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For Dutch, Expectations Always Great

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 1998; Page E12




As coach of the ultra-talented but routinely troubled Netherlands national soccer team, Guus Hiddink has had plenty to worry about leading up to the 1998 World Cup in France.

Would forward Dennis Bergkamp be able to maintain the form that had made him the top foreigner in the fabled English League? Could rising superstar Patrick Kluivert put aside his serious off-field problems? Could the team finally shed its image as underachievers and make a run at a World Cup title after coming close in the 1970s?

That was plenty to keep Hiddink, a one-time Washington Diplomats midfielder, preoccupied before his World Cup odyssey began.

Then, Johan Cruyff spoke. Cruyff is the greatest Dutch player ever and one of the world's soccer legends, so when he speaks, fans listen.

"We have extreme qualities, but one of our problems is mental toughness," Cruyff said this spring in the Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool.

"For us, a World Cup is more something to enjoy. What's more, I find some things about the Dutch team are wrong. We must have hierarchy and everyone must subordinate themselves to it."

Morten Olsen, coach of European club power Ajax Amsterdam, had similar thoughts, saying the Dutch team lacks an "over-my-dead-body" attitude to challenge for the title.

In essence, two prominent experts were saying that the Netherlands had an abundance of talent, but an absence of heart and soul — a combination that surely would leave the Dutch a few victories short of the World Cup final on July 12 at Stade de France outside Paris.

The anxiety comes amid the usual high expectations for the Netherlands. Since losing in the championship game in the 1974 and '78 World Cups and winning the 1988 European championship, the soccer world has waited for the entertaining Dutch to fulfill their considerable potential.

The Netherlands' lineup is loaded with stars and its attack is pure artistry. Bergkamp and Kluivert make up one of the world's best striking duos; the de Boer twins, defender Frank and midfielder Ronald, are solid; Edwin van der Sar may be the world's best goalkeeper; Jaap Stam is a rising defensive star; and Clarence Seedorf and veteran Wim Jonk charge the midfield.

It would seem to be the right mix for success. But beneath the surface there have been debilitating troubles. Just prior to the 1998 World Cup, superstar Ruud Gullit quit the team because of squabbles with then-coach Dick Advocaat. In the tournament, the Netherlands fell to Brazil, 3-2, in a skillfully played quarterfinal, but the squad was unimpressive up to that point, struggling to beat Saudi Arabia and Morocco and losing to Belgium before eliminating Ireland.

At the 1996 European championships in England, the Dutch fell well short of expectations on the field and were distracted off it by charges by some of the team's black players of racism.

Kluivert's problems were more serious. The 21-year-old was involved in an auto accident two years ago in which an occupant of the other vehicle died. He was sentenced to 240 hours of community service and fined. Last year, he and three others were accused of rape, but the charges were dropped because of insufficient evidence.

The man responsible for keeping the national team together is Hiddink, 51, who had a successful playing career in the Dutch League before joining the Diplomats and later the San Jose Earthquakes in the North American Soccer League. As a club coach, he guided PSV Eindhoven to the European Champions Cup and also worked at Valencia of the Spanish League.

Hiddink played for the Diplomats in 1978, a left-side midfielder who had some fine moments at RFK Stadium. Gordon Bradley coached the Diplomats then and now coaches George Mason University men's soccer team.

"His strength was his skill, his composure and his ability to read the game," Bradley recalled last week. "He was very clever with the ball, he kind of caressed the ball, never fought with the ball — one of those smooth players. He always knew what to do with the ball before he got it. ... He has done very well for himself, as a player and certainly now as a coach."

Last October, the Netherlands qualified for the 1998 World Cup with a scoreless tie at home against Turkey. But the styleless clincher didn't leave anyone in a celebratory mood.

"It's nil-nil and we've qualified," Hiddink said in his postgame remarks. "In every other land, people would be celebrating. ... We seem to expect much more here."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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