Dutch need more ‘lef’ to avoid Euro 2012 exit
”Lef.” It’s a tiny three-letter word that for decades has
meant what Netherlands football is all about.
The term translates to nerve, daring and guts all mixed into a
smooth, creative kind of play that made Oranje famous around the
globe. Look at Johan Cruyff, and you see ”lef” personified. It
showed how a nation of only 16 million turned into world beaters on
Now, for the first time in living memory, the Dutch team doesn’t
have enough of it. After losing its first two matches at the
European Championship, even the coach says so.
”It’s all got to do with a bit of ‘lef,”’ Bert van Marwijk
said after the Netherlands lost to Germany 2-1, making it two
straight losses at Euro 2012.
Now, the Dutch are counting on, and pleading with, archrival
Germany to beat Denmark on Sunday to stand a chance to advance from
Group B. And even then, the team still has to beat Portugal by two
goals, one of the few nations it always has had trouble with.
If people want to know what is wrong with basically the same
team that took Spain into extra time before losing in the World Cup
final two years ago, looking at the soul of the Dutch team is a
perfect place to start.
And just as an army marches on its stomach, a forward line needs
to feed off the strength of its defense. The Dutch defense has far
For years it had been rumored as the weak link in the team, with
no worthy successor to the likes of Ruud Krol, Ronald Koeman or
Frank de Boer, people with the vision and skill to split opposing
defenses with a single pass.
Instead, the Dutch now rely on John Heitinga and Joris
Mathijsen. Derided as journeyman players for years, they stuck
together well enough to get the Netherlands to the World Cup final
two years ago, but Germany and Mario Gomez exposed their frailty on
The lack of confidence and swagger at the back means the Dutch
also play with two defensive midfielders, Mark van Bommel and Nigel
de Jong, instead of the likes of the creative Rafael van der
And it also applied to the wing backs. Jetro Willems is a
teenager playing his first games in orange, and even if he tried to
show some moxy with surges upfield, his lack of experience has been
clear. On the other side, Gregory van der Wiel is considered simply
to have had a bad tournament.
”Defensively, we showed too little ‘lef,”’ Van Marwijk
That word again.
”Lef” only works though, when it is backed up by the talent
the Dutch have been famous for. Otherwise, daring and cunning turns
into foolhardy recklessness. Perhaps that is why the Dutch were so
conservative against Germany, letting the Germans play the kind of
forward, creative game the Dutch have long been famous for.
Six players falling back leaves huge gaps in midfield, further
highlighted by the lack of pace of the 35-year-old Van Bommel in
the sweltering evening heat of Kharkiv, Ukraine.
Several times now, Van Marwijk has been seen on the sidelines
trying to spur his men forward.
”I screamed myself hoarse,” he said. ”To no avail.”
One of Cruyff’s most famous dictums is ”Every disadvantage has
its advantage,” but for Van Marwijk, it has been turned upside
With Premier League top scorer Robin van Persie and Bundesliga
counterpart Klaas-Jan Huntelaar at his disposal, Van Marwijk must
have been the envy of so many coaches lacking even one world class
But the embarrassment of riches has turned into a simple
embarrassment as the two have combined for a single goal despite a
flurry of open chances, especially against Denmark in the
Dutch fans are mystified at Van Marwijk’s failure to come up
with a system that could line them up alongside each other for the
benefit of both.
Van Persie is coming off a draining season as the heart and soul
of an Arsenal team which depended almost exclusively on him to the
make the difference from August till May. That grueling season
seems to have caught up with the striker, who has been guilty of
some inexplicable misses in Ukraine.
Then there is Arjen Robben, another huge star on the world stage
who has yet to shine at Euro 2012. His moves have been predictable
for years, but somehow, like the hand speed of a world champion
boxer, he was always able to act faster than defenders could
”A Robben in form is unstoppable,” Van Marwijk said.
Not this time, as his trademark move inside from the right to
set up a left-foot shot too often found a defender’s outstretched
boot at the end.
Finally, there is luck, too. Playmaker Wesley Sneijder is again
on top of his form with pinpoint precision passing. Two years ago,
he also had an uncanny knack to turn up at the right time in the
right place to score five World Cup goals.
None so far at Euro 2012.
The team was supposed to have matured to the ideal age since
losing the final to Spain, ready to finally reap. Instead, it is
with its back against the wall.