Back in June, Bert van Marwijk packed his warmest overcoat in his luggage, and with as close to a spring in his step as you get from the often taciturn head coach of Holland, he set off for South Africa.
A Dutch treat for Van Marwijk
Back in June, Bert van Marwijk packed his warmest overcoat in his luggage, and with as close to a spring in his step as you get from the often taciturn head coach of Holland, he set off for South Africa. He was not alone there among Europe's national managers watching the Confederations Cup, but he could pull rank on all of them. His team were the first from Uefa, the European section, to qualify for next summer's World Cup finals so Van Marwijk could afford to attend to the smallest details as he scrutinised possible sites to base the Dutch team in South Africa.
Even after the weekend's mat- ches, Holland remain Europe's only certain qualifiers so far. As first past the finishing line, they should, in 2010 at least, be considered among the top half-dozen teams fancied to win the World Cup, albeit behind the likes of Brazil, who have sealed their place, and Spain, who soon will. Van Marwijk spent Saturday watching his team beat Japan 3-0 in a friendly, thanks to goals from Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
There was also an exciting international debut for the 22-year-old Hamburg winger Eljero Elia, who came on as a substitute and contributed to two of the goals and a vast improvement in Holland's game in the second half. It was not the friendliest of friendlies, Van Marwijk admitted, with Holland aggressive at times in a frustrating, goalless first half and Sneijder ending up in hospital with a suspected broken foot.
Van Marwijk will probably now miss Sneijder in Wednesday's qualifier against Scotland. That is academic for the Dutch, but in the longer term, a fit and in-form Sneijder is important to them. The manager had been cheered by the player's move to Inter Milan from Real Madrid last month. One of the coach's principal concerns through the summer was that, in a Holland team so favoured by a World Cup qualifying run of seven wins from seven matches, so many key players, like Sneijder, had seemed so out of favour with their club employers.
Arjen Robben, Holland's most exciting and threatening forward - when fit - was being ushered towards the exit at his club, Real Madrid; so were the creative midfielders Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart. Huntelaar, Holland's most prolific centre-forward, at least in league football, had been sold by the club who only bought him seven months ago - the same Real Madrid - while Ryan Babel seemed some way off a first-team place at Liverpool, and Nigel de Jong faced competition for his place at a Manchester City full of new recruits.
Some of these pre-season discomforts have been resolved. Robben is at Bayern Munich, where he made a goalscoring debut just before the international break. Sneijder is at the Serie A champions, for ?15million (Dh79m). Huntelaar commanded a similar fee from AC Milan. Van Marwijk was pleased with those moves and talked of "the importance of giving players a sign of confidence in what has been a tough build up to the season. I always say it is hard to get into this national squad but once you are there, players will not be dropped easily."
But then came the sting: "Every-body should have a club where they can play regularly in the first XI." Van der Vaart, he added, had "taken a big risk staying a Real Madrid." The midfielder resisted efforts to transfer him and will struggle for first-team chances in Spain over the next four months. So Van Marwijk is keen to have a wide pool to choose from should players like Van der Vaart not be deemed in the right condition for a World Cup. Hence David Mendes Da Silva won his fifth cap in midfield on Saturday and defender Glenn Loovens made his debut, as did Piet Velthuizen, in goal, and Elia up front.
Ideally the head coach would also like to count on two footballers at the other end of their careers, but Ruud van Nistelrooy, coming back from injury at Real, and Edwin van der Sar, the Manchester United goalkeeper, have retired from international duty. Yet, if Van Persie, Huntelaar or Dirk Kuyt can provide enough goals at centre-forward, Van Marwijk has grounds for optimism. Like other northern European sides, the winter climate of June and July in South Africa should suit them. Unlike others, they will even be able to understand news bulletins in Afrikaans, which is similar to Flemish and to Dutch, and they can enjoy the hospitality of their most famous club's satellite version, Ajax Cape Town, while they are there.
Come June, South Africa may seem an especially accommodating place for the Netherlands, strong dark horses for 2010. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org