By Alonso Guzmán Barone
There are always fascinating football stories about the Dutch, from the hidden political agenda of perfectionism, to the more publicly predominance of aesthetics over simplicity. Today we take a look back at how two cases of apparently wrong decisions in squad numbers, actually turned out right.
Rudd Gullit’s and Ronald De Boer’s number 9 on the road to the 1994 World Cup
In May, 1994 Scotland squared up against Dick Advocaat’s Dutch side at the Stadion Galgenwaard in Utrecht in preparation for that year’s World Cup. During the pre-match routines, Ruud Gullit seemed rather annoyed. Advocaat had been continually aggravating pre-existing problems with the player: from subbing him off and insisting on playing him as a number 7 right winger during qualifying, and now by imposing his 1994 tournament vision of playing super attacking football with Gullit at the number 9 role (albeit a free role).
With Dennis Bergkamp on the right and either Peter van Vossen or Marc Overmars on the left wing, the coach was eager at the opportunity to play a midfield operated by a combination of cultured and young legs with the likes of Wim Jonk, Aron Winter and Rob Witschge. Additionally, the manager had seen potential for a midfield role in the up and coming Ajax forward Ronald de Boer. At the time, Ronald played regularly as a number 9 for his club, playing more the role of a supporting striker (or even a false 9 by today’s standards) in the 9 position
On that day, Ruud Gullit featured on his last match for the national team, playing 45 minutes in the number 9 position. A couple of weeks later, he engaged in a discussion with Advocaat, that ended with the player abruptly leaving the team over tactical differences with the manager on the eve of The World Cup.
Enter Ronald de Boer: after Gullit call it quits, it was only natural for Advocaat to nominate de Boer as first option for the ‘Gullit role; and so he was appointed the number 9 shirt. Was it De Boer’s real role all along? Actually. no. By the time of the World Cup, Advocaat switched systems for every game and the player who played the most time at the number 9 role was a 25-year-old by the name of Dennis Bergkamp (who wore number 10).
Bergkamp’s strange 8, Seedorf’s undeserved 10 and Overmars’ weak 14
The 1998 World Cup saw a different tale of numbers, with the Oranje being remembered by some as rather incongruent choices: Bergkamp with 8, Seedorf with 10, and Overmars with number 14. That had to be wrong, right?
Actually, there was a method to this since most of the qualifying campaign, coach Guus Hiddink preferred the 4-4-2 and 4-4-2 diamond systems over 4-3-3. Hiddink was very anti-Dutch in this sense, so the numbers where both the ones that were worn most by the players during qualification and the ones representing the roles used in Hiddink’s fondly considered 4-4-2 diamond midfield.
In Dutch football, the numbering system always ‘leaves out’ one role for formations that are not 4-3-3 or 3-3-1-3. In this case, the odd number out was 8 (usually assigned to the box-to-box midfielder positioned to the left of a number 6 holding midfielder). And, given that Seedorf’s role in Hiddink’s 4-4-2 was the one of a playmaker, and not a Dutch number 8, Bergkamp got that ‘leftover’ number.
Line-up and numbers used in the friendly against France in February, 1997. The numbers carried over to World Cup 1998
1. Edwin van der Sar
2. Michael Reiziger
3. Jaap Stam
4. Frank de Boer
5. Arthur Numan
6. Wim Jonk
7. Ronald de Boer
8. Dennis Bergkamp
9. Patrick Kluivert
10. Clarence Seedorf
11. Philip Cocu
In the case of the injury-prone Overmars, Hiddink always saw him coming off the bench and gave him 14 as he assumed the diamond midfield as his system of choice for France 1998. Thus, Phillip Cocu got the number 11 shirt. At the final tournament, Hiddink discarded the diamond and switched to a more classic flat 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1.
The formation on the right shows how they lined up against Brazil in the World Cup semi-final (not considered a colour-clash as it had been in 1994). With Overmars injured, Boudewijn Zenden played on the left of midfield wearing 12, with Edgar Davids (16) in the centre.
Even if it seemed wrong at the time, every number decision in the history of Dutch football has always had “Dutch” written all over it, as is the case with the above anecdotes: philosophically driven and made by design; that is design governed by the neurotic mind.
An honourable mention goes to Pierre van Hooijdonk, who from 1996 to 2004 always got away with his vanity number 17 when used as a substitute for the Netherlands.