Revived Dutch ready for 'big things'

Netherlands coach Ronald Koeman has praised the likes of Virgil van Dijk and Gini Wijnaldum ahead of today's Belarus clash.
Netherlands coach Ronald Koeman has praised the likes of Virgil van Dijk and Gini Wijnaldum ahead of today's Belarus clash.PHOTO: INSTAGRAM/ONSORANJE

AMSTERDAM • After years of languishing in the wilderness, it is fair to say Dutch football is enjoying something of a renaissance, with Ajax, the country's most successful club, at the heart of its revival.

The Netherlands' failure to qualify for two successive major tournaments in Euro 2016 and last summer's World Cup in Russia led many to call for the country's famed system of talent production to be overhauled.

However, when Ronald Koeman took over the hot seat as national coach in February last year, he was not overawed by the task at hand, but insisted that he saw "a bright future".

The critics and pundits could not see it at that time, but the former Dutch international knew there was a crop of budding players coming through at Ajax and patience was required to harness their talents.

Time, of course, is a commodity that is short in modern football.

But with Ajax's Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt developing at an "unprecedented" rate, something the club's coach Erik ten Hag has acknowledged, the Dutch have maintained an upward curve under Koeman.

They have lost just two games out of 10 played, and have also qualified for the semi-finals of the Nations League.

Their progress has also paid dividends in Europe, with Ajax in the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time since 2003.

De Jong and de Ligt are not the only Dutch players starring for club and country, with Virgil van Dijk marshalling the backline of Premier League leaders Liverpool with aplomb, having conceded the least number of goals this term.

Speaking to Fifa.com ahead of today's Euro 2020 qualifier against Belarus, Koeman admitted there was "a really positive feeling in the country again".

He said: "Big things will be expected of us in the qualifiers and that reflects the results and performances we've had.

"I always believed I could help improve things. He (de Jong) is simply an important player for this Oranje (team), but there are also other young boys who have shown that they have added value in a short time, think of de Ligt.

"Van Dijk, my captain, has been really important to us, and so have the likes of Gini Wijnaldum and Kevin Strootman.

"It's up to us to make sure we're back at a major tournament."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2019, with the headline 'Revived Dutch ready for 'big things''. Print Edition | Subscribe