Amsterdam: Seven years is a long, long wait.
It’s been that many years since the Netherlands last played at a major soccer tournament, dating back to the orange-clad team’s run to the World Cup semifinals in 2014. Today in Amsterdam, the Dutch will finally be back on the field to take on Ukraine at the European Championship.
“We know that we missed two final tournaments, but now we’re finally here and so we want to show what we can do, not just for fun but really for the prizes,” said Memphis Depay, the striker who is the undisputed focal point of the Dutch attack at Euro 2020.
The team’s captain and defensive anchor, Virgil van Dijk, will have to wait even longer. He pulled out of the tournament to rehabilitate his surgically repaired knee.
The defense was further weakened by a groin injury to 21-year-old center back Matthijs de Ligt. Netherlands coach Frank de Boer said Saturday that De Ligt will not be able to play against Ukraine.
“It is a bit too early,” De Boer said. “We don’t want to take any risks. We have two more group matches.”
De Boer did not say who would replace the Juventus defender in the starting lineup.
De Ligt is one of the Netherlands players that reached the Champions League semifinals in 2019 with Ajax and then moved to a major club, like so many talented youngsters produced by the Dutch club’s youth academy.
Frenkie de Jong was also in that Ajax team and subsequently moved to Barcelona, where he developed into one of the best players during a tough season under former Netherlands coach Ronald Koeman. Barcelona ended up finishing third in the Spanish league.
De Jong, the Netherlands’ key midfielder, said he’s feeling fresh despite the long club season.
“If a lot of people say to you, ‘You’ve played a lot, you must be tired,’ it can get into your head,” de Jong said. “But for me it’s not an issue.”
De Jong’s role in the midfield will depend on the formation De Boer chooses. The coach said Saturday the team would start in a 3-5-2 setup - he counts two wing backs operating on the flanks as midfielders - instead of the traditional 4-3-3.
De Boer insists that it’s an attacking formation with the wing backs playing high up the field, but not everyone is convinced.
A light plane flew over the team’s training ground Saturday pulling a banner that read in Dutch: “Frank. Just 4-3-3!”
“That’s not something you see every day,” Netherlands captain Georginio Wijnaldum said.
De Boer joked that he’s also hired a plane to pull a banner reading: “Thanks for the tip, but it remains 3-5-2.”
The Netherlands’ only international title came at the 1988 European Championship. The Dutch have also reached three World Cup finals and lost them all.
About 16,000 fans will be allowed to watch Sunday’s Group C match at the Johan Cruyff Arena. With coronavirus travel restrictions expected to keep most Ukrainian fans from traveling to the Netherlands, the vast majority will be Dutch.
Only a handful of players remain in Dutch team from the last major tournament, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Among them are Depay, Wijnaldum, defender Daley Blind and goalkeeper Tim Krul. Another keeper, Jasper Cillessen - replaced by Krul in the 2014 quarterfinal penalty shootout win over Costa Rica - will miss this tournament after testing positive for COVID-19.
Depay was an emerging talent in Brazil. Now he’s one of the veterans of the team with 23 goals in 62 appearances.
“I have a feeling of responsibility that I have to carry the team, but I’ve always had this,” Depay said.
Ukraine qualified for the last two European Championships, but has never progressed past the group stage. The country’s main player is Oleksandr Zinchenko, who plays at left back for Manchester City but is expected to switch to a central midfield role for his country.
Zinchenko, who is no stranger to the Netherlands after playing for PSV Eindhoven on loan from City in 2016-17, said he’s happy to play wherever the team needs him.
Asked which position he would prefer to play, he said: “I would probably choose just to help the team and to play the position where my coach sees me.”
The Ukrainians are coached by Andriy Shevchenko, who cited a Dutch soccer icon as an inspiration on an off the field.
“Johan Cruyff is not only the player model for me,” he said, “but also a model as a coach.”