Generation Game: How Dutch history can give England hope

In their endlessly relevant book ‘Why England Lose’, Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper found that the greatest determinants of a country’s footballing success are the number of games the nation has played in its history, GDP per capita and the country’s population.

This lattermost point is especially important yet the most criminally overlooked; we take it as read that minnows like Andorra or San Marino are never going to qualify for a major tournament, much less win one, but shake our heads in consternation at how Brazil and Germany are able to produce generation after generation of great sides. Simply put, the greater your population, the greater the number of naturally talented athletes you have, regardless of whether those players are actually plying their trade domestically.

Despite this, it doesn’t take much  – some statistics-defying spike in great players all coming through at once – to push a national side to previously unthinkable levels. England’s opponents on Friday night, the Netherlands, are the greatest representation of this trend: one great coach in Rinus Michels, and a handful of wonderfully talented players, like Johan Neeskens and the totemic Johan Cruyff, were enough to propel the Dutch to two successive World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978 (the latter despite Cruyff’s absence).

Recent struggles aside, we now take the Netherlands for granted as one of the great footballing nations, so it is worth taking a moment to realise the scale of their achievement in the 70s. Before 1974, the Dutch had failed even to qualify for the eight major tournaments – four World Cups, four Euros – following World War Two. Once Cruyff, Michels et al left the international stage, they would go back to old patterns, failing to make it to the 1982 and 1986 World Cups or the 1984 Euros.

But great national teams have the ability to inspire the next generation of players to reach a level of greatness far beyond the country’s natural standing. That is the one great intangible advantage and fascination international football still holds, even as the club game holds increasing sway and attention. Club football still does not come close – may never come close – to the kind of dreaming that international football can engender.

Accordingly, the children that witnessed the great Dutch team of the 1970s in their formative years – Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten, Ronald Koeman, Frank Rijkaard, Dennis Bergkamp, the De Boers – were imbued with a level of inspiration that would prompt Dutch football to enjoy a second wave, beginning with triumph at the 1988 Euros and continuing to the semi-finals at Euro 92, France 98 and Euro 2000. And that generation, in turn, inspired the likes of Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, who would reach the 2010 World Cup final and 2014 semis.

One freak statistical spike begat two further great generations of over-achieving teams from a country just one-quarter the size of France, one-fifth the size of Germany and 8% the size of Brazil. It certainly helped that Michels and Cruyff’s methodologies, as and of themselves, would create a legacy that is still being felt in Barcelona and the blue half of Manchester to this day; but that is just more evidence of the inspirational effects of just a few individuals. If Belgium’s current playing squad throws a decent coach or two out the other end, we might expect their own current freak talent spike to have similar repercussions into the 2030s.

The UK’s division into its four component nations puts all of the Home Countries at such a population disadvantage to the much-larger France, Brazil and Germany that expecting even England to ever win another World Cup is a bit of a long shot.

But although Friday’s friendly is unlikely to tell us too much about England’s current standing – that will come in Russia – there is still plenty we can learn from our opponents’ history of over-achievement.

England’s so-called ‘golden generation’ may have disappointed at the time, but there was enough talent in that team – and sufficient progress made in major tournaments, compared with the spotty qualification record of pretty much every prior generation – that they may have proven just inspirational enough.

With a relatively inexperienced side (the most-capped outfielders are Jordan Henderson and Danny Welbeck, with just 36 each), it seems unlikely that we will see those fruits ripen in time for this summer, but the performance of England’s under-age teams over the past couple of years means that maybe, just maybe, they can take sufficient inspiration from the last generation to begin punching well above their weight. And if they don’t…well, there’s always 2034.

Steven Chicken – follow him on Twitter