World Cup 2010 Special: Can Robben, Sneijder & Co go one better than these great Netherlands sides?

Will it be third time lucky for the Dutch?
The Netherlands' ultimately tense 3-2 victory over Uruguay last night has taken them to their third World Cup final, and with a perfect record in both qualifying and in South Africa, the Dutch have high hopes of making it third time lucky and being crowned world champions on Sunday.

However, Bert van Marwijk's side have yet to convince all pundits that they are that good; or that they compare with some of their predecessors, whose exploits have led many to regard the Netherlands as the greatest footballing nation never to have won the World Cup.

1974 - Total Football, ultimate disappointment

Key achievement: reached World Cup final, lost 1-2 to West Germany
Star players: Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Ruud Krol, Arie Haan, Johnny Rep, Rob Rensenbrink, Wim van Hanegem

The story of Dutch football as a major influence on the global game began after they qualified for the 1974 World Cup and Rinus Michels was appointed coach. Under Michels - named 'coach of the century' by FIFA in 1999 - Ajax had pioneered 'Total  Football', a tactical system in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other, switching seamlessly between defence, midfield and attack as the situation demands. Michels applied it to Oranje with immediate and impressive results - despite unrest within the squad over pay and bonuses.

The master | Cruyff's guile was key for the Dutch
His great orchestrator on the pitch was Johan Cruyff, who had assumed Pele's mantle as the world's greatest player. Although nominally a centre-forward, the technically peerless Cruyff roamed all over the pitch, exploiting space wherever he could inflict most damage on the opposition. As his versatile team-mates adapted themselves with thrilling flexibility around Cruyff's movement, the revolutionary style of attacking play enchanted the world, and Holland replaced a defensive Brazil as the 'people's favourites'.

They won their first round group, then in the second round group defeated Argentina and defending world champions Brazil, reaching the final with five wins and one draw, scoring 14 goals and conceding only one in six matches.

The final was a mouth-watering affair against hosts West Germany. It began in breathtaking fashion. Cruyff kicked off and the ball was passed between Oranje players 13 times before coming back to Cruyff, who then sprinted off on a run that was only ended by an Uli Hoeness foul. Referee Jack Taylor awarded the penalty and Johan Neeskens scored from the spot to put Netherlands ahead before any German had even touched the ball.

Taylor awarded a borderline penalty to West Germany on 25 minutes which Paul Breitner converted, and just before half-time Gerd Muller swivelled to score what proved to be an opportunistic winner. Although many felt the better team had lost, the hosts did a splendid job in stifling Cruyff's effectiveness in the second half as they withstood intense Dutch pressure.

1978 - Bitter defeat in Buenos Aires

Key achievement: reached World Cup final, lost 1-3 to Argentina
Star players: Johan Neeskens, Ruud Krol, Arie Haan, Johnny Rep, Rob Rensenbrink, Willy and Rene van de Kerkhof

Four years later there was no Michels, no Cruyff (opposed to the miltary junta in Argentina and victim of kidnap threats) or Van Hanegem, while their top goalkeeper, Jan van Beveren, highly rated striker Ruud Geels and attacking full-back Hugo Hovenkamp were also missing for various reasons. The legendary Austrian coach Ernst Happel was in charge of a typically disunited and squabbling Dutch squad, yet Oranje again progressed to the final only to lose to the hosts.

Oranje blues | Hosts won World Cup in extra time
Krol emerged as the dominant figure, yet they were inconsistent in their first round group, beating Iran before being held to a goalless draw by Peru and losing to Scotland. It was enough to progress, though; and in the second round they hit their stride, thrashing Austria 5-1 with a stunning display of 'Total Football', beating Italy, and drawing 2-2 with West Germany to qualify for the final.

With Argentina driven and inspired by an impassioned home crowd, the Dutch failed to take their chances. Rep and Rensenbrink were outstanding on the wings, but there was no obvious target-man to feed off their deliveries. Dirk Nanninga equalised Mario Kempes' opener to force extra-time, but the force was with the hosts and Holland lost their second successive final.

1990 - Germany beat the European champions

Key achievement: won the 1988 European Championship, lost to Germany in last 16 at Italia '90
Star players: Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard , Hans van Breukelen, Ronald Koeman, Arnold Muhren.   

Not in Ruud health | Tensions divided Euro champs
With a trio of superb AC Milan stars at the heart of their team, again managed by Michels, the Dutch had thrillingly won Euro '88, with dazzling football and superb victories over the likes of England, West Germany and the Soviet Union. Hopes were therefore high that Oranje could win the greatest prize of all in Italy, even though Leo Beenhakker had replaced Michels.

Yet their form proved to be elusive and their performances disappointing, Beenhakker failing to get the best out of his players. Gullit was showing the effects of a series of operations on his right knee, while Van Basten was well below his exceptional best, and cited "too many troubles inside the team".

The Dutch drew all three group matches before losing 2-1 to traditional arch-rivals Germany in the second round, albeit in the best match of the tournament, when Rijkaard and Rudi Voeller were sent off for an infamous spat.

1998 - Last-four shoot-out heartbreak

Key achievement: reached semi-final of France '98, losing to Brazil on penalties
Star players: Dennis Bergkamp, Frank de Boer, Wim Jonk, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert, Jaap Stam, Marc Overmars, Edgar Davids

Guus Hiddink was now piloting the Orange Submarine, and made peace with Edgar Davids, the 'pit-bull' who'd been sent home from Euro '96 as a disruptive influence. Much was expected of them, but although they thrashed South Korea 5-0, they threw away a two-goal lead against Mexico to draw 2-2 and were held 0-0 by neighbours Belgium.
De Boer draw | Brazil triumphed in shoot-out
But they progressed, beating Yugoslavia 2-1 before overcoming Argentina by the same score in the quarter-final through Dennis Bergkamp's virtuoso goal of the tournament, to earn a semi-final place against Brazil.

But Overmars was out injured, Bergkamp subdued, and Ronaldo put Brazil ahead. Kluivert headed home to force extra-time, followed by penalties. Taffarel's save from Frank de Boer put Brazil through 4-2 on spot-kicks. Holland were out, but with honour and pride.

2010 - Glory at last?

The current squad may be less well endowed with mega stars, but certainly appear more united and harmonious as a group. In selfless artisans like Dirk Kuyt they possess the graft to go with the guile of Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben. They have defied expectations so far, and most importantly they have made winning a priceless habit. Just one more victory will do it. Can they finally deliver?
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