Even at the start of last week the Dutch soccer federation (KNVB) could not say for sure whether the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam will be sold out for the Netherlands' final World Cup qualifier against Sweden on Wednesday, a game crucial to their faint hopes of reaching Russia.
One of the greatest soccer nations in the world, placed second and third at the previous two World Cup finals, is in danger of failing to qualify for the second major tournament in succession. Having missed Euro 2016 when it seemed harder not to qualify, Dick Advocaat's team play Belarus in their penultimate qualifier (early Sunday morning AEDT), and needed to match Sweden's result against Luxembourg, played hours earlier, to stay in contention before their showdown.
Next season, for the first time, Dutch clubs will not have an automatic place in any of the UEFA tournaments, instead having to qualify. The last of their great generation are old, like Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, both 33, the latter not included in the squad, while the recently recalled Robin Van Persie is injured. Ryan Babel has been recalled at the age of 30. Goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen is yet to play a minute for Barcelona this season.
The Netherlands are losing out on dual-nationality players, like Hakim Ziyech, the Ajax midfielder who now represents Morocco and there is a chance that Feyenoord's new signing Sofyan Amrabat will go the same way. The country has tried to reset its course with the controversial "Winners of Tomorrow" blueprint to transform the domestic game, but the KNVB drive has also deepened divides.
Casting an expert eye over the situation is one of Dutch soccer's best imports and then, after his playing career, one of the game's finest talent producers. Frank Arnesen was responsible for bringing through the likes of Jaap Stam, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Robben when he was technical director at PSV Eindhoven. Having worked at Tottenham and Chelsea, where he established the latter's approach to youth development, he is now back on the PSV board.
Arnesen says his own country, Denmark, has experienced the same cyclical problems, but he is blunt when he says that "Dutch football is in a crisis". "They have lost a lot of good players like Rafael Van der Vaart, Sneijder, Van Persie, Nigel de Jong and the new generation is not good enough."
One of the recommendations of the "Winners of Tomorrow" report that caught Arnesen's eye was the absence of a "winning mentality" in young Dutch players. "It was not the technical side – they thought they hadn't done enough to develop the winning mentality and the physical side. In youth development they are now playing a lot of two v two games to address that. The strategy in the past was never to win games but to develop players."
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While Cruyff might have invented the modern game, there is much evidence that the Dutch have not stayed at the cutting edge of progress. Arnesen cites the German adaptation of the Dutch 4-3-3 system into one that incorporates a No.10 playmaker and dispenses with the holding midfielder in favour of two box-to-box midfielders. "It would have been impossible for players like [Mesut] Ozil and [Ilkay] Gundogan to come through in Germany 15 years ago. Their players had to be strong. Now other countries are ahead of Holland. Holland are now looking at other countries. They never did that before, it was a case of Holland ahead of everyone."
Arnesen would be too polite to say so but in the past 30 years there has been a recycling of managers for the national team. Of 17 appointments going back to 1992, 12 have been the same five men: Rinus Michels, Advocaat (both three); Guus Hiddink, Louis Van Gaal, Leo Beenhakker (all two). Advocaat is proposing his assistant Ruud Gullit as his successor, despite him not having managed in Europe for 12 years.
"Ajax, PSV, Feyenoord – they are all still producing good players, but the level of first-team football is going down," Arnesen says. "At the moment the switch from the last generation is not good enough."