Netherlands tired of being soccer bridesmaids
Second-best just isn't good enough for the Netherlands anymore.
After losing to Spain two years ago in the World Cup final, Amsterdam has let it be known that the players shouldn't count on any official celebration unless they come home with the European Championship trophy.
"Losing that final is now the motivation to win Euro 2012," Netherlands captain Mark van Bommel said, still remembering the bittersweet taste of the big homecoming celebrations two years ago on the canals of the capital.
Now, even the grandest Dutch city let it be known that being runner-up is too average to celebrate. Been there, done that — too often.
"Last time we set up festivities when they came in second," Sara Gradstein, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said Thursday. "[This time] they'll only get one if they come in first."
The pain of losing stretches back to 1974, when the golden generation of Johan Cruijff lost to West Germany 2-1 in the World Cup final despite dominating the tournament with their revolutionary brand of free-flowing Total Football.
Four years later, the same thing: The Dutch felt sure they had won the World Cup when Rob Rensenbrink shot past Argentina goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol in the dying seconds of regular time — only to see it hit the post. The hosts won it 3-1 in extra time.
It seemed it was more fate than fear of failure that denied the Dutch.
Instead, the plaudits kept coming. The Dutch were the Brazilians of Europe. The Dutch were the best team never to win the World Cup. The latter especially stung.
It was only when the AC Milan trio of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard were united with 1974 coach Rinus Michels that the drought could be broken. But, almost a quarter century later, the memory of the Euro 1988 title is fading fast.
Two dozen years without a cup may make them look like underachievers. Yet considering their population of 16.7 million surrounded by powers like Germany, Italy, France and Spain, the Dutch might as well be considered overachievers.
Almost without fail, they produce a great crop of players. For the past years, the team has been built around creative talents like Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, with a bruising organizer like Van Bommel thrown in.
At Euro 2012, this generation is looking for late redemption.
"We realize this is perhaps our last chance to win a tournament," said Netherlands forward Dirk Kuyt, one of the core of players that reached the 2010 final that will start against Denmark on Saturday.
If their skills are beyond doubt, their cockiness and pluck mayhide a mental fragility when it counts. So often so cool, yet they have too often floundered under pressure.
They lost penalty shootouts at the 1992, 1996 and 2000 European Championships and in the semifinals of the 1998 World Cup against Brazil.
Especially missing five penalty kicks in regulation time and during the shootout against Italy in the Euro 2000 semifinals hashaunted the nation and players for years.
This time around, that fear centres on Robben. He missed a penalty kick in the Champions League final against Chelsea and another in a vital late Bundesliga match for Bayern Munich against Borussia Dortmund.
Yet there is no fear.
"You have to turn the page," Robben said. "I have a new goal and that is the European Championship.'
For Van Bommel, too, he wants the title to chase the ghosts of the past, specifically losing the World Cup final.
"It stays with you for life," he said.