Netherlands can dream again if they beat the French on Sunday
The Netherlands could do without invitation to this party.
Sunday’s gala Nations League clash will illustrate the divergent paths walked by France and their crestfallen visitors since World Cup 2014.
Resurgent Louis van Gaal then led the Dutch to a shock third-placed finish. A 5-1 mauling of holders Spain that kick-started this startling run gave the future a hue of Brilliant Oranje.
Didier Deschamps’ French squad, in contrast, made little impression in Brazil and were not missed when eliminated by eventual victors Germany in the quarter-finals.
The 21-year-old duo of Real Madrid centre-back Raphael Varane and then Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba seemed far away from the finished article. Head coach Didier Deschamps’ conservative methods caused worries that successes to match those from his playing days would not follow.
Only the most-optimistic members of the Les Bleus faithful and gloomy sections of the Netherlands support could have predicted what happened next.
The summer of 2014 represented the modern zenith for one nation and an invaluable formative experience for the other.
Ticker tape and cheers will greet the home players when they take to the pitch at a grateful Stade de France – the same arena so deflated by final defeat at Euro 2016. This will be a 90-minute celebration of a joyous nation’s triumph at World Cup 2018.
For the Netherlands, one of the sport’s premier nations has not kicked a ball at a tournament since July 2014’s 3-0 mauling of deflated hosts Brazil in the third-place play-off. Ex-Feyenoord and Everton boss Ronald Koeman is the fourth man entrusted since then to resuscitate a national side on life support.
This is a storyline detailed by production lines: one that has continued to churn out elite talent at a precocious rate and another that requires a revitalising result to evidence theirs has not ground to an alarming halt.
France sent out the second-youngest squad this summer in Russia. An estimated collective valuation of €1.2 billion (Dh5bn) was the highest at the event.
Pogba had become the then most-expensive player in history when returned to Manchester United for £89 million (Dh424m) in August 2016. Monaco guaranteed a £166m (Dh856.3m) payment from Paris Saint-Germain last February for teenage striker Kylian Mbappe.
Forward Antoine Griezmann had appeared cheap at €100m (Dh425.1m) when Barcelona attempted to pay his release clause from Atletico Madrid.
Only three members of the 23-man squad – Mbappe, Juventus battler Blaise Matuidi and PSG goalkeeper Alphonse Areola – were graduates of the national academy at Clairefontaine. But this body’s philosophy is felt at nearly every French club.
Coaches trained there go back to teams from Lyon to Monaco, Bordeaux to Guingamp, and help transform promising youngsters into elite footballers better than nearly all other countries.
Only two changes were made by Deschamps for the 23-man roster selected to meet the Dutch – both caused by injuries to Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and reserve Steve Mandanda of Marseille.
A sweep of the Under-21s shows the system’s efficacy cannot be questioned by Deschamps’ continuity. Lyon midfielders Houssem Aouar and Tanguy Ndombele, plus RB Leipzig’s teenage defender Dayot Upamecano, look poised to come in when needed.
The Dutch matched this reputation for much of the 50 years that followed Johan Cruyff startlingly bringing Rinus Michels’ reworked theory of ‘Total Voetbal’ to life at Ajax.
It’s continued prominence appeared apparent when the nation were beaten in World Cup 2010’s final and made the semis four years later.
Vaunted attackers Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben were the fulcrums of this generation.
A once-bountiful talent pool critically went dry as they aged.
Churning Netherlands managers has not yet cured systemic issues.
Previous great hopes like Royston Drenthe and Ibrahim Afellay fell by the wayside. Besiktas forward Ryan Babel’s presence in Koeman’s selection causes alarm.
Forward Memphis Depay is rebuilding his career at Lyon after flopping at Manchester United. Goalkeeper Jasper Cillesen warms the bench at Barcelona and crippling knee injuries see midfielder Kevin Strootman at Marseille rather than a true giant.
From this nadir, however, shoots of recovery can be found.
The Ajax trio of 19-year-old centre-back Matthijs de Ligt and 21-year-old midfielders Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek are coveted across Europe.
Georginio Wijnaldum has started 2018/19 in superb form for Liverpool – a club which paid a world-record £75m (Dh369.8m) fee for peerless centre-back Virgil van Dijk.
These players possess the ability to inspire a gatecrashing of France’s festivities. If they do, glory could lie ahead.
The Netherlands last failed to make successive tournaments in 1986. They, of course, then did rather well at Euro 1988…