina.
Robben, van Persie and Sneijder all announced their retirements this past summer and while their playing careers may be over, one can be sure that this is not a goodbye to football from their side. There will always be a Dutch kid cutting in on his left foot, there will always be Dutch kid who loves a volley and there will always be a Dutch kid who can pass like no other, all thanks to this iconic trio, who will continue to be the torchbearers of Oranje brilliance.
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