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Friday, Nov. 14, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Constant in-fighting by Dutch leaves little energy for opponents


LONDON -- If Euro 2004 was to be decided on the basis of back-stabbing, internal politics, racism, disharmony and picking the wrong team, then Holland would have no rival.

Christopher Davies

Nobody does it better -- or worse, depending on your viewpoint.

Over the past 35 years few countries have produced as many talented footballers as Holland, but at the same time no one has had their finger on the self-destruct button like the Dutch.

Holland plays Scotland in Glasgow on Saturday in the first leg of the Euro 2004 playoffs -- the return is in Amsterdam next Wednesday.

On the surface, the outcome should be beyond dispute because there probably isn't a Scottish player who would get into the Dutch team. In fact, there isn't a Scot who would even claim a place on the Holland substitutes bench.

Yet while the Scottish camp has good team spirit -- with the players desperate to show that underdogs can bite -- the Dutch camp is again a soap opera of cliques, clandestine whispers and open warfare.

AC Milan's Clarence Seedorf has been brought back from international exile, in place of the injured Mark van Bommel, which will please Edgar Davids.

Pit Bull, as he is known, once invited van Bommel outside so they could settle a dispute in the time-honored fashion.

Bommel had said something about Seedorf, who is Davids' soulmate and that upset the Juventus player.

Seedorf seems unlikely to play, with Phillip Cocu replacing his friend van Bommel -- it was Cocu who stepped between Davids and van Bommel as they started to square up.

Davids, in turn, is no fan of Ruud van Nistelrooy (a former PSV player like van Bommel and Cocu).

The Manchester United striker and Davids almost came to blows a few months ago, when those rushing to the defense of Pit Bull included Michael Reiziger and Patrick Kluivert, like Davids, an ex-Ajax player.

Van Nistelrooy, who would surely be first choice in any other side, will probably be a spectator watching a Dutch attack led by Kluivert, after a row with coach Dick Advocaat who, to add more spice to the game (as if it needed it), was once manager of Glasgow Rangers.

A model professional, van Nistelrooy does not touch alcohol and was appalled by Kluivert's drinking excesses after the game in Belarus, when the Barcelona striker was seen ordering a beer at 10 o'clock.

That is 10 a.m., not 10 p.m., following an all-nighter with half a dozen other players.

This was the reason why van Nistelrooy reacted so negatively to Advocaat, when the Man United star, and not Kluivert, was substituted during the crucial qualifying tie in the Czech Republic which Holland lost 3-1, sending it to the playoffs.

And so it goes on. At one finals, the players' wives were allowed in the camp for a day and, like their husbands, ended up fighting. If there is nothing to argue about, the Dutch would invent something.

"These players do not have the right spirit and ambition to play for the national team," said former Holland coach Louis van Gaal who, in a sentence, summed up the Dutch dilemma.

Holland needs a locker room the size of the Nou Camp to accommodate all the egos in the Dutch squad.

In Manchester, van Nistelrooy is king. At Lazio, Jaap Stam is very influential. Ditto van Bommel at PSV. In Barcelona the club tends to do what Kluivert wants them to do. Davids is a pivotal figure at Juventus.

Put them all together in a training camp and you have too many captains for the Dutch ship, the most schizophrenic in European football.

"That's Holland," said former national coach Leo Beenhakker. "Always a drama. With all our talent and technical ability we have won only one tournament [Euro '88].

"We're like a boxer who can't deliver the knockout punch. We don't have the killer touch or the mentality to take an opponent by the throat. That's always been our problem."

Berti Vogts, the Scotland coach, was part of the West Germany side that beat Holland 2-1 in the 1974 World Cup Final and said: "I know the Dutch mentality.

"In 1974, apart from Franz Beckenbauer, all their players were better than Germany, but we still won. It's the team that's important in football and that's what I'll be telling my players. I'll be telling them this game is like the 1974 final."

It is players like Christian Dailly, Barry Ferguson, Colin Cameron and Gavin Rae, who must assume the roles of Vogts, Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller and Uli Hoeness when Holland comes to town.

It was the Republic of Ireland which ended Holland's hopes of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup and one wonders again whether fulfillment will be postponed for the country that gave us total football, but too often has been a total mess.

IT WILL BE interesting 20 years from now on how we look back on Ryan Giggs.

Will the Manchester United and Wales winger be regarded as an all-time great, a very good player or a nearly man?

If Giggs wins a ninth league championship medal with United, he will create a new record in English football and that is a strong argument for true greatness.

He has played 560 games for his only club and, over the past 10 years, has been by far the best left-side attacking player in the Premiership, even if the competition is not very fierce.

The "problem" Giggs has had is being born in Wales. Had he been born a few miles over the border in England, he would have won almost 100 caps, and by playing in two World Cups and two European Championships, his profile would be much higher.

On Saturday, Wales will look to Giggs for inspiration when it plays Russia in Moscow in the Euro 2004 playoffs, as the Red Dragons attempt to reach a major finals for the first time since 1958.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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