Dutch Try to Rekindle 'Clockwork Orange'

The Associated Press
Thursday, June 8, 2006; 4:17 AM

FREIBURG, Germany -- It's been 32 years, not nearly enough time for Dutch fans to forget the 1974 World Cup and the Clockwork Orange.

Ruud van Nistelrooy took no time to pick his favorite moment: "That solo run of Cruyff."

The thought alone brought a smile to his face.

The mesmerizing surge by the greatest Dutch player in the opening seconds of the final against West Germany is still revered as a national treasure _ even if it was not enough to give the Netherlands the title. The Dutch lost 2-1.

Such skills are lacking now and if the Oranje makes it to the final again, it should be a study in contrast to the 1974 team considered the greatest never to win the trophy.

The squad working out in the morning sunshine against a backdrop of Black Forest pines on Wednesday never captures the imagination the way Johan Cruyff or Johan Neeskens did. They produced "total football" of free-flowing moves between players seemingly positioning themselves at random. The system was so smooth, the Dutch came to be known as the Clockwork Orange.

Coach Marco van Basten is keeping his players in something of a tactical straitjacket, where playing out of position may cost a player his place on the team for a long time.

On Sunday, Serbia-Montenegro will have respect, but no one is awestruck by this Oranje. The team also faces Ivory Coast and Argentina in Group C, considered the toughest first-round group.

"When it comes to quality, we are lesser than the teams that came before us. That is clear to everyone," said midfielder Mark van Bommel of Champions League winner FC Barcelona.

Playing with the likes of Ronaldinho in Spain, he can see the difference every day.

"At Barcelona, players do things instinctively, and it works because they are great players. Here, you have to compensate for that, you have to be even tighter together. And you have to live by every rule."

The 1974 team had stars on every unit _ defense, midfield and attack. Of the current forwards, no one is assured a place on his club's starting lineup, not even Van Nistelrooy at Manchester United.

Captain Edwin van der Sar, whose national team career goes back over a decade, says van Basten has carefully adapted to the circumstances.

"They may not be the big names that people may expect from the past, but it is important that they play in the system," said Van der Sar.

And that system is set by Van Basten, who had seen from the start this team needed a more nurturing approach.

After the Netherlands lost the semifinal of Euro 2004, Van Basten was called in as a coaching novice to lead a team depleted of several veterans who had retired. Because the Dutch are so often divided by internal wrangling, Van Basten decided to make a clean break. He has not called on either Edgar Davids, feeling comfortable with the few veterans such as Van Nistelrooy and Van der Sar among a group of promising youngsters.

His goal is to win Euro 2008 and the World Cup was originally seen as a way station on the road. "It is a plus, but it would be unfair to have too high expectations," he said, happily letting Brazil and Argentina carry the burden of favorite.

After a strong qualification campaign, though, keeping expectations under control has been wishful thinking. On top of that, the Netherlands have been among the top three in the FIFA rankings all season.

And coming back to Germany is so laden with history and grudges after the 1974 defeat in the final that the whole country is rooting to do at least as well as 32 years ago.

Up front, Van Nistelrooy and wingers Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie are expected to hold their own. The problems are on defense and midfield. The only area that looks stronger in 2006 is goalkeeping, where Van der Sar is as trusty as Jaap Jongbloed was shifty.

Van Basten was so worried about his defense that he tried to lure the retired Jaap Stam back. No luck.

What is worse is a series of injuries. Early this week, five potential starters were sidelined, and quality replacements are hard to come by.

In today's soccer though, the best players do not necessarily make the best team.

"Just look at Greece," Van Basten said. "Nobody thought anything about them, but they did become European champion."

© 2006 The Associated Press