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AUDIO: Simon Kuper Recalls Dutch 'Hubris' Before Ireland Loss In 2001

Conor Neville
By Conor Neville
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Mick McCarthy and Louis Van Gaal occupy the same touchline tonight for the first time since 1 September 2001.

It was the day that Jason McAteer allegedly 'covered every blade of grass' and struck home the only goal while Big Mick threatened to bare his backside in Burton's window if Macca failed to find another club - he was then stewing in the reserves at Blackburn.

And the Dutch were effectively eliminated from the World Cup, the first time they had failed to reach the summer extravaganza since 1986. It was a hideous failure for Louis Van Gaal and the prevailing wisdom was that his era as a managerial heavyweight was over.

We spoke to Financial Times columnist and award winning author, Simon Kuper to get the Dutch perspective on the game.

Mick McCarthy announced today that he was 'absolutely fucking delighted' to win that one, not least because he had gathered that the Dutch were already 'booking their hotels and it was supposed to be us that were going out'.

Kuper remembers the Dutch mood being one of blithe confidence, recalling in particular, their destruction of England in a friendly a fortnight before the Dublin game.

I was at the Ireland game and a couple of weeks earlier I was at a game in White Hart Lane where Holland beat England 2-0 very comfortably, looked superior, you got the sense that this is an excellent team. They've been a bit lazy, let the qualifying group slip a bit. Obviously, we're better than Ireland, and we're now very confident that we're going to go to Ireland and win.

So, although the Irish match was a disappointment, it did also follow several other disappointments in qualifying, against Ireland and Portugal. But we did think going in to Dublin, we had the quality to sort this out. And this Irish team, with McAteer and Robbie Keane and Damien Duff and Shay Given. Not a bad team at all but surely not up to our level. That was the thinking.

Kuper asserts that it was not that the Dutch believed that they were facing a particularly bad Irish side. Rather, it was thought that the relative quality of that Irish team was irrelevant. If the Dutch were on their game, they'd win. Were they guilty of excessive hubris leading up to the game?


The Dutch are not one to pay attention to the quality of the Irish team, so it's not that they thought that this was a particularly poor or strong Irish team, there was just very little attention paid. The feeling was that if we play properly there won't be a problem. There was no Irish players who were much discussed.

It was a time when Dutch football really thought it was the greatest on the planet, the most intelligent, the most attacking, the most morally correct - because we played attacking football and other people didn't. When they played teams from the British Isles, including Ireland, there was a feeling that we're sophisticated and they're primitive, so it was a time of great Dutch hubris and that was personified by Van Gaal who was the kind of schoolmaster of attacking, passing football, so the idea that we could be beaten by Ireland was a bit of a comeuppance.


Kuper believes it ranks rather high in the pantheon of Dutch footballing disasters, especially as the team was one of such quality.


It sits quite high because it was so completely unnecessary. I mean, that was a team that had reached the semis of the World Cup, the semis of the European championship and would reach the semis of Euro 2004. It was just really, really silly. A lot of our other disasters, in the 80s, or in the present qualification campaign for Euro 2016, were because the team wasn't good enough or was too young. This (2002 WC) was self-inflicted. And Van Gaal inflicted it. And it's a very rare lapse from someone who is a brilliant tactical manager making really dumb tactical errors.

It was a very good Dutch team and (the feeling was) they just got a bit spoilt and lazy and arrogant. And then Van Gaal's terrible decision making at the end where he took off both wingers, I think Marc Overmars and Boudewijn Zenden, and sent on two centre forwards, so at the end of the game, he had four centre forwards, and played very 1980s British long ball style football, very un-Van Gaal like, with no result at all. So, it's remembered as one where we shot ourselves in the foot against a very good Irish team. But that was one of the best Dutch teams. That's one of the sadnesses of it.

Denis Bergkamp had just retired from international football but you still had the De Boer twins, you had Edwin van der Sar in goal, you had Phillip Cocu, you had Patrick Kluivert, you had someone like Hasselbank, who was one of the best strikers in the Premier League and who was just a reserve in that team. There was quality really in ever position. I mean (they were) much stronger than the Dutch team that went to the World Cup in 2014.

After his failure with the national team, Van Gaal returned to Barcelona, for one abject season, where the team failed to mount a challenge in La Liga. His reputation sullied, he subsequently took a more humble position, as coach of AZ Alkmaar. He spent four seasons there, winning the title in the final one, in 2008-09.

Since that, he has moved to Bayern Munich, the Dutch national team, and now Manchester United. Kuper says his reputation is now wholly rehabilitated in his native land.

Kuper attributes this principally to his steering of a mediocre crop of Dutch players to a World Cup semi-final last year.


Because he saved Holland in last year's World Cup, when we had a really mediocre team, by playing this really innovative 5-3-2 system that beefed up our defence, allowed us to play on the counter-attack and people were talking about building statues to Van Gaal in Holland. Whereas his enemies, people like Cruyff and Hiddink have faded. They seem like old men whereas he's managing one of the great European clubs so he can look back triumphant and though he'll be facing McCarthy tonight and will be reminded of that defeat, he does so from a position of strength.

The 2002 World Cup was a bizarre affair. Several European heavyweights (Italy, France, Portugal) trudged home early, while an extremely mediocre German side availed of a very fortuitous draw  in limping their way to the final.

This makes the Dutch disappointment at failing to qualify all the more acute. With their team sitting at home (or on South American beaches), the fare in Japan and Korea inspired monumentally apathy in Holland.


For the Dutch, it's the World Cup that didn't happen. I mean, nobody in Holland watched it, nobody talked about it. I remember there were about three or four Dutch journalists there. People were so sick that they really let this go, and it was felt to be, apart from Brazil, quite a weak World Cup. A very, very weak German team reached the final. England were one of the stronger teams there, Turkey finished third, so the Dutch felt. 'this really is a World Cup where we could have done well' but the mood was one of total sickness.

And Kuper's principle memory of the game itself?

I just remember the desperate scramble for a goal at the end, and the feeling that something has gone horribly wrong. And Van Gaal, who is normally the guy who is writing astute notes on his notebook during a game, has gone completely crackers.

Listen to our chat below:
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