A feature on the irony of Chris Coleman’s side preparing for EURO 2016 against the Netherlands.
Wales have confirmed a friendly against the Netherlands in Cardiff next month as Chris Coleman’s preparations for the UEFA EURO 2016 get serious. With qualification ensured with a match to spare, Wales have had sufficient time to let their achievements sink in, and sufficient time to realise what a huge task they have ahead of them as they look to make an impact in France. These are uncharted waters for Wales, but they will not be alone in finding themselves out of their comfort zone when the two sides meet at Cardiff City Stadium in November, as the Netherlands arrive on the back of qualification campaign memorable for all the wrong reasons. Erratic performances brought a miserable run of results, and despite the fact that 24 of UEFA’s 54 nations would eventually qualify for the finals, the Dutch could not even book a play-off place having won just four of their ten games.
But roll back to June 2014 and things were very different. Under the guidance of current Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, the Netherlands welcomed Wales to Amsterdam as they prepared for the 2014 FIFA World Cup against a recurrent under-achiever. Wales had used the later stages of that particular qualifying campaign as preparation for the EURO 2016 qualifiers, and the Netherlands claimed a 2-0 win in front of a partisan crowd as they went to Brazil high in confidence. The side would reach the semi-final stage before missing out on a place in the final by a penalty shoot-out defeat to Argentina in the last four, but exited the tournament with victory over host nation Brazil to claim third place. With an assortment of well-known names plying their trade across Europe’s top leagues, few could have envisaged such a dramatic demise, and their failure will never be more apparent than when they visit Cardiff next month.
What makes the fixture special is that nobody could have envisaged such a situation when the two sides last met. It still seems inconceivable that the Netherlands have failed to meet the very minimum of expectations to a level far in excess of the expectations that Wales have exceeded. As a result, Chris Coleman has the opportunity to test his players against a top European side ahead of the EURO 2016 finals, and with confidence between the two nations at the complete opposite ends of the football scale, it would be foolish to rule out Wales claiming a positive result. The match offers a huge opportunity for Wales, and there really is no better way to start a series of friendly fixtures that now have a significant meaning as a nation prepares to compete amongst European football’s elite on the main stage.
But there is an added irony and an twist in the changing football fortunes of both nations. On the day that the Wales confirmed the friendly against the Dutch, the Wales Under-17 side defeated the Netherlands 2-1 in their opening UEFA Under-17 qualifier at Dragon Park in Newport. It has been 20 years since the conveyor belt of talent produced by Ajax lifted the UEFA Champions League with a 1-0 victory over AC Milan in Vienna. Patrick Kluivert was a teenage striker at the time and scored the crucial goal. Roll forward 20 years, and his son Justin came off the bench against Wales, but could not help his side avoid defeat. Wales completed the tournament with a 1-1 draw against Albania but also lost 1-0 to Switzerland, and while they were narrowly edged out technically and physically over the course of the tournament, there were enough positives from their performances to be optimistic that Welsh football does have a bright international future.
The quality of international football is an interesting one to debate, with form dependent on progress through the intermediate ranks rather than through the chairman’s chequebook, which provides so many ills at club level. However, the recent acceptance of Gibraltar and the performances and results of other international minnows has raised questions in the media about the need for a pre-qualifying tournament. It is personally something that I have always been against, but a recent fixture has left me questioning the sporting merits of allowing certain teams to share the same stage as some of the best players in the world. This is no smug response to Wales’ qualification, and I am well aware that Chris Coleman has plenty of work to do if his side are to compete when the finals come around, but I can no longer find any justification in Andorra being involved for an entire qualification campaign.
Without a competitive point in qualifying since 2005, defeat to Wales marked the teams 50th consecutive loss. This I can accept, but what I struggle to comprehend is the manner of the defeat. Andorra spent the entire match niggling away at Wales with foul after foul, and sat with a permanently deep defensive line regardless of who was in possession. Their one and only effort on goal did not arrive until the 75th minute and they later ‘celebrated’ their defeat partying in the capital until dawn. The side faced controversy at the start of the campaign over the state of their artificial surface, and while Wales were hardly convincing in either game against them, it was through no effort of the Andorrans. The Netherlands may have slipped down the international pecking order, but there is an international level to which they could never drop, even though they may feel like they have at the present time.