Krakow, June 16
"Lef." It’s a tiny three-letter word that for decades has meant what Netherlands football is all about.
The term translates to nerve, daring and guts all mixed into a smooth, creative kind of play that made Oranje famous around the globe. Look at Johan Cruyff, and you see "lef" personified. It showed how a nation of only 16 million turned into world beaters on the field.
Now, for the first time in living memory, the Dutch team doesn’t have enough of it. After losing its first two matches at the European Championship, even the coach says so.
"It’s all got to do with a bit of ‘lef,’" Bert van Marwijk said after the Netherlands lost to Germany 2-1, making it two straight losses at Euro 2012.
Now, the Dutch are counting on, and pleading with, archrival Germany to beat Denmark on Sunday to stand a chance to advance from Group B. And even then, the team still has to beat Portugal by two goals, one of the few nations it always has had trouble with.
If people want to know what is wrong with basically the same team that took Spain into extra time before losing in the World Cup final two years ago, looking at the soul of the Dutch team is a perfect place to start.
And just as an army marches on its stomach, a forward line needs to feed off the strength of its defense. The Dutch defense has far too little.
For years it had been rumored as the weak link in the team, with no worthy successor to the likes of Ruud Krol, Ronald Koeman or Frank de Boer, people with the vision and skill to split opposing defenses with a single pass.
Instead, the Dutch now rely on John Heitinga and Joris Mathijsen. Derided as journeyman players for years, they stuck together well enough to get the Netherlands to the World Cup final two years ago, but Germany and Mario Gomez exposed their frailty on Wednesday.
The lack of confidence and swagger at the back means the Dutch also play with two defensive midfielders, Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, instead of the likes of the creative Rafael van der Vaart.
And it also applied to the wing backs. Jetro Willems is a teenager playing his first games in orange, and even if he tried to show some moxy with surges upfield, his lack of experience has been clear. On the other side, Gregory van der Wiel is considered simply to have had a bad tournament.
"Defensively, we showed too little ‘lef,’" Van Marwijk said.
That word again.
"Lef" only works though, when it is backed up by the talent the Dutch have been famous for. Otherwise, daring and cunning turns into foolhardy recklessness. Perhaps that is why the Dutch were so conservative against Germany, letting the Germans play the kind of forward, creative game the Dutch have long been famous for.
Six players falling back leaves huge gaps in midfield, further highlighted by the lack of pace of the 35-year-old Van Bommel in the sweltering evening heat of Kharkiv, Ukraine.
Several times now, Van Marwijk has been seen on the sidelines trying to spur his men forward.
"I screamed myself hoarse," he said. "To no avail."
One of Cruyff’s most famous dictums is "Every disadvantage has its advantage," but for Van Marwijk, it has been turned upside down.
With Premier League top scorer Robin van Persie and Bundesliga counterpart Klaas-Jan Huntelaar at his disposal, Van Marwijk must have been the envy of so many coaches lacking even one world class striker.
But the embarrassment of riches has turned into a simple embarrassment as the two have combined for a single goal despite a flurry of open chances, especially against Denmark in the opener.
Dutch fans are mystified at Van Marwijk’s failure to come up with a system that could line them up alongside each other for the benefit of both.
Van Persie is coming off a draining season as the heart and soul of an Arsenal team which depended almost exclusively on him to the make the difference from August till May. That grueling season seems to have caught up with the striker, who has been guilty of some inexplicable misses in Ukraine.
Then there is Arjen Robben, another huge star on the world stage who has yet to shine at Euro 2012. His moves have been predictable for years, but somehow, like the hand speed of a world champion boxer, he was always able to act faster than defenders could think.
"A Robben in form is unstoppable," Van Marwijk said.
Not this time, as his trademark move inside from the right to set up a left-foot shot too often found a defender’s outstretched boot at the end.
Finally, there is luck, too. Playmaker Wesley Sneijder is again on top of his form with pinpoint precision passing. Two years ago, he also had an uncanny knack to turn up at the right time in the right place to score five World Cup goals.
None so far at Euro 2012.
The team was supposed to have matured to the ideal age since losing the final to Spain, ready to finally reap. Instead, it is with its back against the wall.