Holland's 'lost generation' struggling to find right path to follow former glories
Once 'the best team to never win the World Cup', as the cliché went, Holland will not even be the best team sitting at home on the sofa next summer.
Despite last night's 2-0 win over Sweden - Holland needed to win by seven to leapfrog the Swedes into second - it is the second successive major finals they have failed to qualify for. Worse still, the Oranje's failure is barely a surprise to the country's media, supporters and the legions of tragic romantics around the world who follow them.
When the Dutch failed to reach to 2002 World Cup, in part because of a Roy Keane performance at Lansdowne Road to rival Turin in 1999, the shock hit the lowlands like a hammer. That a side starring several players from Ajax's 1995 Champions League winners and guided by the mastermind behind that triumph Louis van Gaal had fell short in qualifying was barely believable. There will be no such surprise this time because there is no such wealth of talent.
This failure and the failure to reach the 2016 European Championships has been widely put down to a 'lost generation' of players - those born from the mid-to-late 1980s and specifically from the crop of players that won the 2007 U-21 Championships. Only 11 from that squad went on to win a senior cap and just one - the 30-year-old former Liverpool winger Ryan Babel - was in Dick Advocaat's squad for the Sweden game. Royston Drenthe, the player of the tournament, retired earlier this year and has embarked on a rap career.
Yet for all the blame pinned on those players, the group following up behind them - including those who combined with veterans like Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie to come third at the 2014 World Cup - have so far failed to bridge the generation gap.
Memphis Depay is capable of moments of brilliance but those moments have been seen too rarely. Vincent Janssen is in the process of rebuilding his confidence after a chastening year at Tottenham, as is Jordy Clasie after struggling with Southampton.
Several have swapped the Eredivisie for the Premier League and then left with their limitations exposed. Among recruitment circles, there is a general distrust of any young wonder to emerge from the Dutch top-flight given previous experiences with players who struggled to adapt to their new surroundings. One theory points out that the Eredivisie is a slower league, played at a more deliberate pace and thus totally out of tune with modern football.
Hopes of rejuvenation have now moved towards another generation of young players born in the mid-to-late 1990s, including some of the young Ajax players that featured in the Europa League final last May. Recent history suggests it will take more than a handful of talented individuals to restore the Oranje to their historic level.
Some argue a country with a population less than half the size of Poland never had a right to compete with the world football's biggest nations, but the Dutch made their size irrelevant through innovative, free-thinking football.
Unfortunately, it may be some time before we see that Holland again. (© Daily Telegraph, London)