Euro 2004 anniversary: where did the Netherlands go wrong?

Dump a 10-year-old into 2004 and they may well think they are back with the Aztecs. Connecting to the internet was a time-consuming, sonically devastating process, there was no Facebook or iPhone, many people still went to a shop every week to buy a CD that had only two songs on it, and Geert Wilders wasn’t even an MP.

Rewatching the Netherlands’ 2-1 semi-final defeat to Portugal at Euro 2004, it is striking how ‘old’ the football feels to modern eyes, just as society around it. Euro 2004 was four years before Pep Guardiola emerged and revolutionised football into the high-octane, possession-heavy, attacking style we see now across all levels of the game. Of course, the Netherlands were the progenitors of this style, most notably with Johan Cruijff and the 1970s Ajax team, and he was without doubt the most influential football individual of the last 50 years. It was therefore surprising to see a Dutch team so static and functional in their play.

Euro 2004 was a transitional period for the Netherlands. After the so-near-yet-so-far semi-final defeats at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, they failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, which signalled the end of the second Golden Generation. From the mid-90s onwards, the Netherlands had an enviable number of world-class players – Bergkamp, Kluivert, Frank de Boer, Seedorf, Davids, Stam – and the rest of the squad wasn’t bad either. While some of the players remained in 2004, there were several notable changes, such as Frank de Boer who was injured and Bergkamp who retired in 2000. The vastly experienced Ronald de Boer and Aron Winter had also retired.

And while brilliant players like Davids, Seedorf and Stam all played in the Portugal game, there was clearly a sense of collective fatigue seeping through the team. Several key players were entering their 30s and manager Dick Advocaat was constantly criticised by the Dutch press for playing negative football. The team had stumbled through qualifying after finishing second in their group and thrashing Scotland in the play-offs. Heading into the semi-final, the team had struggled to find any rhythm, and had only won one game out of four within 90 minutes, having needed penalties to beat Sweden in the quarter-finals.

The game itself was strangely listless; the Netherlands played with a shocking lack of intensity, their transitions were plodding, there was no glitter to their play, it was grey and sluggish. Portugal, in their home tournament, were trying for the first major final in the country’s history. Led by the incalculably good Luis Figo and a fresh from the womb Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal were a team that melded gasp-inducing skill and furious determination. They were playing like a team who knew this was their best chance to win a major tournament, and perhaps the only chance on home soil. This was the Seleção’s own Golden Generation in its peak, and this semi-final represented a millstone they were steadfast in destroying.

By contrast, the Oranje were simply bereft of desire, quality or dynamism. This wasn’t a glorious failure, there was no soul to this loss. The two goals they conceded were easily avoidable; Ronaldo scored an unmarked header and Maniche thrashed in a 30-yard screamer from a short-corner while the Dutch players were staring into the sky. Even the Netherlands’ goal was supreme luck, an own goal from Jorge Andrade’s inadvertent flick-on header.

This was a curious game to rewatch because it really didn’t feel like a Euro semi-final because the Netherlands played so sedately. It didn’t even seem like they were frozen with nerves, it was just innately lifeless. This was a Dutch team caught between generations but also between footballing eras. Six years after this, the Netherlands would play Spain in the 2010 World Cup final, with La Roja winning their first title and cementing tika-taka as the preeminent footballing philosophy. Ironically, the Dutch reached that final playing hard-nosed, utilitarian football, but in 2004 they were neither effervescent nor pragmatic; just quietly resigned that the road was ending.

Written by James Turrell