The Dutch legend represented Oranje 67 times in ten years.
In football, patience and perspective are rarely in plentiful supply. When teams are struggling, there tends to be a rush to identify fundamental flaws and apportion individual blame. Sometimes, though, the smart – and brave – move is to resist the clamour for change. For Ronald de Boer, this is particularly true in international football, where generational cycles make fluctuating fortunes all but inevitable. And he sees the Netherlands as the perfect example.
Right now, the Dutch are one of the world’s most impressive and exciting teams. In the past year alone, they have beaten France, England and Germany (twice), averaging three goals-a-game across those four heavyweight clashes.
This resurgence is all the more remarkable as it has come on the back of two successive qualifying failures, during which they lost home-and-away to the likes of Iceland and Czech Republic. But while there were three changes of head coach during this period, the Dutch crucially rejected calls to rip up their famed system of talent production and ape the approaches favoured by other nations.
“There was a bit of panic when the national team was struggling – talk that we weren’t doing things the right way, and that we should copy Germany in how we develop our kids,” De Boer told FIFA.com.
“I never believed it, and I said so at the time, because for me we have one of the best academy set-ups in the world. Fortunately, we didn’t change our structure in any big way, and the results are coming again now.”
“I said back then, when things weren’t going so well, that we’d be back before long with a team that could compete against the best again. I could see that the talent that was coming through.
“Sometimes you just need to be patient. If you look back through history, there are always successful generations of Dutch players and then gaps when things don’t go so well. You can’t expect a small country like ours to produce one great team after another, packed with top players in every position. It comes and goes.”
There is little doubt now that we are witnessing the emergence of another special generation of Dutch footballers. The big question now is whether this class of 2019 stands comparison with the country’s celebrated vintages of 1988, 1998 and the 1970s.
De Boer believes it does, and feels that Ronald Koeman’s side could even go one better than the star-studded teams of Cruyff, Van Basten and Bergkamp.
“For me, they can definitely challenge for the world title in 2022,” said the man who won 67 caps for the Oranje. “Everyone knows about [Matthijs] De Ligt, [Frenkie] De Jong and the other Ajax boys now, but there is also some unbelievable talent coming through at AZ, PSV and Feyenoord. Then you have the likes of [Virgil] Van Dijk, who keeps getting better and better.
“There’s a good balance too. You always need to hope with a national team that you have the right spread of players – that it’s not just five good strikers that come through at once, for example. And we’ve had that mix with De Ligt, De Jong, [Georginio] Wijnaldum, Memphis [Depay] and Van Dijk all emerging and doing really well in different positions.”
De Boer has other reasons for looking forward to 2022 with genuine excitement. Chief among them is his knowledge of, and esteem for, the host country, having ended his playing career in Qatar and spent some time coaching there.
“I lived in Qatar for seven years, played with the likes of Pep [Guardiola], [Gabriel] Batistuta, Frank Lebouef, and I only have good things to say,” he said. “The biggest thing for me is the fact that the country is so compact. Fans will obviously be able to see two games in one day but, more than that, I think you’ll really have the feeling that a World Cup is going on.
“In bigger countries, the tournament and fans are more spread out, whereas in Qatar it is going to completely take over. There will be fans everywhere, and you’ll really feel the World Cup atmosphere wherever you go.
“That’s only going to be positive, and it’s good too that the tournament is being taken to a new culture. It will be a great experience for the fans who go there because they’ll experience something completely new, and they’ll find that the Qatari people are really friendly. I have complete trust that it’s going to be a great World Cup.”