Welcome back to this SportsLumo special, where we chronicle the best of the best in international football. This is a 20-part series, so do stay tuned for content as and when we post it. We have previously covered England, Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Italy in this series. Today’s nation of focus is Netherlands.
Netherlands are an interesting case study in the fact that glory isn’t necessarily everything in sport. The Oranje haven’t won a lot in international football. Indeed, they are remembered more for their losing record: three World Cup finals, three runners-up finishes. It doesn’t make for good reading, especially for long-suffering Dutch fans.
That being said, their impact on the sport as a whole cannot be understated. They are firm believers not just in playing to win, but also in playing the right way. The style of football they display is almost as important as the result in itself. Entertaining the fans and putting on a show for them matters, and thus for generations Dutch teams have wowed fans the world over.
Their focus on the process and not just results has also seen them produce a number of top players over the years. As such, picking out a legendary playing XI of Dutch players is, admittedly, not the easiest task in the world. But it is one we took a shot at anyway.
So here is our all-time legendary playing XI consisting of players from the Netherlands.
Goalkeeper: Edwin van der Saar – (Active from 1990-2011, Netherlands caps: 130, Major career achievements: won 26 major trophies in his career, Notable clubs: Ajax, Juventus, Manchester United)
Edwin van der Saar is not just one of the best goalkeepers to emerge from the Netherlands; he is one of the best ever in the world, period. His all-round play – not only was he an agile and commanding shot-stopper, his distribution was also excellent – saw him remain active for more than 20 years.
The Ajax youth academy graduate is a member of the club’s ‘golden generation’ of the late 1990s. He even lifted the Champions League with the Dutch side in 1995. He would find further success at Manchester United. There, he lifted the Champions League again and also became the oldest player to win the Premier League.
He was at one point in time the most capped Netherlands player. And although his record with the Dutch team is disappointing, it is hard to pick a finer goalkeeper than the man who is currently Ajax’s chief executive.
Right-back: Michael Reiziger – (Active from 1990-2007, Netherlands caps: 72, Major career achievements: won major honours with three different clubs, Notable clubs: Ajax, Barcelona, PSV Eindhoven)
Michael Reiziger is something of an unusual pick on this list. Most Dutch full-backs are known to be attack-minded, and they improve on the defensive side of their game as their careers go on. Reiziger was the opposite; his game revolved around being defensively solid first. Everything else came later.
He was never the star of the team’s he played for, but he was nevertheless a key cog. His defensive prowess aided the more attacking players first at Ajax then at Barcelona. His career might be more fondly remembered if not marred by constant injuries.
He was a constant presence for the national team too, playing in three Euros and one World Cup for the team. Again, he might have added to that number if injuries did not curtail his career. Nevertheless, it was quite the career for Reiziger.
Centre-back: Ronald Koeman – (Active from 1980-97, Netherlands caps: 78, Major career achievements: remains the top-scoring defender in world football, Notable clubs: Ajax, Barcelona, PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord)
Ronald Koeman is a man remembered more for his goal-scoring exploits than anything else – despite being a defender. Capable of playing as a sweeper, centre-back or even in midfield, Koeman is nevertheless spoken of for his eye for goal. And it is easy to understand why.
He scored 194 goals in his club career, and 14 in his international career. He is not only Barcelona’s highest-scoring defender, he is the highest-scoring defender in world football period. That is a record which, till date, stands unbroken.
Not that he couldn’t defend either. His rock-like presence at the back, coupled with an eye for a pass, made him a key part for both club and country. His managerial career might be a mixed bag, but his playing days make him an undisputed legend.
Centre-back: Frank de Boer – (Active from 1988-2006, Netherlands caps: 112, Major career achievements: won 14 trophies with Ajax, part of their ‘golden generation’, Notable clubs: Ajax, Barcelona)
Another more fondly remembered for his playing days instead of his managerial ones, Frank de Boer is one of the most complete defenders to emerge from the Netherlands. His ability to start moves from the back as well as organise defences made him invaluable to his teams.
He is best remembered for being a key part of the Ajax ‘golden generation’ in the late 1990s. That team dominated not only the Netherlands but also Europe. Thus, it is little surprise that De Boer was also a key part of the national team; he made 112 appearances for them.
Like other former players, he turned to management after his playing days ended. And while he’s had some highs – success with Ajax and a runners-up spot at the 2010 World Cup with the national team – he’s had just as many lows. Still, his reputation as a player remains intact.
Left-back: Giovanni von Bronckhorst – (Active from 1993-2010, Netherlands caps: 106, Major career achievements: won trophies with four clubs in four countries; Notable clubs: Feyenoord, Rangers, Arsenal, Barcelona)
He might have had a journeyman career, turning out for a number of sides, but Giovanni von Bronckhorst was quite the player. He started his career as a midfielder, but is mostly remembered for his exploits at left-back. This change in position came about due to injuries.
However, he duly adapted to his new role and would prove to be successful over there too. While he won plaudits at Rangers and Arsenal as a midfielder, his time at Barcelona saw him become a competent full-back too. It was the position he would adopt for the rest of his career.
Aside from being a top player, Von Bronckhorst was also a leader par excellence. Little wonder then that he was named Netherlands captain after Edwin van der Saar retired. However, his international career ended with no silverware; his final match coming in the 1-0 loss to Spain in the 2010 World Cup final.
Central midfielder: Ruud Gullit – (Active from 1975-98, Netherlands caps: 66, Major career achievements: won trophies with 6 clubs as well as internationally; Notable clubs: Feyenoord, PSV Eindhoven, AC Milan, Chelsea)
A man as versatile as he was great, Ruud Gullit could play anywhere on the field. In the course of his career, he played in defence, midfield and even in the forward line. He epitomised the ideals of ‘Total Football’ – not only could he operate in multiple positions, but within multiple systems too. ‘
He possessed a big bulky physique and athleticism for days. However, he also had a silky smooth touch and was very graceful when on the ball. Little wonder then that he was key to helping many sides win multiple trophies. And is also considered one of the finest players not just from the Netherlands, but of all time.
He was part of the Netherlands side that won the 1988 European Championships. And at the end of his career, he also became the first foreign manager to lift the FA Cup when he won the tournament with Chelsea. His managerial career might be mixed at best, but Gullit’s standing as one of the greatest players ever across any era of the game is unquestionable.
Central midfielder: Frank Rijkaard – (Active from 1980-95, Netherlands caps: 73, Major career achievements: a serial trophy winner as both player and manager, Notable clubs: Ajax, AC Milan)
Unlike Gullit, Frank Rijkaard was someone who played almost predominantly in midfield. His style of play meant he was deployed either as a box-to-box midfielder or even a defensive midfielder; he could play both roles with aplomb.
Rijkaard was known best for his tenacity, tactical reading and understanding, his ability on the ball as well as his elegance while playing the game. He could tackle and intercept passes as well as he could ping long balls or recycle possession. In possession or out of it, he was always involved in the game.
He was part of the Netherlands side that won the 1988 European Championships, besides winning a glut of trophies with Ajax and AC Milan. His time as a manager also saw Barcelona become a resurgent force in Spain again, although his managerial record since then hasn’t been the best. Nevertheless, his ability as a player is beyond reproach.
Central attacking midfielder: Johan Cruyff – (Active from 1964-84, Netherlands caps: 48, Major career achievements: pioneered ‘Total Football’ style, won 3 Ballon d’Ors, Notable clubs: Ajax, Barcelona)’
Johan Cruyff is a name synonymous with football excellence. Not only was he a genius of a player, but he was a tactical mastermind and someone who believed in a style of play that exhilarates fans. More so than anything else, everything he did was done with a long-term vision. It’s why he retains such iconic status in the world of football.
His supreme talent and tactical nous brought glory to Ajax, Barcelona and even made the national team a side to fear. Yet Cruyff’s biggest achievement is that his two major clubs are, even till date, influenced by his ideals. Ajax have named their home stadium after him. And Cruyffian ideals continue to dominate the discourse at Barcelona.
There are many great players who couldn’t coach, and many great coaches who had ordinary playing careers. Cruyff, genius that he was, did both with aplomb. And it is why he considered one of the best of all time in the sport.
Right-forward: Arjen Robben – (Active from 2000-21, International caps: 96, Major career achievements: won trophies aplenty in four different countries, Notable clubs: PSV Eindhoven, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich)
Arjen Robben is proof that if you do the basics right time and again, nothing and no one can stop you. The Dutch winger possessed speed, guile, trickery, vision and a rocket of a shot. But he is best remembered for cutting onto his left foot from the right wing and curling home screamers. Defenders knew it was coming; few if any, however, managed to stop him.
Such was Robben’s talent from a young age that, when he joined Chelsea in 2004, they were just one in a long line of suitors. His spell at Real Madrid thereafter is less fondly remembered. His time at Bayern Munich, however, brought plenty of success. He won 20 trophies in Germany, in fact. By the time he retired in 2021, he’d had the type of career most could only dream of.
His time with the national team brought no major silverware, but he was ever-present for the Oranje. He fell just short of 100 caps but he was a guaranteed starter for the national side too. Widely considered one of the greatest wingers of his generation, it was impossible to leave him off this list.
Left-forward: Dennis Bergkamp – (Active from 1986-2006; International caps: 79, Major career achievements: key part of Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ side, Notable clubs: Ajax, Inter Milan, Arsenal)
Nicknamed ‘The Non-Flying Dutchman’ due to his fear of flying, Dennis Bergkamp nevertheless had fans in raptures when he touched the ball. His skill, technique, assured touch and penchant for outrageous goals made him a fan favourite everywhere.
Bergkamp is best remembered for his time at Arsenal. There, he formed a deadly duo up front with Thierry Henry. He was also capable of moments of brilliance, and his winner against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup is the stuff of legends.
Bergkamp too was unlucky to never win anything with the national team. However, his achievements at club level are fitting for the kind of stature he commands. He is, after all, a legend who would not be out of place in any era of the game.
Striker: Marco van Basten – (Active from 1981-95; International caps: 58, Major career achievements: Golden Boot winner in Euro 1988 as Netherlands won trophy, Notable clubs: Ajax, AC Milan)
It says a lot that Marco van Basten makes this list despite not getting the benefit of a full career. Persistent injury issues forced him to retire from the sport at the age of only 28. Despite that, he scored over 300 senior goals and remains the Netherlands’ highest international goal scorer.
Far from being a pure goal-poacher, Van Basten was an all-round player. He could score from distance and had a penchant for acrobatic goals. He also possessed excellent vision and passing skills, as well as a sound technique.
Thus, it is little wonder he was successful with Netherlands, Ajax and AC Milan. Despite injuries curtailing an all-time great career, his ability and goal-scoring record speaks for itself. Indeed, he inspired a whole new generation of strikers who did more than simply score easy goals.
Manager: Rinus Michels
Marinus Michels, nicknamed Rinus, is perhaps the finest manager to ever come from the Netherlands. This is because he was the first to come up with and implement the ‘Total Football’ style that has come to characterise Dutch football as a whole. His achievements as a player were noteworthy too, but it was as a coach he really shone.
He managed the national team on four separate occasions. He led them to the final of the 1974 World Cup, as well as European Championship glory in 1988. Michels also tasted success with both Ajax and Barcelona, using the same footballing principles.
He was named Coach of the Century by FIFA in 1999 in 2007 the greatest post-war football coach by The Times. France Football named him the greatest coach in the history of football in 2019 . The award given annually to the best Dutch manager of the year is named after him.