Badly shaken Dutch now look to 2014 World Cup
The future should have been now, with a team that had supposedly matured into a tournament-winner since reaching the final of the 2010 World Cup.
Instead, the Netherlands must start afresh after tumbling out of the European Championship following three straight losses.
A 2-1 defeat by Portugal on Sunday followed losses to Germany on Wednesday and Denmark on the tournament's opening weekend. All the talk of lifting a major trophy for the first time in 24 years proved to be just hot air, inflating a bubble which soon burst at Euro 2012.
''We have to start from the beginning again,'' said creative midfielder Rafael van der Vaart, who was made captain Sunday by a desperate coach who realized too late that you can't pick up two years later as if nothing had changed.
Instead of the brash cockiness that drove the team forward to the World Cup final in South Africa, where the Dutch lost in extra time to Spain, coach Bert van Marwijk now had a team shorn of defensive quality and one that lost its nerve when it really mattered.
Hopes that a two-year cycle would add maturity to the Dutch squad were quashed, and it became clear the togetherness that came with winning had been replaced with unease that losing always brings.
''The mood was different,'' Van Bommel said, hinting at personality issues between players.
They were already clutching at straws coming into Sunday's game, and it stung that they had to rely on the goodwill of archrival Germany to have even a chance of advancing.
Yet, Germany graciously beat the Danes. It was now up to the Dutch to win by two goals against a team that was slumping badly in the world rankings and whose star player, Cristiano Ronaldo, had struggled for form in his first two games.
It was close for 11 minutes only. After taking the lead through a fine Van der Vaart strike, the Dutch froze and let Ronaldo and Nani expose a department that held firm against the odds at the World Cup: A flimsy and frail defense.
''There was insecurity at the back,'' said Van Marwijk, and eventually it seeped through every line of the team, including the coaching staff.
It seemed the Van Marwijk era came to an end on Sunday but the coach pleaded for time to assess his future, while sitting on a contract that could link him to the federation until 2016.
''I am responsible and feel responsible. So it is very disappointing,'' Van Marwijk said.
His son-in-law and longtime captain, Mark van Bommel, is expected to retire from international football soon, taking with him the bruising, intimidating play that came to mark the Dutch at the World Cup. In Ukraine, he could no longer cover the necessary ground in midfield or match the pace of the best. When it came to defensive prowess, no one stepped up to fill the void.
And up front, where all the world-class talent spills over, the jigsaw puzzle never fitted.
Van Marwijk blames the opening game, when the Netherlands lost 1-0 to Denmark in a hugely lopsided match when top striker Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben missed one great opportunity after another.
Much like Ronaldo had done for Portugal. But with the tournament on the line for his country, Ronaldo came through with two goals and perhaps his best game on the international stage.
Van Persie was near-invisible except for another few important misses, as his poor form for his country at big tournaments continued.
Van Marwijk stuck with the top scorer in last season's Premier League as his main hope for goals.
He turned his plans upside down for the decider against Portugal, posting Van Persie behind Bundesliga top scorer Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, but that combination failed too.
''We have very good players up front so you have to make choices. We didn't have form,'' Van Marwijk said.
Playmaker Wesley Sneijder did have that form and was perhaps the only Dutchman to excel during the first two matches. Van Marwijk posted him on the left wing instead of in central midfield and he floundered there, getting no balls through to Huntelaar.
For the coach, everything went wrong.
Now qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil beckons and the Netherlands is in a group with Romania and Turkey, with only one team guaranteed a spot in the finals.
Suddenly, confidence no longer runs high.
''We all need to look in the mirror,'' defender Ron Vlaar said, ''and realize that this should never happen again. Let it be a hard lesson.''