DUTCH ON A MISSION
AMSTERDAM - Few countries can match the Netherlands for its football quality, but the nation of Johan Cruyff, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten is yet to taste World Cup success.
Runners-up twice in 1974 and 1978 and close to the final as well in 1998, the Netherlands now makes its ninth attempt for the trophy next year in South Africa.
As usual, the expectations are huge around a team featuring the likes of Arsenal's Robin van Persie, Bayern Munich winger Arjen Robben, Inter Milan's Wesley Snijder and Real Madrid playmaker Rafael van der Vaart.
"We have a mission. We want to become even better and will aim for the best possible result in South Africa," said coach Bert van Marwijk when his team qualified for finals as early as June 6.
The Dutch had a perfect qualifying campaign with eight wins in as many matches to prevail ahead of Norway and Scotland.
Director Henk Kesler from the nation's football federation KNVB said: "We are not the top favourite at the World Cup but with this team we must play an important role.
"Sport is about results, and you must show ambitions if you want to be a leading football nation. We are famous for our training. So you should, or better must, raise the bar high."
Van Marwijk took the national team hot seat from Van Basten after Euro 2008.
His son-in-law, veteran midfielder Mark van Bommel, has returned after refusing to play under Van Basten, Marten Stekelenburg from Ajax Amsterdam is the first-choice goalkeeper, Joris Mathijsen is a key defender along with veteran captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst and newcomers include Eljero Elio.
No one disputes the Dutch skill and class, but it has rarely come together when it mattered. The Dutch were ambushed 3-1 by Russia in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals and the last three friendlies against Australia, Italy and Paraguay all ended in goalless draws. These were played without several stars and Van Marwijk admitted that trouble could loom.
"We have the quality, but when the big names are out we do have difficulties. The Netherlands doesn't have the depth of the big football nations," he said.
However, optimism remains high. "The team is stable and doesn't give away a lot." A key to possible Dutch success will also be harmony, as past big tournaments have been marred by in-house fighting and criticism from outside by the many football legends.
THE COACH: Bert van Marwijk, 57, played one game for the Dutch national team, as well as almost 400 top-flight games in the Netherlands.
He won the 1978 Dutch cup with AZ Alkmaar. A coach since 1990, he led Feyenoord Rotterdam to the 2002 UEFA Cup title and took the national team job in 2008.
THE STAR: Arjen Robben, 25, is the latest example of a classic Dutch winger.
He has four domestic league titles with PSV Eindhoven (2003), Chelsea (2005, 2006) and Real Madrid (2008) before joining Bayern Munich in 2009. He can play on the left and the right wing, with the 2010 World Cup his fourth major event after Euro 2004, 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008.
Robben has been prone to injuries throughout his career, but if healthy he will be a key man for Van Marwijk. - Sapa-DPA